Change search
ReferencesLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link
A coming anarchy?: Pathways from climate change to violent conflict in East Africa
Stockholm University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Political Science.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
2016 (English)Report (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

The warming of the climate system is unequivocal according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and will have a strong impact on the security of humans and states alike. In the past half-century the climate system has changed in unprecedented ways and future climate change and variability will include long-lasting alterations to all components of the climate system. With the warming of the climate system and the recognition of the implications that this has for the availability and quality of renewable natural resources, scholars and policy-makers fear that the impacts of climate change will also increase the risk of violent conflict and affect their dynamics. However, despite the rather large amount of studies in the field, scholars have yet to move beyond a number of interesting patterns to establish results that remain robust across studies. While this is partly a reflection of the inherent challenge of observing links between uncertain structural factors such as climate change and rare social outcomes such as violent conflict, the field has also been repeatedly criticised for a lack of sound theoretical development. This has been exacerbated by the practice of excluding qualitative research from state of the art reviews. The purpose of this report is to fill this gap by contributing to a better theoretical understanding of the linkages between climate change and violent conflict through consulting the combined quantitative-qualitative literature.

In this report, we seek to answer the question of how, and under what circumstances, climate change influences the risk of violent conflict in East Africa. We specifically focus on the pathways to violence – explanations that link various phenomena – in this case climate change and variability, and violent conflict – through a continuous and contiguous chain of links. We explore the research question through a systematic review of the climate- conflict literature on East Africa, hence obtaining a manageable amount of relevant studies and ensuring some minimal cross-study comparability. East Africa was chosen because of the frequency of violent conflict in the region, its high livelihood dependence on natural resources, high levels of poverty and limited capacity for climate change adaptation. The region is also especially relevant from a Swedish policy perspective, since Sweden has considerable development cooperation engagements in East Africa, for example in assisting climate change adaptation and peacebuilding. The present analysis builds on 44 peer-reviewed articles published between 1989-2015 that examine the relationship between climate-related


environmental change and violent conflict. By focusing on climate-related environmental change, that is a change in biophysical conditions that are or will be affected by a change in the state of the climate or by variations in the mean state of the climate, we widened our analysis beyond climate change to encompass both short- and long-term environmental change.

The analysis is summarised in a conceptual framework that identifies five types of pathways from climate-related environmental change to violent conflict in East Africa. In particular, the negative impact of climate-related environmental change on the availability of natural resources can lead to conflict by worsening livelihood conditions, by increasing migration or by changing pastoral mobility patterns. Taken together, these three types of pathways lead to or exacerbate local resource conflicts that sometimes turn violent. Weather conditions and climate variability can also affect the tactical considerations of armed groups and hence contribute to intensified fighting during certain periods. Finally, the analysis shows that local resource conflicts are susceptible to elite exploitation that often significantly increases the risk and intensity of violent conflict. This highlights the critical role of political and economic elites in explaining how local resource conflicts relate to larger processes of civil war, ethnic cleansing and insecurity.

In the discussion, we deepen the analysis by underlining three critical dimensions inherent in the literature: the temporal, spatial and political dimensions. First, the analysis shows that it is essential to reflect on the temporal dimensions of a climate-conflict link, both with regard to temporal scale of the environmental change in question and the expected time lag from that change to the outbreak of violent conflict. There is no reason to believe that all climate-related environmental changes at different time scales generate the same social outcomes. The bulk of the quantitative literature on East Africa measures conflict onset or intensity as an immediate reaction to climate variability, thus studying the implications of climate variability rather than of climate change. To capture the full spectrum, investigations of a climate-conflict link also need to consider the implications of long-term changes in altered livelihood conditions and rapid- onset disasters such as extreme weather events, as these pose a different kind of challenge for societies to mitigate and respond to. Second, the analysis shows the importance of accounting for the spatial dimension. The impacts of climate-related environmental change are unevenly distributed across space and altered livelihood conditions can offset population movements. There is therefore often no merit in assuming that climate-related environmental change will lead to violence in a certain area without considering how people move between areas characterised by resource scarcity and resource abundance. Third, the analysis emphasises that climate-related environmental change and violent conflict cannot be


understood in an apolitical vacuum, since socio-political processes affect the relative distribution of natural resources, the adaptive capacity of individuals, groups and societies, and the risk of violent conflict. For example, absent, corrupt or non-functional political institutions often increase the risk of local resource conflicts turning violent. Thus, while climate-related environmental change in itself has not precipitated an East African anarchy so far, it has already played a role in the dynamics of violent conflict and will probably continue to do so, even though the consequences are ultimately mediated by human behaviour.

Regarding the implications for policy and future research, three strands of policy implications follow from the analysis. First, since a central claim in the literature is that worsening livelihood conditions make people more likely to engage in violence, efforts that mitigate the impact of climate- related environmental change and that build resilience may also contribute to resilience to violent conflicts. Examples include weather insurance schemes and improved access to markets for pastoralists, income diversification and efforts that improve livelihood conditions. Second, movements across space are a crucial adaptation mechanism for populations affected by climate- related environmental change, particularly for pastoralist groups. This means that efforts that enable and support adaptation to population movements may increase both human security and lower the risk of violent conflict. One example relates to efforts that enable pastoral mobility while providing channels to solve resulting conflicts between pastoralists and farmers. Finally, the analysis shows that institutions, both formal and informal, are crucial for mediating conflicts. Since most communities already have some conflict resolution mechanisms, outside actors should focus on how such local knowledge can be adapted to meet new demands and increased pressure, rather than trying to introduce entirely new mechanisms. Future scholarship should examine the challenges relating to the temporal and spatial dimensions of climate-conflict research by studying the impacts of long-term environmental change rather than climate variability and by accounting for how populations move across space. Future research should also seek to improve data quality, while considering the importance of matching data and methods with the underlying theoretical expectations. 

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Stockholm, 2016. , 63 p.
Keyword [en]
climate change, natural resources, violent conflict, East Africa, literature review
National Category
Other Social Sciences Political Science
Research subject
Peace and Conflict Research
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-130294OAI: diva2:928237
Climate change and security
Available from: 2016-05-15 Created: 2016-05-15 Last updated: 2016-05-18Bibliographically approved

Open Access in DiVA

fulltext(871 kB)78 downloads
File information
File name FULLTEXT01.pdfFile size 871 kBChecksum SHA-512
Type fulltextMimetype application/pdf

Search in DiVA

By author/editor
van Baalen, Sebastian
By organisation
Department of Political Science
Other Social SciencesPolitical Science

Search outside of DiVA

GoogleGoogle Scholar
Total: 78 downloads
The number of downloads is the sum of all downloads of full texts. It may include eg previous versions that are now no longer available

Total: 613 hits
ReferencesLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link