By Published: Sept. 18, 2019

Climate has played a small but important role in fueling civil wars and other conflicts, researchers find

On a sweltering July afternoon in the remote village of Daaba in Northern Kenya, CU Boulder Geography Professor John O’Loughlin was stood up by a tribal chief. 


John O'Loughlin

O’Loughlin and his colleagues had driven for hours along dusty roads in the drought-ravaged region to interview the local leader about if, and how, climate change is impacting violence levels there. The moment they pulled up, they got some answers. 

“We were told he’d been gone three days,” O’Loughlin recalls, describing how 30 raiders had swept through the village earlier that week, stealing 100 head of cattle and prompting the chief and an armed party to go after them. “My guess is, if they caught up with them, it ended in violence.”

The recent, mid-summer raid in Daaba is among countless small-scale clashes igniting across the African continent and elsewhere around the world as shifting rainfall patterns, rising temperatures, natural disasters and other climatic shifts help push simmering ethnic, religious and political tensions to a violent boiling point.

Climate change is not, in and of itself a risk, but it works through other risks creating a multiplier effect."

In recent decades, climate-related factors have played a small but important role in fueling civil wars and other armed conflicts, influencing between 3% and 20% globally, according to a June study co-authored by O’Loughlin and published in the journal Nature. But with global temperatures projected to rise 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by centuries end (in the absence of substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions) one in four armed conflicts will soon be a result of a changing climate, the paper suggests.

“These will be the wars of the future,” says O’Loughlin, a researcher with the Institute for Behavioral Science and a leading scholar in the study of so-called “climate wars.”

“I have done dozens of interviews with local elders in Africa and there is a general sense that, while they have managed to share resources and cooperate so far, it is getting harder and harder to keep a lid on the violence due to climate change.” 

The final spark

The link between climate change and armed conflict has been hotly disputed. Some scholars have pointed to conflicts in Syria and Darfur (Sudan) as quintessential climate wars fueled by drought-sparked migration. Others, including O’Loughlin, have been more skeptical in the past, pointing to corrupt regimes, poverty and ethnic and religious differences as the primary culprits.

But the new Nature paper—a Stanford-led collaboration between 11 experts from political science, economics, environmental science, peace studies and other disciplines—marks a newfound consensus on the matter. It’s bottom line: Yes, climate change helps fuel violent conflict, and it’s poised to get worse.

“Climate change is not, in and of itself a risk, but it works through other risks creating a multiplier effect,” O’Loughlin says.

He still believes that things like unstable government, vast economic inequalities within societies and a history of violence are all bigger and more certain drivers of conflict.

But as he has seen firsthand through his field research, piling drought or flooding or loss of crops—and the suffering that results—on top of those vulnerabilities can push things over the edge, leading more young men in particular to take up arms. 


A young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition, in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Children have walked for weeks across the desert to get to Dadaab, and many perish on the way. Others have died shortly after arrival. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam

In one study, O’Loughlin found that when temperatures rose two standard deviations higher than the long-term average in a region—roughly 2 degrees F for a place like Kenya—violent conflict soared by 30%.

Migration also plays a role. As water sources dry up, and people relocate to find sustenance for animals and fertile ground for crops, they are often met with resistance from those already strapped for resources. In one 2018 study, O’Loughlin and colleagues found that Kenyans who relocated temporarily due to drought were three times more likely to be subjected to violence.

“There are expected to be huge migration outflows from areas that are strongly affected by climate change. Some places will frankly be unlivable,” he says. 

Already, such factors are fueling bloody clashes between roaming cattle herders and farmers. In Nigeria alone, according to Amnesty International, more than 2,000 people were killed in such conflicts in 2018.

There are expected to be huge migration outflows from areas that are strongly affected by climate change. Some places will frankly be unlivable.”

“That’s more people than were killed by the terrorist group Boko Haram, but you rarely hear about this in the news,” notes O’Loughlin.

He recently spent several weeks in Northern Kenya with Anthropology Professor Terry McCabe and graduate student Sarah Posner, interviewing tribal leaders and kicking off a new study in which he will use cell phones to survey 500 locals every two months for a year about how shifting weather patterns are impacting their livelihood and exposure to violence. 

When he first arrived in the study area of Isiolo, he spotted newspaper headline that read “2 million people at immediate risk of starvation.”

“Pasture-lands are drying up, people are hungry, and raiders are stealing from their neighbors,” he said. “Everyone is worried about climate change.”

In addition to a vast humanitarian toll, the looming threat of climate wars could present a global security risk, he adds, as beleaguered young men in drought or flood-stricken areas grow more tempted to join militant groups.

But he believes many of these scenarios can be prevented through investments in things like crop insurance, post-harvest storage facilities and more resilient water systems in regions hit hard by shifting weather patterns.

Now that there is some long-awaited consensus around the issue, he hopes policy makers will take notice.

“The question now is: To what degree will the developed world ignore this issue and to what degree will it get involved?”