Climate Change and Conflict: The Tail Wagging the Dog or New, Cascading Tensions and Inequalities?


The Paris Agreement adopted at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in December 2015, heralds a new dawn in the evolution of our efforts to mitigate the adverse consequences of climate change. In many ways, it clearly indicates how climate change-related policies have shifted from the narrow prism of environmental concerns to a new world order where the transition to a low carbon development is replete with economic, social and cultural ramifications.1

With 196 countries all calling for a move towards a non­fossil fuel-based economy, it is clear that climate change not only threatens economic prosperity, but also the very foundations of sustainable development. The Paris Agreement magnifies the grave economic risks we face if we continue on a business-as-usual trajectory with a seemingly insatiable appetite for fossil fuels as the main driver of growth. Equally, it opens up new avenues of potential economic prosperity, enabling countries to design infrastructure for low carbon development through greater access to energy. The scale and speed required for action are limited, however, as the window of opportunity will not stay ajar.2

What will this new agreement mean for populations on the fringes of development? Will it exacerbate growing inequalities? Are there new opportunities to be seized? Can the new agreement usher in a more egalitarian approach to energy and water access? Will vulnerable groups profit from new investment flows or will finance and other climate change responses constitute new ground for conflict among resource-dependent communities?

Economic growth tends to create winners and losers, and depending on the scale of loss, tensions can flare up alongside parallel drivers of disempowerment, vulnerability and disenfranchisement. In Africa, where livelihoods and income are heavily dependent on raw commodities, but where resources such as water, land and forests are concomitantly pillaged, the propensity for conflict is magnified. The correlation between climate change and conflict is often conflated to dwindling natural resources, but it can be difficult to substantiate this as the main driver of conflict between social groups. In short, there is no direct relationship between climate change and conflict.3

Climate change is often seen only as an additional stressor in regions of prolonged conflict, as witnessed in Darfur.4 Indeed, we must further develop the learning process and examine new routes to help determine the correlation between climate change and conflict, while more empiricism is needed to triangulate natural resource management, climate change and conflict.

This article sets out three interrelated arguments. First, that climate change threatens human security, bringing multiple vulnerabilities and exacerbating existing social tensions. Second, that climate change creates new forms of disempowerment that drive resource-dependent communities to tipping points beyond their coping thresholds, producing new forms of conflict. Third, that climate change has unearthed the urgency for responses that are "fit for purpose", able to cope with the magnitude, speed and pace of change. Meanwhile, climate change has eroded the rights of traditional institutions once perceived as primary managers of environmental assets.5 Consequently, the ability of autochthonous institutions to act as agents of change and manage shifting environmental and societal needs has been severely curtailed.


The Oxford Dictionary defines conflict as a "disagreement" or an "argument" of a protracted nature.6 In the case of resource-dependent communities, such conflict often occurs between different social groups. Throughout history, cooperation and conflict have swapped places in the lives of resource-dependent communities such as sedentary farmers and transhumant herders, especially when competing for increasingly scarce resources.

From migratory influxes of pastoralists from Turkana, northern Kenya, into southern Ethiopia in East Africa, to conflict between Mauritanian herders and Senegalese pastoralists in the Sahel, the growth, pattern, source and visibility of natural resource-related conflict may be shifting with climate change as an additional stressor, but the origins of conflict are not radically new. Land ownership and natural resource access and management have been sources of conflict that, in recent times, have been fuelled by climate change.7

Indeed, conflict around resource scarcity stems from many forms of disagreement over land systems, encroachment of transhumance paths, restoration of pastoral land and new forms of cultivation and production.

Structural problems often related to land scarcity exacerbate conflictual situations such as in the case of private agri-business companies which, with their own interpretation of rules on land ownership, tend to be perceived as violating land rights. Fragile, high-stress regions such as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel are often the first casualties of conflict where climate change conspires with other ethnic, social and cultural undercurrents, amplifying existing risks.

Laced with other corollaries such as migration and ethnic strife, climate stressors can further fuel competition for natural resources, leading to physical dispossession and loss of livelihoods. Where the state is ill-equipped to mediate between private and public property systems, weak common property management often leads to loss of confidence in the ability of the state to equitably manage distribution and allocation of resources.

Violent conflict may signal the failure of internal dispute mechanisms, weak devolution arrangements, dysfunctional food systems and opaque land policies that cannot anticipate and manage potential conflict situations.

From a human security perspective, climate change can undermine growth and reduce the capacity of vulnerable communities to cope, becoming locked into chronic poverty, vulnerability and loss. Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, degraded ecosystems and depleted river basins further push the boundaries of potential conflict. But the impacts of climate change often combine with other complex social and ecological vulnerabilities which become threat multipliers, magnifying climate change as the main culprit. While the geography of conflict has not radically changed, it is certain that the severity of the effects of climate change is eating away at the arsenal of adaptation strategies communities have used to combat conflict. As such tools become blunt or ineffective, and indigenous knowledge is lost, social disharmony may escalate into protracted and chronic forms of conflict.


While climate change can heighten old forms of conflict it can also disempower communities driving them towards further conflict. Response strategies touted as adaptation or mitigation opportunities are not without consequences for natural resource-dependent communities.

Climate finance remains a sensitive issue. Decision­making processes that provide resources to one community over another can cause social tensions both locally and in neighbouring regions. Indeed, climate response strategies, whether related to climate finance, biofuels or REDD+8 can unleash new forms of inequality and provoke conflict between communities that feel their rights are being denied. Communities with fragile infrastructures can be deprived of their properties and forced into new practices that alien­ ate their rights to sustainable livelihoods. This is certainly true of loss and damage where communities may feel disempowered and alienated as a result of economic as well as cultural losses,especially vis-à-vis public authorities and the ruling elites.

