How climate change is fueling conflict around the world

The UN's climate change body issued a dire warning this week on global warming. Climate security expert Sherri Goodman says as the earth heats up, so do the chances of global conflict.

'Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, increasing instability around the world'

An iceberg floating in the Baffin Bay above the Arctic Circle dwarfs the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent on July 10, 2008. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
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This week, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire warning on global warming.

The report said even an additional 0.5 C increase in the Earth's temperature would mean catastrophic crises — and that could happen as early as 2030.

It may be hard to see a connection between ISIS and climate change, but Sherri Goodman says that global warming is not only heating up the planet, it's also heating up conflicts around the world.

Goodman, a senior advisor for International Security at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C., says droughts and food shortages play a role in exacerbating tensions in areas like the Arctic, Syria and North Africa.

"Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, increasing instability around the world," Goodman said.

And that's likely to get worse.

In a landmark report on October 8, the UN warned time is running out to avert climate disasters. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

Risks in the Arctic

Sherri Goodman is a senior advisor at the Center for Climate and Security. (Submitted by Sherri Goodman)

According to Goodman, climate-related risks are already shaping international geopolitics and security, and the North Pole is one of the places where global warming feeds security risks.

"Climate change has already opened up a whole new Arctic Ocean that was previously inaccessible to most people," she said.

That ocean is now well-travelled by ships from different countries, including China, which is eyeing shorter routes to key European markets.

The ship traffic raises risks of accidents, including oil spills, Goodman says.

But as several countries, including the U.S., Russia, China and Canada, eye the Arctic for its riches, tensions are increasing around shifting sovereignty.

"Geopolitics are changing on a regular basis now," Goodman said.

Drought and war in Syria

Syria is another place where climate change has played a role in conflict, says Goodman.

Although the war in Syria is multi-sided civil war, she says drought played a role as well.

"The prolonged drought that Syria experienced in the years preceding the conflict drove many Syrians from the field to the city, when they were unable to provide crops and therefore take care of their families," Goodman said.

"So they migrated to the cities seeking food and water, [and] that created tensions in the in the urban areas."

This photo, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows a civil defense worker as smoke rises from a Syrian government airstrike near Idlib, Syria, in September of 2018. (Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets/Associated Press)

Food shortages were also used to pit people against one another, says Goodman. She adds that when water and food are scarce, they are weaponized by terrorists.

In drought-prone parts of Mali and Niger, ISIS affiliates have gained a hold of scarce resources — by blocking dams, for example — and use that as a leverage to coerce support.

Terrorists would  "essentially weaponize the water to give them power over different communities," Goodman explained.

Growing tension in Pakistan

In Pakistan, flooding has already killed thousands of people in recent years. The melting Himalayas cause floods in some parts of the country, while other regions face drought.

Water scarcity is, as a result, giving rise to tension, Goodman says.

The impact of flooding in one area combined with drought in other others "could become a match like the match that set off the Arab Spring uprisings years ago."

Pakistani flood victims wade through floodwater to reach their homes in Peshawar, Pakistan, in August of 2015. (Mohammad Sajjad/Associated Press)

"You have to understand Pakistan is a nuclear-armed, politically unstable country," Goodman added. "So it wouldn't it wouldn't take much."

But even as countries like the United States are preparing militarily for climate-related security risks, it's hard to say whether national security could compel leaders around the world take action on climate change, Goodman says.

"There's so much there's so much on predictability [around] what's going to change that debate."

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