Climate change risks endemic conflict and migration

  • By Alistair Scrutton
  • 08/10/2015

In this 2010 file photo, a Brazilian crosses the muddy bottom of the Rio Negro in the city of Manau, where severe drought pushed river levels in Brazil's Amazon region to record lows. REUTERS/Euzivaldo Queiroz/A Critica


STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - From upheavals in Syria to Egypt, climate change is leading to endemic insecurity with crises like migration, food prices and water access that may be overlooked in a global summit focused on emissions, the new head of a leading defence think-tank said.

Dan Smith of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said a drought in Syria and high global food prices that helped fuel social rebellion in Egypt are examples of how climate change and conflict were increasingly linked.

"I think there's increased awareness that there is a risk, and I think that's partly because of Syria and Egypt," Smith said in an interview at SIPRI's headquarters in Stockholm.

Smith, a Briton who was previously secretary general of peacebuilding organisation International Alert in London, said he wanted SIPRI to focus more on climate change and conflict.

The think-tank, founded in 1966, currently has a reputation for reports on issues like military spending and arms control.

Forecasts by climate scientists of rising sea levels, heatwaves, floods and droughts linked to global warming show millions of people may be forced to migrate in coming years.

A study in May in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pointed to a link between drought, man-made climate change and conflict in Syria, which has led to millions of refugees.

An estimated four million Syrian refugees have fled their home country in the past three or so years with a further 6.5 million displaced within Syria from a total population of about 23 million, according to United Nations figures,

"For four years, before the civil war in Syria, there was a drought," said Smith. "Something like a million people were forced off the land and into cities in a country where the regime was basically either unable or unwilling ... to look after them properly.


"As a result of climate change, water supply changes fundamentally. That affects food security and livelihood security. Therefore people move."

Smith said he was concerned that the issue of poorer countries needing resources to adapt to these challenges may be overlooked when around 200 governments meet in Paris in December to try to work out a global deal to slow climate change.

In 2009, rich nations promised to raise finance for developing nations to $100 billion a year by 2020, from both public and private sources, to help them curb rising emissions and adapt to climate change.

So far, most of the money has gone to reining in greenhouse gases, rather than helping the poor adapt, for instance by reinforcing flood-prone river banks or breeding drought-resistant crops.

"The problem is (emissions control) is necessary but not sufficient for dealing with the climate change issue today," Smith said. "My worry would be that there will be a big kind of exclamation breath and a sigh-relief and a 'thank God, we don't have to take care of climate for another 20 years'".

But Smith said the risk that climate change brings of wars between countries over access to water, for example, may be exaggerated.

"I think that there is enough evidence about the benefits of cooperation. That is the way that everybody almost certainly will go," Smith added. (Additional reporting by Violette Goarant, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith )

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