In essence, the perception of loss may intensify, given the social indicators and value systems that a community uses to measure loss. The principle argument is not whether loss and damage threatens human security and culture, but is instead about valuation of services, goods and ecosystem products. Indeed, the inability to adequately value ecosystem goods and services not only threatens our capacity to create and manage new forms of use and access, but also limits our potential to protect such goods and services, based on their perceived value.

REDD+ is increasingly recognized as a mechanism contributing to forest conservation and enhancement of carbon stocks and potential for sinks through carbon sequestration. On the flip side, REDD+ is seen as an instrument that can disempower forest-dependent communities witnessing high incidences of food insecurity, loss of forest rights, decreased decision-making powers and limited prospects for alternative sources of income. Women involved in forest management see their earnings severely reduced, freezing out their role as key agents of economic productivity. These situations have created new sets of "winners" and "losers" in high-commodity and high-value sectors such as forestry.


Climate change, as a phenomenon that can intensify existing conflict and create new threats, has laid bare the inadequacies of current institutions to manage both the scale and severity of conflict.

Local institutions have an important role in managing vulnerability and providing incentives to enhance resilience. They are indispensable agents for sustainable management of natural resources and of response strategies such as adaptation and mitigation.10

Mobilizing and regulating resources have hitherto powers residing with local institutions,11 while preventing and resolving conflict has been the preserve of traditional authorities. However, with the severity of climate change and new governance mechanisms, local institutions have lost their licence to protect communities through formal and informal arbitration mechanisms.12 "Current institutions must go through a process of renewal to become "fit for purpose" by which they can manage climate-related conflicts. Indeed, as Pahl-Wostl argues, climate change and variability reveal the "vulnerability" of current environmental resource regimes.13

Institutions serve as both the software and hardware through which climate strategies operate. Weak institutions not only fail to anticipate climate-related conflicts, they often are only observers of conflicts. Institutions can magnify asymmetric relationships between communities based on power, gender, and class, and the distribution of rights can enable or disable the attribution of power. Allocating incentives and resources can sow the seeds of disempowerment and conflict and weaken the governance mechanisms upon which institutional climate frameworks rest, while loss of credibility in traditional institutions heightens the perception of a dysfunctional state, unable to address issues of environmental sustainability and "impotent" to deal with the complexity of cascading sets of changes.


This article demonstrates that climate change is not the primary cause or contributor to conflict, but that it often conspires with sets of latent tensions to exacerbate conflictual situations.

It also underlines the fact that there are several forms of conflict that are not necessarily local and these cannot only be conflated to climate change. The foundations of human security are increasingly at risk, especially in depressed economies and fragile states. However, it is important to point out that some responses to climate change may disempower communities and create new conflict.

New forms of disempowerment are magnified by weak institutions whose power has been reduced and whose ability to intervene in conflict situations is denied by "predatory" states. Climate change will undeniably come with new flows of investments, especially in the light of the Paris Agreement It will take some time, however, to level the playing field, ensuring that new investments do not encourage new inequalities.

Climate change continues to test our knowledge base, our governance mechanisms and coping strategies. However, looking at its impacts through the narrow filters of violence does fully capture the complexity of myriad social, cultural and economic change. Seen uniquely from a conflict perspective it reduces the potential to address conflict from the perspective of human security, taking into account the vast related opportunities to make good on old problems of natural resource management.


1  Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report The Global Report (Washington, D.C., New Climate Economy, 2014). Available from

2  Africa Progress Panel, Power, People, Planet: Seizing Africa's Energy and Climate Opportunities. Africa Progress Report 2015 (Geneva, 2015). Available from

3  Institute of Development Studies, '"Climate change and conflict: moving beyond the impasse”, IDS in Focus: Policy Briefing, Issue 15, (May 2010). Available from

4  Magda Nassef "Natural resource management and land tenure in the rangelands:  lessons learned from Kenya and Tanzania, with implications for Darfur. Report (Khartoum, Sudan, United Nations Environment Programme, 2014). Available from

5  Thea Hilhorst, Local Governance Institutions for Sustainable Natural Resource Management in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, KIT Working Papers Series G1 (Amsterdam, Royal Tropical Institute (KIT, 2008). Available from

6  Available from

Natural Resources and Conflict Management: The Case of Land, 2012 (Economic Commission for Africa publications, (ECA/SRO- EA/2010-2011/A.b.7), Available from

8  An enhanced version of the mechanism called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, which emerged in 2008, building in the ideas of conserving and sustainably managing forests, forest restoration and reforestation. For further Information, see

9  United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), "Loss and damage: when adaptation is not enough", UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS), (April 2014). Available from

10 Sara Pavanello and Simon Levine, Rules of the range: natural resources management in Kenya-Ethiopia border areas, Humanitarian Policy Group Working Paper, September (London, Overseas Development Institute, 2011), p. 11-12. Available from

11  Jeremias Mowo and others, "The importance of local traditional institutions in the management of natural resources in the highlands of Eastern Africa, World Agroforestry Centre Working Paper, No. 134 (Nairobi, Kenya, 2011). Available from

12  Ibid, p. 13-16.

13  Claudia Pahl-Wostl,"A conceptual framework for analyzing adaptive capacity and multi-level learning processes in resource governance regimes", Global Environmental Change, vol. 19, no. 3, (August 2009), p. 354-65.