The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is headed towards another round of assessing the world’s climate and how it affects our lives and livelihoods. Last September, the outline of the Sixth Assessment Report was approved and now the selection of authors is underway.
‘Climate change is fuelling wars across the world’. Thus, a heading in The Independent summarized the views of UN Secretary General António Guterres in January 2017, shortly after he took office. The potential implications of climate change for conflict remain high on the international political agenda. The reports of the IPCC are broadly recognized as the most authoritative summaries of what we know and what we do not know about the effects of climate change. Yet, there is little scientific evidence in these reports for the view that climate change is an important driver of conflict.
The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the IPCC, published in 2014, included for the first time a separate chapter on Human Security, which also contained four pages on conflict. This section assessed that ‘collectively the research does not conclude that there is a strong positive relationship between warming and armed conflict’ and that ‘there is high scientific agreement that … increased rivalry [between countries over shared resources] is unlikely to lead directly to warfare between states’ (p. 772). The authors nevertheless argued that climate change is likely to have an influence on some known drivers of conflict and inferred from this that climate change might still stimulate conflict, ignoring the problem that correlations are not transitive.
A chapter devoted to the robustness of the report’s findings (Detection and attribution of observed impacts), dismissed the climate-change-to-violence link entirely. This was in part because the findings relating climate change to conflict were contested, but also because most such analyses have ignored the potential for adaptation and have focused on interannual variability rather than on climate change. Overall, Ragnhild Nordås and I concluded, in an article in Political Geography, that AR5 did not ‘support the view that climate change is an important threat to the long-term waning of war’. All of this did not, of course, prevent some media from presenting the AR5 report as concluding that ‘Climate change will lead to war, famine and extreme weather’.The IPCC has now started the process toward a Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), scheduled for release in 2021–22. The outlines for the reports from the three Working Groups were released in September last year. Working Group II, Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, is the one that concerns us here. This report is down to 18 chapters, compared with 29 in AR5. The Human Security chapter is gone. The term occurs now only in a single bullet point in Chapter 8 (Poverty, livelihoods and sustainable development): ‘Opportunities for development including adaptation with mitigation co-benefits and tradeoffs, economic diversification, equity, human security, coping with loss, residual risk, and sustainable development’. The only other references to ‘security’ are ‘water security’ in Chapter 4 (Water) and ‘food and nutrition security’ in Chapter 5 (Food, fibre, and other ecosystem products). ‘Conflict’ occurs only once in the 2000-word outline, and then in the context of competition for the use of land and ocean, including conflicts with indigenous rights.
Drawing conclusions about the implications of climate change for social phenomena such as conflict is subject to so many uncertainties that it might be better just to conclude that the main risk is uncertainty itself.
Had the IPCC learned from its previous reports that the links between climate change and conflict were so tenuous that there was little basis for including it among the important hazards, the downgrading of conflict in the forthcoming AR6 might be good news. Drawing conclusions about the implications of climate change for social phenomena such as conflict is subject to so many uncertainties that it might be better just to conclude that the main risk is uncertainty itself.
Yet it is probably premature to celebrate appropriate caution on the part of IPCC. In AR5, as well as in the two preceding assessment reports, comments on climate change and conflict, sometimes formulated in dramatic terms, were scattered throughout other chapters, notably in the Africa chapter. From this perspective, the more extended treatment of conflict in the AR5’s Human Security chapter was a sign of progress, despite its limitations; the topic was taken more seriously and the treatment was more balanced. With the Human Security chapter dropped from the next assessment report, the IPCC could be reverting to short asides that contribute little substance but merely fuel more speculation about effects of climate change.
…one cannot feel very confident that the new author teams will include conflict experts
One of the complaints about AR5’s Human Security chapter was that its team of Lead Authors and Contributing Authors was largely composed of scholars who had published mostly on broader aspects of human security but little on conflict – although additional expertise was consulted at the review stage. Ragnhild Nordås and I therefore concluded that it ‘probably would have been worthwhile to seek to broaden the writing group’.
Given the experience with previous IPCC chapters on Africa, Water, and Food etc., one cannot feel very confident that the new author teams will include conflict experts. However, several conflict scholars have self-nominated in countries where this was possible, and the Norwegian Environment Agency has nominated myself as well as two PRIO colleagues among the 84 candidates from Norway. It remains to be seen whether the IPCC Bureau will include any of us in the final selection of authors, to be announced in February.