Does Environmental Stress Make Conflict More Likely?

Climate Change

There is a growing consensus that the link between environmental stress and social conflict is real. Scientists believe human actions made the drought in Syria twice as severe, and have had major effects on the ongoing conflict there. Human-caused drought may also be playing a role in Venezuela as well. Both countries are going through economic collapse and, in the former, an all-out civil war.

Drought and Economic Collapse

It’s long been known that there is a strong connection between environmental well-being and human well-being. Quite simply, a cleaner, well-functioning ecosystem means more natural resources to go around, which enriches all of us.


Severe droughts and social conflict are linked | image: Hery Zo Rakotondramanana/Flickr

The flip side is that an environment in poor shape creates less resources, which means more poverty, and, often, conflict over those limited (but vital) resources like water and food. Climate change is having a direct impact on global water supplies, which affects agriculture and human health. This was the case in Syria, where a three-year-long drought connected to climate change led to crop failures in the countryside. This, in turn, led to a migration of people from the countryside into the cities, where increased demand on limited resources led to tensions. Eventually, this became a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. While there are obviously other complex factors in play, such as a repressive dictatorial regime and young population, the drought certainly did not help.

A similar story is taking place in Venezuela, which is going through one of the worst economic crisis in recent history, one that is also connected to a severe drought. There, the economy is collapsing before our eyes. Drought is crippling the country’s hydroelectric power potential, devastating crops, and leading to a breakdown in public services. Massive food shortages are creating a potential human catastrophe.

Climate Change and Destabilization


Climate change protection is a human rights issue | image: Michael Gwyther-Jones/Flickr

These droughts made the existing social tensions in Syria and Venezuela worse, pointing a grim future, where droughts, floods, and other extreme events are already expected to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change. Analysts believe that countries with weak institutions and high inequality are more prone to destabilization due to environmental stressors, but they also argue that is it not a simple, causal relationship as both the environment and social conflicts are incredibly complex.

This is further proof that the cost of climate change is far greater than we previously predicted. The economic and social costs of the Syrian Civil War are huge, with the refugee crisis that is engulfing the Middle East and Europe quickly becoming a humanitarian disaster.

Climate change is the common thread between these events, and there is a justified fear that it could make more countries susceptible to the types of economic destabilization and conflict that we’re seeing in Venezuela and Syria.

Climate change is complex, and so is conflict, but there is an undeniable connection between environmental stress and the potential for conflict, especially in weak, corrupt, and unequal states. Scarcity, such as drought, which amplified resource constraints in Venezuela and Syria, only magnifies existing social tensions, and in many cases makes them worse.

We need to recognize that climate change has impacts beyond our environment. When we factor in the huge cost of war, migration, and economic crises, it becomes a no-brainer. We must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions today, or we’ll pay a far greater cost in the future.

Nithin is an eecosphere Impact Mill and freelance writer who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries with an aim at building channels of communication and collaboration around common challenges. He alternates between a home in California and working on social projects in Africa and Asia.