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A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  released what has been deemed as “the bleakest warning yet”, in relation to the current state of our planet (Guardian 2022). We have often learnt that the wars of the 20th century were the product of mad autocrats, dangerous ideologies, or the long-term effects of the failed colonial experiment. The past few weeks have confirmed that the 21st century, despite all its modernization and westernization of societies, and even with the unimaginable danger of nuclear weapons as a supposed deterrent, has yet to see an end to armed conflict. The new wars of the 21st century, whether economic or military, have increasingly positioned natural resources, such as coal, gas or oil, as well as access to them, at the centre of the conflict. In the face of a rapidly changing climate, it is crucial that we begin to assess energy-security concerns within a broader climate-conflict nexus.

First, let us briefly outline two broad environmental economic approaches in relation to the discussion of the climate-conflict nexus here. The neo-Malthusian interpretation would suggest that from a position of environmental determinism, natural resource related conflicts are the inevitable result of population growth, resulting in an increased strain on domestic security concerns (Kahl 2018). Such an interpretation must, nonetheless, be contested by a more critical neo-classical approach, in which it is not just the scarcity, but the actual abundance of certain natural resources that precede the outbreak of conflict (Koren 2018). In this instance, distinct attention must be paid to local political structures that continue to inform decision making behind the management of such resources. 

Figure 1: Western leaders blackmailed by OPEC during 1973 oil crisis” 1973 Cartoon by Behrendt on the oil crisis 
Source: CVCE

Policymaking in the west must face up to the increasingly alarming parallels between energy-security, associated with the access to natural resources for consumption (IEA 2022), and the risk of armed conflict. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, around 40% of all interstate conflicts, over the last 60 years, have been related to natural resources, and the risk of conflict is doubled in the first five years (UNEP 2013). In the western world, energy-security concerns are generally manifested within the economic realm of sanctions or embargoes. However, in much of the developing global south, the harsh reality is that inter-communal and inter-state competition over resources has taken place in the form of violent conflict (UNEP 2013). To reduce the risk of emerging energy-security concerns becoming conflict threats, the west must transition towards more sustainable and alternative renewable energy systems in the medium and long-term, alongside diversifying more immediate short term energy requirements (Forbes 2022). History has taught us that major global energy transitions have often emerged from conflicts, such as the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo. The latter resulted in new legislation for more efficiently run trucks and cars, a large reduction in oil as fuel in the electricity power sector, and new research into oil and natural gas alternatives (Forbes 2022). 

Figure 2: An oil refinery behind residential buildings in Omsk, Russia
Source: Alexey Malgavko, Reuters

Global energy-security concerns are of crucial significance in the context of global climate change, and the war in Ukraine should serve as a wake-up call for a more accelerated transition towards green energy, and departure from a dependence on fossil fuels. The current conflict has highlighted how fossil fuels can be used as both political and economic weapons of war, as demonstrated by the fact that Europe relies on Russia for 40% of its natural gas supply, or even America´s reliance on globally stable oil markets (Forbes 2022). Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine´s lead climate scientist, who alongside her team was forced to exit the final review process of the aforementioned IPCC report, and instead head to a bomb shelter, believes the war is “a fossil fuel war” (Guardian 2022; Politico 2019). However, former energy advisor to Obama´s administration, Jonathon Elkind, has argued that “It´s a crude oversimplification to call this a fossil fuel war” (Guardian 2022), whilst still recognizing the significance of global oil and gas resources in the outbreak of the war. 

Though the conflict in Ukraine may not explicitly be a conflict over resources, the control over natural resources is increasingly at the forefront of contemporary geopolitical struggles, and climate change is serving as the invisible catalyst.

As argued by environmental correspondent Fiona Harvey, “Kremlin strategists are therefore keenly aware that in the longer term the global move to net zero threatens the whole basis of Russia’s economy and global influence.” (Guardian 2022). Climate change is forcing an extensive global change in energy systems. Russia, as a major global energy player, will surely be concerned about influencing such transitions, when considering that 40% of its federal budget is from oil and gas, comprising 60% of exports (Carnegie Europe 2022; DW 2022). 

