In 2007, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon claimed, “Changes in our environment and the resulting upheavals – from droughts to inundated coastal areas to loss of arable lands – are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict.”
Today, we are seeing this in action. A recent World Bank report indicates increased incidents of suicide, violent crimes, civil conflicts, riots, all due to climate change. “For every 1 degree increase in long-term or extreme rainfall, interpersonal violence rises by 4% and inter-group violence by 14%.”
In India, from 1971 to 2000, drought and heat has had a strong effect on all types of crimes, with the effect greatest on property crimes.
The key driver of this link is the reduction in incomes and loss of livelihoods, as a result of extreme weather-related events, such as negative rain shocks, which increase the likelihood of a crime. Other links between climate change and violence are: tactical considerations of armed groups, use of climate shocks by elites to exploit social vulnerabilities and resources and the displacement of people/migration as a result of climate change.
Also, psychological studies show that when subject to hotter temperatures individuals have higher levels of aggression.
The World Bank report alarmingly indicates a non-symmetric relationship between income shocks and crime, or that positive agricultural shocks do not decrease crime. Thus, despite the long-term increase in economic growth, crime has not become less responsive to extreme rainfall. This report beckons policy change given that most of India is experiencing negative effects of temperature on living standards.
As an article on Medium notes graphically, “climate violence is always the result of a collision between acute weather conditions and acute social realities. Poverty, inequality, state neglect, improper planning and abandonment lay the explosives. Extreme weather lights the fuse.”
Moreover, climate literature recognises potential social cohesion that arises within communities at the onset of disasters, as most recently witnessed in the Kerala floods.
Yet, evidence of rioting, exploitation by rebel groups, resource disputes and harm to vulnerable communities as a result of climate change, is increasingly present in India.
A recent case of rioting was noted in Tripura, where increased competition over resources and religious power balances led to violence between migrants and locals. In such cases, the elite use such opportunities to stoke further religious tensions.
Similar violence over land has been reported in Assam, with clashes between migrants and local communities increasing due to population and resource constraints. Rioting is also seen in Delhi due to water stress resulting from monsoon disruptions, erratic weather patterns and aquifer and ground water scarcity. Such violence is predicted to increase as varied rainfall and drought make both rural and urban households more vulnerable.
Local level rioting is predicted to translate in international resource disputes. For instance, Amitav Gosh predicts cross-border tensions over the, “India-Pakistan aquifer or the area surrounding the river Indus,” given that it is the second-most stressed aquifer worldwide.
Violence is already happening in the Brahmaputra-Jamuna floodplain, where local landlords have used private armies to violently bar people from land they occupied. Given that India shares this river source with four regional neighbours, disputes may escalate internationally.
Next, Naxalites are gaining power in ongoing conflicts as a results of climate events. For example, recruitment is easier for rebel groups and government forces during droughts, or when drought is unexpected. Naxalites may also gain support from local civilians, as economic loss means they cooperate with rebels in exchange for livelihoods or food provision.
An increase of 1º Celsius above the average temperature on a given day is associated with approximately 70 additional suicides, on average. Poor agricultural productivity, as a result of climate change, can also lead to social unrest. This was seen at protest in Madhya Pradesh, when police opened fire on farmers demanding debt relief and better crop prices, killing five people.
Before discussing specific cases, it is worth elaborating on the claims made above and in the wider literature. Whilst the operation of specific drivers of violence, as a result of climate risks or natural disasters is debateable, there is consensus that climate chance is a threat multiplier – “It will aggravate already fragile situations and will contribute to more social upheaval, and even violent conflict.”
Climate change can particularly exacerbate the conditions of poor people in fragile states. To this end, risk of conflict posed by climate change not only depends on the climate event or resource scarcity impacts, but on the vulnerability of populations, ecosystems, economies and institutions.
Ultimately, as with other climate impacts, the biggest victims of violence and conflict are vulnerable populations. The most vulnerable households are engaged in agriculture. For example, a recent study finds that suicides amongst Indian farmers increase with temperature.
Similarly, a report by CARE finds that “in most disasters, women and girls are worst affected.” Natural disasters such as bushfires and droughts increase risk of domestic violence in rural regions. This is attributed to negative social and psychological pressures due to loss of agricultural income.
Additionally, women are victims of ongoing climate violence. In the aftermath of climate-induced conflicts, poor social security and lack of legal recognition excludes women from relief provision like credit, insurance, healthcare or employment.
Lastly, women are at risk of physical abuse or harassment due to climate stresses. For example, resource scarcity has led to additional hours and more dangerous and precarious journeys for water or wood collection, adding to their vulnerability.
So, what can be done? Ultimately, tackling climate violence requires addressing climate change at its root cause: reducing carbon emissions. Given that India is the third largest global emitter of CO2, and emissions are growing at a rate faster than USA or China, it plays a big role internationally and domestically to transition to a low-carbon economy. The political mandate increases significantly, given the disproportionate climate impacts faced by India, which are economic and non-economic, such as increased crime, violence and conflict.
Inevitably, reducing carbon emissions needs to be done in tandem with other adaptation strategies. For example, the World Bank recommends, “improved infrastructure, market-oriented reforms, enhanced human capabilities, and a stronger institutional capacity” to respond to climate disasters.
Targeted policies around resource management, disaster mitigation, and migration are required in climate hotspots – or areas most at risk, identified by the World Bank. Moreover, poverty alleviation policies go hand-in-hand with climate policies, as they reduce the vulnerability of groups, like farmers, who are at most risk of violence.