Scarcity, Climate Change and the Construction of Conflict


-Picture courtesy New York Times

Catherine Clarke

University College London (UCL)

Editor’s Note – Although not explicitly discussing narratives of sustainability, this essay examines the political subversion of climate change discourse from narratives of mitigation and sustainable development to the apolitical rhetoric of military mobilisation. This essay was written in 2014, and as such omits the current humanitarian horrorshow occurring throughout Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, I strongly urge you to examine the climate narratives surrounding these conflicts after reading this piece.


A global discourse has emerged, causally linking climate change with conflict. This discourse is employed by a striking array of actors, from national governments, to UN agencies and the military. It is not limited, however, to these powerful institutions – publications from development NGOs, think tanks, policy reports and the media have all bought into this apocalyptic vision, largely outpacing the findings of academic research. As this discourse gains momentum, it is critical to ask who it serves, what other kinds of violence it conceals and who is most vulnerable to its impacts.

I will look at the logic behind the discourse, arguing that a causal connection between climate change and conflict has not been established. Despite a lack of empirical evidence the discourse persists. Through a deconstruction of the discourse’s use by a range of actors I will consider what implications it may have for vulnerability reduction in the global south and climate change mitigation in the global north. I show how this discourse can absolve powerful actors of responsibility and jeopardise the adaptive capacity[1] of marginalised communities, ultimately decreasing resilience and consolidating inequalities. Concurrently, this discourse deflects attention from the responsibility of powerful actors for mitigation, through the securitisation of climate change. I will suggest that climate conflict narratives are in danger of becoming performative statements – statements that do not reflect reality, but which intervene in it.

 The logic and literature

Rooted in neo-Malthusian logic, climate conflict narratives assume that the effects of climate change (natural disasters, changing rainfall patterns and sea-level rise) will lead to increased scarcity of resources, which will either directly, or indirectly through migration and state destabilisation, lead to violent conflict, as states or communities use force to maintain access to vital resources (Verhoeven 2011). This neo-Malthusian logic has grown out of Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, which posited that: ‘finite resources + high population growth = violent chaos’ (Ibid). This ideology has infiltrated the climate change debate, fuelling fears of the national security implications of ecological collapse (Hartmann 2012; Verhoeven 2011).

Burke’s (2009) study of temperature and conflict finds a correlation between civil war and warmer temperatures in Sub-Saharan Africa (between years 1981-2002). However, Buhaug (2010) contends that African civil wars are better explained ‘by generic structural and contextual conditions: widespread ethno-political exclusion [and] poor national economy’. Indeed, Burke et al do not find the same correlation between temperature and conflict in years since 2002 (Burke 2010; Thiesen 2013). Klomp and Bulte (2013) use cross-country data to analyse weather-conflict models, finding ‘little robust evidence’ linking weather shocks and conflict. Some studies suggest that natural disasters increase the outbreak of conflict (e.g. Nel 2008), contrastingly, Solnit (2009) shows that humanitarian crises lead to international generosity and local solidarity and Slettebak (2012) finds that anti-social or violent behaviour decreases in the aftermath of natural disasters.

This securitisation of climate change has been uncritically disseminated by the media. National newspapers in the UK and US[2] publish sensationalist headlines quoting military officers and reports corroborating these claims. Verhoeven (2014) has highlighted the ‘tautological dynamics’ of this discourse distribution: NGOs, think tanks, the media, policy makers and politicians all promote the same vision, referring to each other to support their views, in what has been termed a ‘vicious knowledge cycle’ (Hartmann 2012).

The climate conflict narrative is contested and increasingly criticised (e.g. Hartmann 2012; Verhoeven 2011,2014; ODI 2014). Verhoeven (2012) is particularly dismissive of the academic literature, arguing that it is ‘dominated by […] crude correlations and simplistic models of social change’. Significantly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s primary source of scientific climate change information, has for the first time included a section on the climate conflict nexus in its Fifth Assessment Report, concluding that ‘there is high agreement that […] the impact of changes in climate on armed conflict is negligible’ (IPCC 2014:772).