Whilst armed conflict over resources seems to be a growing threat in the west, in many regions of the global south, it has long been a growing reality, especially in the regions that are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In 2007, Ban Ki-Moon, then UN Secretary-General, referred to the Darfur crisis and ongoing drought in Sudan as an ecological crisis and the “first climate change conflict” (Ki-Moon 2007). Such discourses often represent the relationship between climate change and conflict as one of direct causality. Contrary to a neo-Malthusian approach building on Homer-Dixon´s emphasis on environmental scarcity (Homer-Dixon 2010), it is not so much rainfall quantity but rather its unpredictability and uncertainty that has led to conflict in the region (Biasutti 2019). The same has occurred across the broader Sahelian Acacia Savanna, from Darfur to the Mopti River delta in Mali, where the early arrival of ethno-Arabic pastoralist herders on the land of ethno-African agriculturalist farmers, has resulted in violent conflict over recent years (Hiernaux, et al 2009). 

Reinforcing a neo-classical approach, the conflict also serves to remind us that, on a political level, weakened traditional political structures have also resulted in increased inter-communal conflict. In this instance, Dogon farmers have often found themselves backed by state policies through international funding, whilst Fulani herding communities have been left neglected, which in turn has resulted in heavy recruitment from emerging Islamist groups such as the Al Qaeda affiliated Macina Liberation Front MLF (Benjaminsen 2019; Raineri 2020).

Figure 3: A herder guarding his cattle
Source: African Center for Strategic Studies 2021

Long-standing cultural and political struggles may well be the most significant factors in the emergence of conflict in the Mopti river delta. Climate change, nonetheless, is indirectly accelerating the dynamics of these tense interactions through providing an added, and increasingly damaging pressure on the local farmer-herder environment and their resources. As with its growing influence on changing global energy-security struggles, relating to the conflict in Ukraine, climate change must be understood as an indirect, yet an incredibly significant player in the emergence of conflict in the Mopti region. Late last year the infamous Russian paramilitary organization, Wagner, entered Mali´s Mopti region, with the support of Russian armed forces (CSIS 2022). The provision of mineral and financial concessions in exchange for PMC (private military company) protection for a coup-proof regime is the exchange (CSIS 2022). The link between Russian PMC´s and access to rich natural resources is further evidenced by both the reported presence of Wagner associated geologists in the region, and PMC protection for Russian companies involved in mining activities in the region (CSIS 2022; Aljazeera 2021). 

If Russia´s invasion of Ukraine was a mean to further protect its energy-security concerns, through hoarding mineral and agricultural resources from Ukraine´s vast depository, this certainly resembles an already existing and more global trend. Russia should certainly not be singled out here. The United States, in particular, has long been waging warfare, both directly, and through proxy states, in asserting its own global energy dominance. Energy-security concerns have never been far from armed conflict, and climate change is increasingly narrowing the proximity of that relationship. 


Sources:

  • The Guardian, Carnegie Europe, DW, IEA, Politico, UNEP, Forbes, Aljazeera, CSIS, Africa Center, CVCE
  • Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. Environment, scarcity, and violence. Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Biasutti, Michela. “Rainfall trends in the African Sahel: Characteristics, processes, and
  • causes.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 10.4 (2019).
  • Benjaminsen, Tor A., and Boubacar Ba. “Why do pastoralists in Mali join jihadist groups? A
  • political ecological explanation.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 46.1 (2019): 1-20.
  • Hiernaux, Pierre, et al. “Woody plant population dynamics in response to climate changes from
  • 1984 to 2006 in Sahel (Gourma, Mali).” Journal of Hydrology 375.1-2 (2009): 103-113.
  • Raineri, Luca. “Sahel Climate Conflicts? When (fighting) climate change fuels terrorism”
  • European Union Institute for Security Studies, December 2020.

Francis Braddell-Dawson

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