Cape Town — Africa is the canary in the mine of global security, as climate change threatens to redraw the maps of the continent and the world.
A shift in global climate will reshape coastlines, alter disease prevalence, change where rain falls, and alter where people can find water, grow food and live, says Oli Brown, of the International Institute for Sustainable Development's (IISD). This could force communities and nations into conflict as they struggle to access resources or are forced into "distressed" migration.
"Africa is the first continent to fully feel the effect of climate change on political and economic stability (because of) its history of ethnic, resource and political conflict, and its reliance on climate sensitive sectors like rain fed agriculture", said Brown during a conference this month in Cape Town, which explored the relationship between climate change, resources and migration as a possible source of conflict on the continent.
But he cautioned against the assumption that African communities will automatically fight under conditions of stress. "We've seen around the region and the world that conditions of stress create conflict in some areas but not in others."
In the 1980s, debate around climate change hinged on concerns about environmental degradation. This later evolved into concern over energy and economics as countries began to grapple with how to slow the atmospheric pollution that was driving the problem. But, more recently, the debate has centred on broader concerns around national and regional security as climate change threatens to undermine international peace and stability.
Brown said that climate change should not be seen as a stand-alone problem but rather as one that threatens to amplify existing social and environmental pressures which drive human conflict, including desertification, water scarcity, land degradation and fisheries depletion. These converging crises are expected to reverse development trends across Africa, the continent regarded as one of the most vulnerable to the fallout of climatic shifts.
The elevation of climate change debate on the back of national security concerns is politically motivated, in part because of the need to inject a greater sense of urgency into global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"If environment ministers talk about climate change, it's forgotten. If energy ministers or trade ministers talk about it, it gets a bit of attention. But the people who talk about security issues are prime ministers and presidents," said Brown. "Talking about climate change in security terms raises it to the realm of high politics."
Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, South Africa's Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, agreed that climate change was fast becoming one of the greatest global threats to stability, and that African needed strong early warning systems to help prevent future conflicts.
Given the nature of African conflicts, which permeate across borders, Ebrahim said climate change would aggravate territory and border disputes, migration, food insecurity and water stress.
Shrinking natural resources, combined with climate change, will cause more failed states and mass migration, added Heinrich Boll Foundation co-president, Ralf Fücks, who hosted the event at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town.
Noteworthy conflict zones include Darfur, northern Kenya, and along the Nile River, while distressed migration from the West Africa Sahel was already a point of concern.
Changes in rainfall patterns, along with increased evaporation driven by rising temperatures, will mean some places on the continent will face considerable decline in available water. This, along with increasing demand from a growing population, is a likely flashpoint for conflict. South Africa is expected to run out of available water reserves by 2025 and, under some climate modelling scenarios, the Nile River is expected to lose 20 percent of its water with the next century.
"There has been a huge amount of debate about whether there have been water wars in the past and whether there can be water wars in the future," said Brown.
Meanwhile parts of the Sahel and equatorial East Africa might actually see increased rainfall, although this could be accompanied by increased likelihood of flooding in the east.
Another possible conflict point is food security, where decreases in rainfall and extensive drought periods will slash crop yields in parts of the continent. Some climate models anticipate a decrease in agricultural harvests of as much as half by 2020, amidst growing population demands and rising malnutrition.
"Climate change and the impact of natural disasters, desertification, and changes in agricultural productivity could lead to unregulated population movement," said Brown.
Even though many communities use migration as a way to adapt successfully to climatic variability, increased pressure could see a ten-fold increase in the number of refugees and internally displaced people within the coming decades. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) predicts that some 200 million people around the world may be forced to migrate as climate change amplifies the existing causes of migration, like environmental stress and conflict over resources.
Large-scale distressed migration threatens to put previously separate groups into conflict over the same resources on the African continent. The cumulative effect of climate change, natural disasters, disease and food insecurity will also increase the likelihood of fragile states toppling over and becoming failed states.
While the "securitisation" of climate debate is driven by the need to bring greater urgency into international efforts to stabilise global warming at below the guardrail of 2°C, Brown cautioned that "dire predictions" of climate change bordered on scaremongering. This runs the risk of spreading climate fatigue amongst the public.
"This creates a sense of hopelessness and resignation in the face of an unbeatable challenge," he said.
Meanwhile Deputy Minister Ebrahim reiterated the need to focus on the root causes of conflicts in Africa, rather than just on managing their manifestations at flashpoints around the continent.