Hot and Cold Resource Wars: One More Reason to Care about Climate Change
This is a joint posting by Amanda Mayoral, Program Assistant for the Sustainable Economies Center of Innovation at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Michelle Swearingen, Moderator of the International Network for Economics and Conflict
As people worldwide become more and more engaged in the climate change issue, this blog directs attention to a relatively unexplored aspect of the topic – the impact of climate change on conflict dynamics. Climate change can trigger conflict in many ways, such as forcing migration and displacement, destabilizing group power relations, increasing or decreasing availability of resources and raising issues of sovereignty as new lands and seaways appear. Economic research has shown historical trends between conflict and changes in temperature and precipitation. There are also documented case studies that demonstrate this type of impact from the time of the Neanderthals to modern day societies. Broadly speaking, hot and cold wars represent the distributed effects of a warming planet, as resources are transferred from hot to cold states, causing scarcity in hot states and abundance in cold.
As the name suggests, hot wars are those climate-related conflicts that take place in equatorial countries, many of which are already poor and conflict-affected. Hot wars occur from heightened resource scarcity and induced migration. Coupled with rising populations these conditions diminish living standards and provide conditions for conflict. Specifically, climate change causes increases in volatile rainfall patterns, occurrences of droughts, and the spread of water borne illnesses – all leading to stress on access to clean water. We can see how climate change has been a factor in the conflict in Darfur with droughts and famines pitting agriculturalists and pastoralists against each other as well as in Gaza where increasing water scarcity has exacerbated other conflict triggers in the region. Hot wars tend to go on for long periods and grow in intensity and frequency as populations increase and make the strain on resources more acute.
Cold wars take place in the polar regions of the world; they occur when rising temperatures make new resources available, and take place mostly among developed countries. As previously frozen lands become ripe for production and previously frozen waterways become valuable seaways, communities (or nations) conflict over who will control the new resources. There is a potential for conflict over currently inaccessible oil reserves as arctic regions of Northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia are likely to thaw with rising temperatures – making way for the exploitation of the new resource. Historically, we see that one of the key markers of successful conflict avoidance is the presence of pressure valves. In the early 1800’s the frigid “year without summer” brought conflict to Europe while sparing the US even as they experienced the same climate conditions. In the US, the presence of a pressure valve in the form of excess land available to a population becoming under-resourced as a result of the changing climate served as an effective tool for conflict avoidance.
A primary pressure valve in the developed world today is investment and technology transfers. In the future, this will increasingly include more natural resource transfers as cold states become larger exporters. Because many hot states are often either unable or disinclined to invest the money in safeguards against the effects of increasing food insecurity, traumatic weather disturbances, etc. climate change conflict poses a much larger threat to these populations. The developed countries of the world can assist in developing safety nets and adaptive protections against the pressures of hot wars. A report by Lord Nicholas Stern found that 5-20% (given the risks) of global GDP each year is compromised due to climate change, and that the cost would be 1% of global GDP to mitigate these effects.
For situations where there are no pressure valves, we have to be more creative with our solutions. To avoid both hot and cold wars, we must weigh the costs and benefits of policy actions and give our best to protect those most vulnerable. We also need to acknowledge the shift that has occurred in world security and the role that climate change will have on future conflicts, and allow it to inform our international relationships.
 For an overview of historical conflicts related to climate change, see : James R. Lee, “A Brief History of Climate Change and Conflict,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (August 14, 2009).