Climate Change Will Not Be Kind To Nations With Ethnic Divisions

Stopping climate change could stop wars.

Climate Change Will Not Be Kind To Nations With Ethnic Divisions
[Photo: Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images]

Ethnic divides are a frequent cause for war all over the world, from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan to Iraq. But what causes existing differences to bubble over into tension and violence?


Often, climate-related natural disasters are playing out behind the scenes.

A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looks deeply at the link between ethnic division, violence, and natural disaster data. It found that between 1980 and 2010, 25% of conflict outbreaks in “ethnically highly fractionalized countries” coincided with climate calamities, like drought, or heat wave. Globally, armed conflict and climate disasters only coincided 9% of the time.

[Photo: bwb-studio/iStock]

The data builds on a growing body of research that links climate change and climate disasters to conflict, violence, and war. The initial outbreak of war in Syria, though arising from a complex set of factors, was accelerated by the worst drought in the country’s modern history. Somalia may be experiencing a similar dynamic.

The new study looks beyond natural variables, like temperature, and digs into economic damage data from natural disasters, provided by insurance company Munich RE, and correlates that to a conflict database and a common index for ethnic divides within a nation.

Experts are usually careful to avoid saying that climate factors directly leads to war–usually it is described as an important exacerbating or escalating factor, and even that can be controversial or hard to prove. But as the study’s authors, based in Germany and Sweden, note: “Ethnic divides might serve as predetermined conflict lines in case of rapidly emerging societal tensions from disruptive events like natural disasters.”

As Co.Exist previously covered, this is bad news in some of the world’s most fragile places–which happen to be where climate change is expected to hit hard. Of the 33 countries predicted to experience “extreme water stress” by 2040, 14 of them are in the Middle East. Security experts, the authors write, are going to have to pay closer attention to these dynamics.


Says one co-author, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber: “our study adds evidence of a very special co-benefit of climate stabilization: peace.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.