The security threat from global warming is inextricably linked to development. Resource scarcity and environmental change increase the risk of conflict, and institutional capacity is key to minimising this effect.

Soon after he took office in 2007, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that there was an urgent need to reframe the debate on climate change from an environmental to a development and security issue, and that it would be one of his top priorities as UN leader. Environmental factors, including land use, water availability, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and acute weather events, have been implicated in at least 73 conflicts since 1980, and at least 40% of intra-state conflicts since the end of the Second World War can be associated with natural resources.

A rapidly growing body of research on climate change, resource scarcity and conflict has ensured that the issue is rising on the international agenda. Yet, although such concerns cut across the security, development and humanitarian sectors, there is little dialogue, let alone coordination, between and among government departments and international and non-governmental organisations responsible for these domains.

Since 2007, evidence that climate change poses a risk to international peace and security has strengthened and deepened. Climate change will act as a conflict multiplier by amplifying existing environmental stresses, creating new ones, exacerbating water and food insecurity, and adding to the pressures on weak, corrupt or repressive governments (which by their nature will find it harder to respond to such situations) but also threatening more stable and effective ones. In most cases, the role of environmental stress and resource availability is indirect, as they aggravate or amplify the effects of drivers such as poverty, inequality, ethnic tensions, corruption, weak or bad governance or institutions, regime type, high population growth, rising expectations, economic shocks (including degree of exposure to globalised hazards) and history of past conflict. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 5th Assessment Report in 2014 concluded that, although the influence of climate change and resource scarcity on conflict risk cannot yet be quantified and the precise mechanisms have not yet been established, ‘climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks ... Multiple lines of evidence relate climate variability to these forms of conflict.’

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Shiloh Fetzek is Consulting Research Associate for Climate Change and Security at the IISS.

Jeffrey Mazo is Consulting Senior Fellow for Environmental Security and Science Policy and Consulting Editor, Survival, at the IISS.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October–November 2014

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