Climate Change Conflict in COP 20

Steven Pinker (2011) empirically demonstrated a long-term decline of violence in the international system through his democratic peace theory. Currently, the bleak scenarios poised by climate change discourse like “water wars” and “climate refugees” seek to alter such trend, yet such terms are seldom used at COP 20. Conflict terminology in IPCC Assessment Reports (AR) has grown by 267% in 7 years between AR4 and AR5, yet surprisingly COP 20 has not covered this substantially increasing link. After attending several events at COP 20, only two events covered the climate-conflict link at COP 20.


  • “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Climate Change and Human Mobility”
  • “A New Security Agenda: Safeguarding Water, Energy, Food and Health Security in a Changing Climate”


It is no surprise that conflct triggered by climate change has been poorly covered at COP 20. The climate-conflict nexus is salient in Chapter 12 on Human Security in the IPCC AR5, albeit it is poorly conveyed. The contradictions regarding the climate-conflict nexus in the AR5 are product of the integration of politics and science in the IPCC methodology. The report effectively summarizes peer-reviewed published literature to argue, “collectively the research does not conclude that there is a strong positive relationship between warming and armed conflict” (IPCC, 2014:772). Yet subsequently it argues how risk factors of war such as low per capita income and inconsistent political institutions are sensitive to climate change citing Hsiang et al’s (2013) meta-analysis of the literature. Considering that AR5 is the key climate change reference for decision makers, it is by no surprise that at COP 20 the Climate-Conflict link has been omitted.
The press briefing on climate and human mobility accentuated the salient issue this link is. In particular, the flux of population growth in the south exponentially increased vulnerability to cliamte induced events. According to UNHCR there have been 22 million disaster related displacement in 2013 highly concentrated developing countries, in particular Southeast Asia and South Asia. The trend has quadrupled since the 1970s making climate change a key driver of human mobility in the 21st Century. Furthermore, a new security agenda is being launched for the Amazon in response to its key role in safeguarding the water-energy-food nexus for Latin America. Critiques might argue that the conflict is not causally linked to climate change yet both panels at COP 20 have demonstrated that it is system relations and synergies that trigger conflict – water scarcity, land grabbing, or displacement to name a few.


The human security chapter in the AR5 does not have one consistent argument regarding the link between climate and conflict. It starts by pointing to research suggesting that “major changes in weather patterns coincided with the collapse of ancient and powerful civilization such as the Khmer and Maya, yet acknowledges that historical antecedents are not directly transferable to the contemporary globalized world” (AR5, 2014:772). Inherent in such discourse is a blind faith in the capabilities of science, governments, and markets to solve complex issues like climate change that perpetuates a Promethean myopia. One could argue that unlike the present, ancient civilization were unaware of the consequences of their unsustainable behavior, yet it is complacent to assume that technology in the era of globalization is not a double-edged sword. In their respective epoch each civilization was at the peak of technological and economic development and collapsed nevertheless.


In sum, the climate-conflict nexus is poorly conveyed by the AR5 because it does not follow a consistent argument, displaying a tug-o-war between science and politics which has translated to discourse at COP 20. By expanding on the climate-conflict dichotomy to discuss the negative externalities of climate policies and increased climate vulnerability due to conflict the IPCC acknowledges that the debate is a multidirectional and multifaceted issue that spans differing temporal and spatial scales with complex interwoven externalities. This acknowledgement has seldom appeared at COP 20 except in a few events as listed previously. Stakeholders must acknowledge that science is not an all-purpose panacea, it is ill equipped to address the cultural and moral implications of climate change. The risk of conflict will increase with climate change; studies and COP negotiations should thereby focus towards the future and consider outliers under the auspice of the Precautionary Principle.



  • Gledtisch, N.P. & Nordas, R., Conflicting messages? The IPCC on conflict and human security. Political Geography (2014),
  • IPCC, WG2, Fifth Assessment Report, 2014, Chapter 12, “Human Security.”
  • Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature. Viking Books: New York