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Climate Change and the Future of Mass Atrocities

By Daniel Solomon

A girl is going to collect safe drinking water in a flash flooded village in the northern part of Bangladesh. July 15, 2017. Aminul Sawon / Alamy Stock Photo

Recent events around the world have increased interest in the intersection between global climate change and mass atrocities. In Sudan, for example, the combination of renewed civil war and extreme weather events have done significant damage to agricultural livelihoods, especially in already-vulnerable areas such as North Darfur. In Yemen, water scarcity has created new flashpoints for violence amid a broader context of civil conflict. Climate change may have dramatic, if uncertain, effects on mass-atrocity risks in the near future.

Last October, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide convened two virtual sessions of the Sudikoff Interdisciplinary Seminar on Genocide Prevention to discuss how climate change may influence mass atrocities. The first session centered on untangling how climate trends might contribute to mass atrocity risks; the second, on the risks and opportunities that global climate response—in particular, climate mitigation and adaptation efforts—might influence the future trajectory of mass atrocities. During the sessions, scholars, policy makers, and civil society practitioners in countries at high risk of mass atrocities discussed recent developments and ways forward for research and the practice of atrocity prevention.

Read the rapporteur’s report and background paper from last year’s Sudikoff Interdisciplinary Seminar on climate change and mass atrocities.

During the first session, participants explored how climate change contributes to mass-atrocity risk factors—enabling conditions that increase the overall likelihood of mass atrocities in a country. The discussion centered on two key factors: exclusionary ideologies and large-scale conflict or instability, to which climate change may contribute in both separate and intersecting ways. Participants observed that climate change may worsen exclusionary ideologies by hardening grievances against particular identity groups; at the same time, they noted that climate-induced migration may lead to changes in how people identify and classify specific communities. Climate change may also contribute to conflict in similar ways, either by increasing competition over resources or by creating new opportunities for leaders to encourage violence against marginalized groups, such as migrant communities.

During the second session, participants suggested that international efforts to address climate change should seek to mitigate risk factors for mass atrocities. They cited programs to promote land-tenure rights as a promising avenue for both encouraging adaptation to climate trends and promoting cooperation with marginalized groups that might otherwise be vulnerable to systematic violence. Multiple participants also suggested that programs should address communities, including women, that are vulnerable to climate change or conflict in multiple, overlapping ways. 

The discussion highlighted some important questions meriting additional research and debate. One topic that provoked significant discussion among participants was how the concept of “climate security,” or the effect of climate change on conflict and political instability, relates to the intersection between climate change and atrocity prevention. Additionally, policy makers expressed interest in additional research about how climate adaptation programs might also aid in atrocity prevention goals such as promoting intergroup cooperation. Participants agreed that the effects of both climate change and climate response will differ across countries, in ways that require further clarification for both research and policy practice. We hope to take up each of these themes in the Simon-Skjodt Center’s future research and policy work, both on this blog and in other domains.

In the face of global environmental change, both the risks and opportunities that climate change and climate action present for atrocity prevention demand more attention from scholars, policy makers, and other practitioners. In keeping with our mission to catalyze global action to help prevent mass atrocities, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide plans to draw greater attention to these issues in our work, both globally and in our work on specific countries experiencing significant mass atrocity risks.

Daniel Solomon is a research associate with the Simon-Skjodt Center.