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Is Climate Change Making Conflict Worse?

By Nithin Coca

Recent evidence points to environmental stress having an adverse impact on weak or unstable countries, pointing to a grim future with droughts, floods and other extreme events expected to increase due to climate change.

Right now, the world is looking at Venezuela, which is going through one of the worst economic crises in recent history. Its economy is collapsing before our eyes, and environmental factors aren't helping. Drought is crippling the country's hydro-power potential, devastating crops and causing a breakdown in public services. Massive food shortages are creating a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

For some observers, this is deja-vu. A similar scenario unfolded a few years in Syria, where years of drought led to mass migrations, demand on limited resources, and, eventually, a violent conflict that killed hundreds of thousands and created the largest refugee crisis in recent history.

The common thread between these events? It might be climate change, which is making extreme weather events more likely. In fact, scientists believe human impacts made the drought in Syria twice as severe, and may be playing a role in Venezuela as well.

The fear is this: Climate change would make more countries susceptible to the types of economic destabilization, or conflict, that we're seeing in these two countries. There is, however, serious risk in making quick connections. Connecting drought to a now five-year-long civil war in Syria, and the emergence of Daesh, is tough. A report from the U.K.-based Climate and Migration Coalition, in partnership with Climate Outreach, found that most media outlets did not accurately reference the research when presenting stories about climate change and Syria last year.

“[Some] media reporting fundamentally misunderstood the link between climate change and the early moments of the uprising in Syria,” said lead author Alex Randall in the report summary. “Many media reports argued that climate-driven migration into cities created violence between migrants and existing residents that descended into wider conflict.”

But what they found even more concerning was the extrapolation of the situation in Syria onto other parts of the world without looking at the evidence.

“In response to the situation in Syria many media reports also speculated about future human movement in response to climate change, but many of these predictions fundamentally misunderstood the way climate change could re-shape patterns of migration in the future,” Randall said.

Climate change is complex, as is migration and, even more so, conflict. While there is a real connection to be made between environmental stress and the potential for conflict, conflating these events and extrapolating them to other regions not only spread misinformation, but also makes it harder for us to tackle the real problem. Many analysis never say that climate change is the primary factor -- pointing instead to weak, corrupt and unequal states. Scarcity only reinforces these existing trends.

In an ideal world, we would not only tackle climate change, but also build stronger, more equal and democratic institutions in countries all around the world. Only then we can begin to pave the path toward a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Wikimedia Commons

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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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