Climate Change, Humanitarian Crises And Social Instability

Climate change is an implication in many violent conflicts, which leads to proliferation of humanitarian crises across the world. It is presumable that this trend will exacerbate in the future, as climate change is likely to worsen as greater demands are placed on the environment as a result of industrialisation and globalisation. While much of the world’s attention is focused on traditional governance threats such as war, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation, climate change poses a subtler, but no less imminent threat to global security. Threats from climate change on the international system can be both direct and indirect, but ultimately lead to the perpetuation of social tensions and the endangerment of human lives. Thus, climate change is a long-term threat that requires conscious mitigation and effective policy coordination from world leaders. Failure to do so will result in the consequences of unchecked environmental degradation and will perpetuate violent conflicts and severe humanitarian crises in the future.

Numerous mechanisms exist that lead to climate change’s evolution into violent crises and humanitarian issues. Despite advances in technology and the perception that human society is becoming increasingly divorced from natural processes, recent events around the world have demonstrated that this is not the case. No matter how technologically advanced the international system becomes, it still relies on nature being cooperative and providing the natural resources that humans need to survive.

Access to natural resources is vital to the livelihood of the entire world’s population, and climate change is increasingly acting as a barrier to the access of these resources. Climate change may be first felt by populations whose livelihoods are more dependent on nature and who have less access to technological substitutes. For example, farmers and fishermen in some of the world’s least developed countries are extremely vulnerable to the environmental changes brought about because of human activities. Climate change proves to further deprive populations already living in politically and socially fragile environments. The consequences of resource constraint brought about by climate change, however, will not be restricted only to food producers. Higher food prices increase inflation everywhere, lowering living standards and threatening the economic security of marginalized groups around the world. Even technologically advanced industries such as pharmaceutical manufacturers rely on a wealth of natural resources. The threat that climate change poses to the economic security of populations worldwide will increase as this environmental phenomenon continues to destroy more habitats that supply human society with essentials such as food, medicine, and raw materials.

The relationship between economic deprivation and the likelihood of violence is positively correlated. The likely result of economic crisis due to climate change is the buildup of social tensions, whether against traditional leaders or against other identifiable groups. Rising food prices is recognised as a significant implication in various instances of worldwide social instability, such as food riots, and this consequently places significant burdens on governments. International research organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn of increased violence resulting from economic deprivation that can be traced back to environmental mismanagement, over-exploitation, and changes in climate as a result of human activities. Higher levels of poverty and threats to their livelihoods can lead to populations becoming disgruntled with established systems and more susceptible to radical movements. Communities can also turn on each other over diminishing resources, such as water, farmland, fishing, and forests.

Finally, the violence that stems from climate change and environmental degradation has also perpetuated the global migration crisis, which encompasses the mass amounts of human flows across borders. This wave of migrants also magnifies the effect of social instability. As the migrant crisis that swamped European regulatory agencies demonstrated, the influx of migrants can cause concerns even in countries that are economically stable and less threatened by climate change. In this case, concerns are focused on immigration issues, and economic issues such as the welfare state and redistribution policy.

While the threat posed by climate change may not be considered as imminent as other immediate security concerns, such as nuclear proliferation or terrorism, it is in fact an extremely timely and crucial governance issue to analyse. The world is beginning to see the consequences of environmental mismanagement in the present in the forms of climate-induced migration, dwindling water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, falling fishing stocks, and more extreme weather patterns. Disputes such as the Mauritania-Senegal Border Conflict from 1989 to 1991 over agricultural lands in the aftermath of droughts will become more commonplace in the current global system as a result of climate change’s profound impact. While climate and environmental changes will not be the sole reason for future conflicts, it will certainly be a factor that may escalate national and inter-state tensions. Therefore, it is clear that policy coordination is essential to mitigate the contemporary climate change crisis, and avoid future violence and humanitarian crisis.

However, even in recent times, select world leaders choose to delay or refuse taking action on climate change. Skeptics of the need for actions on global warming often point to perceived benefits of a warmer climate, such as potentially more arable land being thawed, or lowering access costs to mineral resources buried under the northern permafrost. However, these arguments ignore the very places that climate change affects most, and the ensuing violence, conflict, and tension that persists as a result. Ultimately, the belief that climate change is not as imminent of a threat than it actually is is a very narrow and problematic view. Those who advocate for this position ignore both the damages climate change will cause to their own country, as well as the broader security and governance implications that climate change will have on the international system as a whole.

Climate change and social instability are inherently linked, and failure to address climate change will lead to increased exacerbation of social tensions that subsequently lead to conflict and crisis. It is also becoming evident that, in regard to climate, even the largest and richest states in the world are not immune to the negative effects of climate change. As climate change worsens, so will the likelihood of more frequent conflict, human displacement, and humanitarian catastrophes. As a truly global threat, the solution to climate change and the ensuing consequences is establishing a coordinated global policy framework on climate change, as well as rational world leaders having a vision beyond the immediate future.


Hanyu Huang