The literature is dominated by studies attempting to either establish or disprove a causal connection between climate change and conflict. In the attempt to achieve ‘objectivity’ (ODI), these studies focus on statistical correlations, which generally overlook socio-political drivers of conflict. This simplification of the climate conflict relationship encourages an apolitical interpretation of conflict, obscuring the ways in which political processes create and intensify vulnerabilities. Adaptive capacities between and within communities vary enormously, and although climate change may contribute to conflict by exacerbating existing inequalities and social tensions, it is highly improbable that it will be the primary cause of conflict (GSDRC 2015). As such, a one-dimensional causal relationship is untenable; indeed, such a relationship has not been established. This highlights the usefulness of a political ecology approach to the climate conflict debate, one which places the operations of power at the centre of analysis.

Discourse analysis

The term discourse can be defined as ‘a particular way of talking about and understanding the world (or an aspect of the world)’ (Jorgensen 2002). Foucault has established that the key to understanding the dynamics of a society lies in an exploration of how taken-for-granted notions are formed through discourse (Foucault 1970; Robbins 2012). Discourses do not neutrally reflect social relations, but actively shape society (Foucault 1970), thus entwining the material and the discursive. As Jorgensen (2002) explains, ‘different social understandings of the world lead to different social actions’. A discourse analysis lens is instrumental, therefore, in exploring the performative aspects of the climate conflict discourse, that is, how this discourse produces social realities.

Through his study of risk in Caracas, Rebotier (2012) sets out an integrative framework, called the ‘territorialization of risk’, which accounts for the material aspects of risk and the performative[3] dimensions of its discourses. He shows that discourses create their own outcomes with the potential effect of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (Marino 2012). Identifying a risk (i.e. the risk of climate-induced conflict) is always political; it can be used to enforce political choices, public policies, and to defend particular interests (Rebotier 2012:394). The climate conflict discourse is a global risk narrative which defines our understanding of the crisis and limits the range of solutions.  As such, it has the potential to consolidate inequalities, increase vulnerabilities and impede mitigation efforts.

By overwriting socio-political drivers of conflict, the climate conflict discourse depoliticises vulnerability, legitimises state violence and consolidates inequalities. In this sense it is an apolitical explanatory device, a myth that simplifies cause-consequence relationships (Lambin 2001). However, more than reflecting power relations, it is active in sustaining the socio-political environment in which they flourish. The climate conflict discourse conceals the socio-environmental causes of conflict. This de-socialization of meaning bypasses the root of the problem, ‘reifying’ the risk (Rebotier 2012) and increasing vulnerability.

Securitisation of Climate Change

“Climate change will require more deployment of British military in conflict prevention, conflict resolution or responding to increased humanitarian requirements due to extreme weather impacts.”
Rear Admiral Morisetti (former British Navy officer)

British and US military and defence departments are key proponents of the climate conflict discourse. Implicit in the above statement, is the assumption that the impacts of climate change will lead to more conflict overseas, which will require military intervention. Security policy increasingly encourages impingements on ‘civilian territory’ through the militarisation of development assistance and humanitarian aid (Hartmann 2012). However, it also focuses on counterinsurgency, or military operations other than war, i.e. ‘the containment of refugee flows, suppression of hungry urban mobs’ (Parenti 2011). The climate conflict discourse creates a pretext for invasion and for the militarisation of development aid. By claiming that climate change will lead to conflict, the military guarantee themselves the central role of global arbiter, increasing the likelihood of conflict, or ‘reifying’ the risk. As Parenti writes, ‘preparing too diligently for war may preclude peace’.

The United States Department of Defense (USDoD) predict that climate change will act as a ‘threat multiplier’, enabling ‘terrorist activity and other forms of violence’ through the creation of ‘ungoverned spaces’ (USDoD 2014). As Hartmann has pointed out, these ‘ungoverned spaces’, generally are governed, just not by groups favourable to US interests (Hartmann 2012). Such naming is deliberately deceptive and plays on public fears of terrorism to legitimise counterinsurgency and territorialisation. Given the USA’s imposing military capacity, it is unsurprising that defence and military officials have adopted climate conflict rhetoric. Indeed, these powerful military interests depend on war, and therefore promote it (Parenti 2011:13). In this way, the climate conflict discourse is a form of propaganda. As the discourse is employed by an increasing array of actors across multiple platforms, its logic begins to seem intuitive, its dystopian vision accepted as fait accompli. Powerful actors can, therefore, evoke climate change conflict, with scant evidence, by appealing to the ‘common sense’ of the public.

