A dangerous mix of increasing international conflict, global climate change, and a lack of governmental efforts to fix either could be leading the world to an era of unprecedented destruction. That’s the thrust of a new report from Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI), a European think tank focused on peace.
The report is titled “Environment of Peace,” a hopeful title that belies the report’s horrifying message: The twin dangers of conflict—meaning, in this context, wars or violence between governments or countries—and climate change are interconnected and getting worse.
“The report paints a vivid picture of the escalating security crisis,” a press release about the report said. “It notes that between 2010 and 2020 the number of state-based armed conflicts roughly doubled (to 56), as did the number of conflict deaths. The number of refugees and other forcibly displaced people also doubled, to 82.4 million. In 2020 the number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads increased after years of reductions, and in 2021 military spending surpassed $2 trillion for the first time ever.”
Global conflict dropped dramatically after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the report noted, that trend reversed in 2010. Deaths due to conflict are also on the rise, largely driven by the civil war in Syria. Proxy wars, old rivalries, and new power players are making it impossible to achieve a peaceful world. “Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, geopolitics was becoming discernibly more fraught,” the report said. “A particular feature has been the increasingly frosty relationship between China and several Western powers, notably the United States.”
The climate crisis exacerbates these conflicts. Increased heat means fewer places where people can live, which means more migration, which often leads to conflict, the report claims. Increased temperatures and rising water levels also means less arable land, which means less food. Food insecurity and migration patterns are, traditionally, drivers of conflict.
This is not something that’s happening in the distant future, according to the report, but is already occurring. Parts of India are already uninhabitable due to rising temperatures. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has threatened global wheat supplies. Ukraine produces a third of the world’s wheat and this year’s harvests are threatened by the invasion with some experts predicting the world has just 10 weeks of the critical food staple left.
“Climate change is already affecting food production on land and in the ocean,” the report said. “In the coming decades, it is forecast to reduce the yield of major crops such as maize, rice, and wheat, and increase the risk of simultaneous harvest failures in major producing countries.”
Most world governments are already aware of this. The Pentagon has spent the last decade sounding the alarm about food insecurity and conflict stemming from climate change. But governments aren’t willing to enact radical change to avoid disaster. The SIPRI report calls this a “the governance deficit.”
“For most of human history, the most serious risks have been the most direct: the lack of a key resource, or the threat that another community or country would take it away,” the report said. “Now, many of the most serious threats are shared. Rising temperatures, plastic pollution in the ocean, and the loss of ecosystem services provided by forests and plankton all pose universal risks.”
In addition to literal, physical wars, the report addresses “culture wars” as a contributor to the vicious cycle of humanitarian crises, government failure, and accelerating climate change. For example, the COVID-19 crisis gave the world a front-row seat to how world governments handle shared threats, and it wasn’t pretty. “Some leaders deliberately shaped their pandemic response around populist rhetoric diametrically opposed to science, promoting misinformation on fake cures and scare stories about vaccinations, willfully exposing their populations to far greater risks than were necessary,” the report said. “This provides a cautionary tale for the far greater challenge of overcoming the security and environmental crises.”
According to its authors, the goal of the SIPRI report is not to send its readers into a fit of despair. It’s to wake politicians to the cold facts of where we are. “Our new report for policymakers goes beyond simply showing that environmental change can increase risks to peace and security. That’s established. What our research reveals is the complexity and breadth of that relationship, the many forms it can take,” SIPRI director and Environment of Peace author Dan Smith said in a press release. “And most of all, we show what can be done about it; how we can deliver peace and security in a new era of risk.”
It ends on a hopeful note and some recommendations. Essentially, the nations of the world must come together, invest in resilience, finance peace, and make clear the risks of not working on the problems of eliminating conflict and climate change together. “Humanity has the knowledge and skills to escape from the trouble in which we find ourselves,” the report said. “We can draw hope from the examples being taken by governments, civil society, local communities, and multinational groupings that are successfully addressing hazardous situations. The need is to learn from them and scale up.”