This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Whether or not climate change will exacerbate conflict is no longer a hypothetical question: according to the Red Cross, it’s already happening. As long ago as 2018, Peter Maurer, the head of the organisation’s International Committee, told the Guardian: “When I think about our engagement in sub-Saharan Africa, in Somalia, in other places of the world, I see that climate change has already had a massive impact on population movement, on fertility of land. It’s very obvious that some of the violence that we are observing… is directly linked to the impact of climate change and changing rainfall patterns.”
A recent article in the Washington Post agreed with this gloomy analysis: “Climate and climate change have had modest effects on past conflicts, but these effects are expected to get much larger in the future.” A 2013 study, published in Science, confirmed the clear link between climate events and human conflicts.
All of this points to an increase in hostility as the world heats up. But why is it the case that global warming should have such a dramatic effect? And just how bad can we expect things to get?
Global warming will increase migration for a number of reasons: there will be droughts, crop failures, water scarcity and a rise in sea levels to an extent that makes many coastal areas uninhabitable. Discussing the threat posed to the US coastline, climate change scientist Orrin Pilkey told VICE: “We should be planning and executing the beginning of a retreat from the shoreline in response to sea level rise and increased storm severity.”
This situation is not limited to the US. In many cases, rising sea levels will affect nations in the Global South that are far less-equipped to deal with the impact. A 2016 study showed that, in countries reliant on agriculture, a 1C temperature increase correlates with a 5 percent increase in outward migration. All of this means that in the years ahead, we can expect to see migration on a scale unparalleled in human history.
Unfortunately, migration almost invariably causes tension; although not in the way you might expect (if you're a xenophobe, anyway). The problem is not migrant communities causing trouble or committing crimes but rather the treatment they receive. For instance, the only type of terrorism that increases with immigration is the domestic, right-wing kind. To find out more about how climate change might affect conflict, I spoke with Nate Bethea, a writer and US army veteran who runs What a Hell of a Way to Die – a leftist podcast about military and veteran issues.
“I was never in Iraq,” Bethea says, “but there were a number of people who I met who were very disillusioned by their experiences there. They felt that what was done to the Iraqi people would be done to Americans sooner rather than later. It was the idea that, 'It won't be long before they have an Abu Ghraib for Americans.' I think what we're seeing in the US now, with the reactionary right basically getting top cover to run concentration camps for immigrants – and even their US citizen children – is, in some ways, a confirmation of that. I can only see that rhetoric, and the militarisation that comes along with it, getting more and more severe.”
And what does this have to do with climate change? “Global warming is going to drive huge numbers of people to flee into more temperate climates. The US and UK are pretty similar in terms of their hostility to immigration, and you're seeing this militarised response even now when immigration rates aren't particularly high.
“If it's this bad already,” he continues, “with the US letting toddlers die of influenza in concentration camps for minors, and the UK aggressively deporting elderly children of 1940s immigrants – who are very clearly British citizens – what is it going to look like when climate change worsens?"
Climate change is expected to cause a disastrous scarcity of resources, which we may start to feel the bite of sooner – and closer to home – that we had previously anticipated. The head of the Environmental Agency recently warned that the UK could run out of water in as little as 25 years. This would, obviously, be a disaster: an armageddon of troops on the street, evacuations, outbreaks of disease and a lot of portaloos. We could, however, conceivably get a three-day week in which basically everything is shut except the pub – so there is some silver lining for the lazy pissheads among us.
It makes sense that a scarcity of resources will increase tensions internally; people may find themselves forced to fight for food or water simply to survive. But it’s also likely to happen at an international level. Bethea says, “I absolutely think you will see regional conflicts due to water scarcity, but I think a prelude to that will be significant disorder and violence within affected countries.”
But for all the catastrophes that climate change will undoubtedly cause, there will be opportunities too. We could be at the beginning of a new gold rush. Take the Arctic, where the melting ice caps are expected to reveal a wealth of resources; chiefly fossil fuels but also diamonds and platinum. One government source, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “Everything changes as a result of higher temperatures in the Arctic, from mass fish migration to fights over fossil fuels.
“As fish move in search of colder waters,” he continues, “fights between fishermen over increasingly sparse catches will become commonplace. On the international stage, there will be a scramble for the Arctic from both regional and international actors in pursuit of the fossil fuels to which that melting ice gives easier access. This same melting ice also allows easier transport of these fossils fuels once they are extracted; the first cargo ship in history sailed through Russia’s Arctic north in August last year and many more look to follow in its wake.”
Already, the US, China and Russia are jostling for dominance over the region, with the UK changing its defence policy accordingly. With so many spoils to be won, and so many Arctic territories already being contested, it wouldn't be surprising if the region becomes a major source of conflict.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that hot weather increases violence. Given that heat has been proven to make people more aggressive on an individual level, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine this may affect foreign policy, something that is ultimately decided by individuals. Ideally, we don’t want the people in charge of military decisions to be suffering from heat stroke.
But the impact is more likely to be felt at an intra-state level. Hot weather has served as the backdrop to a number of riots in the UK, from Brixton in 1981 to the disorder in 2011 that began in Tottenham before spreading throughout the country. Admittedly, there were no riots during the heatwave last year. But when England beat Sweden at the World Cup, a group of people did storm and trash a branch of IKEA – which is a pretty odd thing to do.
There are a number of factors at play, but if temperatures increase worldwide (as they’re predicted to) we could well see an attendant increase in civil disturbance and violent crime.