Is the climate conflict discourse preparing us psychologically for fiercer corporate colonialism, securing increasingly ‘scarce’ resources for the wealthy? Klein (2014) writes that ‘arable land in Africa will continue to be seized to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations’. Parenti (2011) sketches out a similar vision in the Tropic of Chaos, as does Carmody (2011) in The New Scramble for Africa. This discourse is the upgraded version of the global scarcity narrative, which acts to disguise and legitimise deliberate violence and consolidate global inequalities.

Implications for Mitigation

The economically powerful monopolize not only the meaning of environmental change, but also the extent of its damage. At the recent Climate Change Conference in Lima (December 2014), Ban Ki-moon urged delegates for collective action to match common responsibilities as the window for mitigation is ‘fast narrowing’[4]. However, as fears that we will miss the target to cap global warming at 2°C above pre-industrial times mount[5] the climate conflict discourse risks further diminishing our chances of mitigation.

CNA[6] has warned of increased geopolitical tensions as arctic ice melts into oil potential, elevating the ‘risk status’ of climate change to ‘conflict catalyst’ (CNA 2014). As Rebotier (2012) has outlined, the identification of risk can be used to enforce and defend particular interests. As a global risk narrative, the climate conflict discourse defines our understanding of the crisis and limits the range of solutions. It encourages the prioritisation of national security and the securing of profits over transformative acts of mitigation, sustainable development and adaptation – it shifts state attention inward, emphasising the need to protect national security from interstate war and an imagined tide of violent climate refugees. The securitisation of climate change deflects attention from the responsibility of powerful actors for mitigation. The active role of the global north becomes protecting national security not mitigation, giving a central role to the Pentagon and the MoD in defining climate action.


Climate conflict narratives can act to decrease resilience in the global south and undermine mitigation efforts, ultimately creating a more unstable world in which socio-political tensions that contribute to conflict are exacerbated. Climate conflict narratives are thus performative statements – statements that do not reflect reality, but which intervene in it (Burke 2014). The prediction of climate change leading to ‘increased UK deployment in conflict overseas’ is therefore not a warning of anticipated conflict, based on empirical evidence, but a construction of conflict.


Those set to gain from the climate conflict discourse, as we have seen, are those who claim ownership over it, underlining the necessity to interrogate the validity of hegemonic discourses. It is noteworthy that while governments are stalling, the military is mobilising (Klein 2014). The continual failure of the economically powerful to commit to legally binding emissions reductions, coupled with the climate conflict discourse, plays directly into the hands of the military and defence industries – those set to gain from climate change – at the expense of low lying states and areas most vulnerable to rainfall variations. To put it another way, the climate conflict discourse deflects global attention from the polluting and ecologically destructive actions of economically powerful countries, to how the global south are somehow failing to cope with the effects of climate change – inconveniencing the global north with displaced people, failed states and food and energy insecurity.

The focus on an external and imagined conflict veils real violence backed by powerful actors in the name of climate change. Kenyan forest guards were recently ordered to clear the Embobut Forest, home to the Sengwer hunter gatherers. These people were violently evicted from their lands, their homes burned down, to make way for a carbon offsetting project funded by the World Bank. This is just one example of many instances of violence occurring throughout the global south in the name of climate change. More precisely, in the name of attempts to marry a deregulated economy with climate change mitigation. This real violence is unfairly eclipsed, and perhaps legitimised, by the climate conflict discourse.


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[1] Adaptive capacity is defined as ‘the ability of a system to evolve to accommodate shocks or stresses’ (ODI 2010).

[2] For example – PROPER HEADLINES Guardian, Independent, Financial Times, Telegraph
US: NY Times, Washington Post (REF)

[3] Performativity is understood here as establishing social facts through the identification of risk.


[5] The World Bank has warned that we are on track for a calamitous 4°C increase by the end of the century (Klein 2014).

[6] A US government-funded think-tank.


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