As the world warms and the climate changes, researchers are increasingly concerned that, in addition the many environmental, meteorological, and economic challenges this will bring, it will also mean an increase in political violence and instability around the world, and perhaps even an increase in terrorism.
The impact of climate change and environmental collapse can already be seen in a number of conflict zones around the globe, according to a statement by the Outreach and Communications Officer, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Mr. Sylvester Atere.
A 2010 report prepared by the US Joint Forces Command warned of the dangers that can result when natural disasters “collide” with existing structural challenges like urban sprawl and civil unrest.
The relationship between resource competition and civil conflict is well-established, and, in regions like the Lake Chad Basin, climate change has clearly exacerbated competition over increasingly scarce resources. In the language of security studies, climate change is a potential “threat multiplier”.
As the waters of Lake Chad recede, fish stocks are reduced, cultivatable land disappears, and other economic opportunities are also diminished. The African Union has noted that the loss of traditional livelihoods has encouraged some individuals to turn to explore membership of armed groups as a potential alternate source of income.
Increased insurgent activity can also feed into a negative spiral of increasing environmental collapse as agricultural infrastructure is destroyed, environmental management expertise is lost, and the natural environment is further degraded. Northern Nigeria is currently losing an estimated 1,350 square miles – roughly the equivalent of Lagos State – to desertification every year.
As early as 2007, the United Nations Security Council started debating the potential impact that climate change could have on global security, and in September 2009 the Secretary General presented the first major UN report on Climate Change and its Possible Security Implications (A/64/350) to the General Assembly.
The Secretary General’s report highlighted five main threats arising from climate change: the vulnerability of food supplies and public health; the reversal of development gains; migration and internal unrest; statelessness and the loss of habitable territory; and, finally, international conflict over scarce resources.
The report’s predictions have proved prophetic. In recent years, environmental factors have been mentioned more and more frequently in the Security Council deliberations, especially in relation to Africa, where approximately 250 million people in Africa are projected to suffer from water and food insecurity during the 21st century as a consequence of climate change.
In March 2017 Security Council Resolution 2349, which addressed the predations of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, specifically recognized “the adverse effects of climate change and ecological changes among other factors on the stability of the Region, including through water scarcity, drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity.”
Regional concerns have only continued to grow since. In February 2018 the Governments of the Lake Chad Basin Countries issued the Abuja Declaration to raise global awareness of the dramatic shrinkage of Lake Chad and the expected impact that this will have on sustainable livelihoods, security, and development efforts in the region.
Addressing the conference, President Buhari soberly noted: “The ‘oasis in the desert’ is just a desert now… Farmers and herdsmen struggle over the little water left; Herdsmen migrate in search of greener pastures resulting in conflicts; Our youths are joining terrorist groups because of lack of jobs and difficult economic conditions.”
A further potential “threat multiplier” is the rise in global temperature itself. The relationship between heat and aggression is well established in psychological research. As the temperature rises so do people’s tempers, and violent crime increases. A recent academic study drawing on data from 159 countries over a forty-five year period actually found a positive correlation between higher temperatures and terrorism.
But there is cause for hope. The Secretary General’s 2009 report also identified “threat minimizers” that could offset the potential for global unrest. These include climate mitigation and adaptation, economic development, democratic governance, strong local and national institutions, international cooperation, and preventive diplomacy and mediation.
In August 2018 Lake Chad Basin Commission and African Union Commission presented its Regional Strategy for the Stabilization, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin Region, which has been adopted by the Governments of the Lake Chad Basin Countries.
The statement said, “Government of Nigeria is doing its part too, both with its Policy Framework and National Action Plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, and by implementing the Buhari Plan for Rebuilding the North East, which includes climate change mitigation, peace-building, and economic development initiatives.
“The United Nations is working to support of Government’s strategies to prevent and counter terrorism and violent extremism in a manner that aligns with our efforts to tackle climate change and to pre-empt and mitigate its effects.
There are many excellent reasons why we should all be doing more to combat climate change, and making the world a safer and more secure place is one of them.”