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17 December 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 5:07pm

Another reason for the West to get serious about climate change – foreign conflicts

Few would claim that climate change is the only cause of conflicts in Syria or elsewhere, but it’s widely considered to be a "threat multiplier".

By Caroline Lucas

The outcome of the climate summit in Paris is much disputed. For some it’s the “world’s greatest diplomatic success”, for others it’s a “disaster for the world’s most vulnerable”. My own view is that the deal is a step in the right direction, but without a roadmap for actions, it risks failing to achieve its noble aims. It’s now down to national governments to fulfil a promise to this generation to keep our climate stable – and it’s down to citizens to keep applying the pressure the keep them on track.  

And that promise isn’t just about protecting people from floods, droughts and extreme weather events. It’s also about preventing conflict.

In recent months those who link climate change to war have risked ridicule. Whether it be targeting Bernie Sanders or criticising Charlotte Church, parts of the press have jumped upon any suggestion that the conflict in Syria has some of its roots in climate change.

Of course, the people who probably know most about the causes of conflict are those who regularly engage in it. Earlier this year, the US Defence Department sent a report to Congress warning that, “global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries”.

Similarly, a report published earlier this year by the Climate Council and co-authored by Chris Barrie, former chief of the Australian Defence Force, found that the effects of climate change, “will limit the availability of food and water, undermine human health and devastate infrastructure and economies. This, in turn, could exacerbate existing tensions, increase societal instability, drive large-scale migration and be a trigger for violent conflict”.

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Few would claim that climate change is the only cause of conflicts in Syria or elsewhere, but to use the military jargon, its widely considered to be a “threat multiplier”

In Syria specifically, severe drought in the north was a key driver of mass southerly migration resulting in overcrowding and poverty in the cities. With the link between exclusion and increased militancy well-documented, John Kerry as US Secretary of State said, “the devastating drought clearly made a bad situation a lot worse”.

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Climate change threatens us both directly and indirectly. Tellingly, Britain’s own recent Defence Review put “major natural hazards” alongside “terrorism” and “international military conflict” as a “Tier One” threat – but all three challenges are likely to be worsened because of climate change.

Anyone who looks at the climate science shouldn’t need reminding of the imperative to act quickly – and the mounting evidence of the national security risks of climate change should add further impetus to calls for rapid action. But the government here in the UK seems to have taken its eye off the ball entirely. When we should be building a zero-carbon economy and keeping fossil fuels in the ground, ministers are cutting support to renewables and carving up the countryside in pursuit of shale gas.

The Paris climate deal must be a springboard for the change of direction we need. The security of Britain is at stake. Anything short of urgency at this stage would be an utter dereliction of duty.