Climate-conflict crossovers in Syria, Ethiopia, and Ukraine
Author: Elsa Barron, Program Assistant at the Center for Climate and Security
Climate change is one of the most extensive and multifaceted security risks that society has created. How gravely climate change induces instability depends not only on the nature of such security risks – which vary across regions – but also a community’s ability to adapt to those risks.
Three ongoing global conflicts – in Syria, Ethiopia, and Ukraine – are shaped by climate change. They illustrate that climate security risks are with us, in present day, and push us to imagine solutions to address them.
The 2021 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Climate Change notes that in countries with less adaptive capacity – the ability to implement solutions to reduce climate risks – climate change “will increase the potential for instability and possibly internal conflict.” Moreover, climate mitigation efforts may also carry the potential for instability as, if poorly enacted, climate policies– namely, energy transition policies– can lead to disputes and conflict.
In the five years before the Syrian civil war (2006 to 2011), Syria experienced a drought which, combined with poor governance of groundwater resources by the Assad regime, led to widespread crop failures. This extended drought – likely a product of a changing climate – devastated rural communities that depended on agriculture and herding for their livelihoods. Many from these communities grew understandably dissatisfied with the Assad government’s mishandling of the situation. An estimated 1.5 million people migrated into larger Syrian cities, which were already receiving refugees from other parts of the Middle East.
As public anger rose over the repressive Assad regime, this instability and tension in both rural areas and in the cities– catalyzed by poor resource governance and unprecedented drought– created conditions ripe for conflict.
Even where there is not a clear link between climate change and the conditions leading to war, climate change can severely lower community resilience and exacerbate humanitarian disasters in the midst of conflict. Ethiopia is a prime example. It has faced a drought of varying severity since 2015, which is expected to worsen this year due to the La Niña effect, a phenomenon that creates warm and dry weather conditions.
In 2020, Ethiopia also faced swarms of locusts, facilitated by climate-induced conditions. Later that year, fighting began in the regional state of Tigray. At the onset of the conflict, communities were already experiencing food stress due to the drought and locust plague. Now, because of the conflict, farming has halted in many parts of the state of Tigray for reasons ranging from the migration of agricultural workers to threats made against farmers by military forces. Hundreds of thousands are left without a food supply. In this case, climate and conflict converge to create a humanitarian disaster of massive scale.
In the ongoing war in Ukraine, we see security implications to climate solutions – not just climate impacts.
Russia’s control of the European gas market gives Putin leverage and power over the rest of Europe, which the EU has now identified as a clear security threat. Many European nations are taking rapid steps to move away from their reliance on Russian gas, which currently accounts for 40% of EU consumption. Created in response to the war in Ukraine, a swift transition to renewable energy sources is an important part of a European Commission plan for more secure and sustainable energy. In this case, the immediate need for energy security aligns with a long-term vision of climate security, which requires halting carbon emissions yesterday.
Beyond the conflict in Ukraine, however, the energy transition raises other security concerns. Petrostates that are unwilling or unable to adapt could potentially become destabilized by large market shifts. As of the most recent available data, there are sixteen countries reliant on oil alone for more than 10% of their total GDP, and Russia hovers just below, with oil representing 9.16% of its GDP. At the same time, increasing demand for metals and minerals required for renewable energy technologies may lead to oppression or local conflict in regions where resource availability is strong but governance is weak. These are all issues that must be considered while simultaneously addressing the security implications of climate change.
As illustrated by the study of current conflict in Syria, Ethiopia, and Ukraine, the climate security nexus is complex and multifaceted. Climate change creates vulnerability to conflict, exacerbates disasters in the midst of conflict, and necessitates energy solutions that consider its security implications. An expanded analysis of and policy response to these dimensions is necessary in order to address the risks posed by climate change and build greater peace for the future.