Columnist Richard Fein: Climate change and war

This column is about ways in which climate change could be a major contributing factor for civil wars or war between countries. Let’s look at four of the factors: food insecurity, large-scale migration, government instability and changes in the Arctic Circle.

Food Insecurity

due to lack of water

The continuing conflict in Syria was sparked at least in part by climate change. Shortages of water that killed livestock, drove up food prices and sickened children forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s already overcrowded cities. Their discontent sparked demonstrations that were brutally repressed by the Assad dictatorship, leading to a civil war that has now drawn in at least five other countries.

A changing climate and growing population have put more pressure on the demand for water in both India and Pakistan. India has sped up plans to build dams in Kashmir which could reduce Pakistan’s water supply. India has also threatened to withdraw from the Indus Water Treaty, a water-distribution treaty signed in 1960. Pakistan would consider that an act of war. It is worth noting that the two countries have fought several wars in the past and both are nuclear weapons powers.

There could be a war between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile River.

Egypt is already dealing with a rising Mediterranean pushing salty seawater into the irrigation systems of its Nile Delta breadbasket. A potentially more ominous threat is the $4.5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia has built 2000 miles upstream on the Nile. Egypt fears the dam would cut into its water supplies if the reservoir behind it becomes too large.

“The Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt,” President AbdelFattah el-Sisi has said at the United Nations . Protecting life and existence are understandable reasons to launch a war.


Water scarcity, decreasing crop productivity and rising sea levels could lead to millions of what have been described as “climate migrants.” The World Bank estimates that there may be over 200 million climate migrants by 2050.There might be armed conflicts to keep populations from migrating from one country to another. Local populations typically do not want to see huge numbers of desperate strangers entering their territory. This too is understandable. People who don’t want to jeopardize their own livelihoods or compete for scare resources like water will put pressure on the government to protect their borders or arm themselves to carry out that task. As a current example, Poland has amassed thousands of troops on its eastern border because Belarus is trying to drive its illegal migrants into Poland.

Addressing a gathering in Rome in August 2010, then Libyan dictator Qaddafi claimed that unless he was given billions of dollars, he would allow millions of people, often climate migrants, to pass through Libya on their way to Europe. He had added that “tomorrow Europe might no longer be European … as there are millions who want to come in….” According to The National Interest, an organization that covers international events, it is possible that the Anglo-French attack on Libya in 2011 was the first migration war of the contemporary age.

Political Instability

Climate change can cause storm destruction and food insecurity that overwhelm the ability of governments to deal with them. That may weaken the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its population and induce the government to take risky steps internationally to distract public attention from domestic problems. A second possibility is that internal instability can trigger foreign intervention. For example, if Pakistan starts to crumble internally, India may attack it to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Melting polar ice cap

Economic wealth might become a cause for war in the Arctic.

Nowhere on earth has climate change been so pronounced as in the polar regions. The warming has led to drastic reductions in sea ice. The Arctic will soon be economically valuable because there will be access to vast reserves of natural resources, including oil and gas. Russia is building a large military presence above the Arctic Circle and NATO countries are increasing their own military assets to counter it.

Who owns these resources is likely to come a source of competition and contention. Deep sea mining and drilling platforms, combined with naval vessels to protect them have the potential for leading to confrontations that might spiral out of control.

To emphasize the potential gravity of the climate change/war connection, this column has included reference to six countries that are armed with nuclear weapons.

Nature operates according to its own rules. Destructive climate change will not itself out of concern for human suffering or potential military conflict. Minimizing the extent and rate of climate change will require effective action from human beings. That human action is essential to avoiding needless wars in the future.

Richard Fein holds a master of arts degree in political science and an MBA in economics. He can be reached at

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