As the climate change debate looms over the world an important aspect many have not considered is the effect of climate change on Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG). The link between climate change and NSAG’s is not simple and linear by any means. Climate change and it’s increasing impact does not directly lead to instability and regional fragility. However, climate change does act as a threat multiplier that interacts and converges with existing factors. The likelihood of a collapse or increased fragility is then increased. States prone to fragility and conflict such as the middle east are particularly susceptible to the added pressures climate change adds. Even established seemingly stable states are susceptible to the pressures exerted by climate change. Population growth, urbanization, environmental degradation, pressures from climate change, and rising socio-economic factors can make a seemingly stable state become less stable as well.

NSAG’s are not a new phenomenon by any means. In the modern age we can observe a variety of complex violent actors with a range of hybrid organizational structures, agendas, and different methods of engaging with society than NSAG’s of the past. As the climate changes the way that NSAG’s operate change as well. Climate change can contribute to the rise and breeding of NSAG’s. A direct link between climate change and NSAG related violence and conflict is not implied however. Large scale climate change contributes to creating an environment and breeding ground in which NSAG’s can thrive however.

There are 2 main mechanisms that climate change facilitates the rise and growth of NSAG’s. The first way is contributing to conflict surrounding natural resources and livelihood security. In areas in which the state has little to no authority NSAG’s can easily proliferate and operate. NSAG’s can even appear legitimate to the people in these “ungoverned spaces” by offering and supplying basic services in the absence of government to gain the trust of the local population. The second way is that climate change has an effect on the livelihoods of those dependent on natural resources. Not only is the native population directly affected by climate change itself; the native population is also prone to recruitment by NSAG’s. These NSAG’s can provide alternative livelihoods to those who have none left due to climate change. When left with no alternatives one is often willing to go to extreme lengths to provide for their family. Furthermore, when NSAG’s gain control of natural resources they gain power as the scarcer resources become; the more powerful those who control them become.

A prime example of the second mechanism in action is the effect climate change has on coral reefs. Coral reefs are very susceptible to small changes in temperature. Coral reef bleaching is a known phenomenon currently occurring in the world today. In 2005 a massive bleaching event resulted in a loss of almost half the US coral reefs in the Caribbean. Coral reefs in Hawaii and most notably the Great Barrier Reef in Australia are bleaching as well. In 2016 the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies recorded the worst on record bleaching event of the Great Barrier Reef. In the most affected northern regions approximately 67% of corals died while near the central sections approximately 6% perished. In February, March, and April of 2016 the reef experienced the hottest sea surface temperatures on record, at least 1 degree Celsius higher than the monthly average. Millions of people in Australia are directly affected by bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and millions more indirectly affected across the globe. Tourism from the Great Barrier Reef is an approximate $4-5 billion dollar industry and employs an estimated 70,000 people. [1] Of the 911 reefs ARC studied in 2016 only 7% (68 reefs) escaped bleaching. [1] Millions of lives around the globe depend on the Great Barrier Reef alone, and if global bleaching of coral reefs continues to occur potential hundreds of millions across the globe will be affected.

Governments are directly involved in the affairs of climate change and the management of NSAG’s. Extreme climate changes in particular can strain the social fabric and relationship between a government and it’s people. A prompt and adequate government response in the face of such circumstances can strengthen the bond between government and people. However, a slow or ineffective response are more likely to weaken the social fabric and lead to a downward spiral of instability and unrest in which NSAG’s can thrive. States and politics tend to frame NSAG’s primarily in the context of the war on terrorism. But states are becoming faced with NSAG’s that blur the lines between intra- and interstate war, between traditional and non-traditional conflict settings, between ideological, political and economic interests, and between armed conflict and crime. [2] Climate change and other pressures all create an environment that is highly conducive to the rise of NSAG’s. Social, economic, political, and ideological factors all remain important, yet climate change cannot be overlooked. Over narrowing NSAG’s and simply labeling them as “violent extremism” is not adequate as such a definition risks ignoring other sources of fragility, delegitimizing political grievances and stigmatizing communities as potential extremists” [Crisis Group 2016].

Climate Diplomacy lists a 5 point outline which could be used as a guide when determining new policy. I find these outlines quite reasonable and believe that with the right policies in effect they could be used to alleviate some of the pressures climate change presents on unstable regions.

  1. Ensuring the climate and conflict-sensitivity of interventions will be key to making sure that interventions are less prone to failure, and are able to realize synergies and co-benefits. At present, like many peace building activities, interventions and strategies to counter violent extremism largely do not take climate change into account.
  2. Promoting good governance and strengthening local institutions may not traditionally fall under climate change adaptation programming, but such activities are priorities in reducing the risk that climate change presents to the rise and growth of NSAG’s, as well as being a core component of adaptation and peace building writ large.
  3. Creating sustainable livelihoods is both important to adapting to climate change and to preventing the rise and growth of NSAG’s. Peace building, climate change adaptation and development impacts could be achieved by focusing on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and fisheries, and taking specific account of the risks and opportunities associated with youth bulges and migration.
  4.  Improving disaster risk reduction can help to break the mutually reinforcing relationship between fragility and disasters and prevent NSAG’s abusing the weakness of the state. If underpinned by a plan and political willingness, disasters and crises can also be used as opportunities to increase resilience and not only rebuild better but also to increase legitimacy and even build peace.
  5. Climate change and other risks and challenges, including NSAG’s, often converge in cities. Resilient cities are at the heart of resilient states and societies. It is important that the whole range of interventions including climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, humanitarian aid, peace building and conflict prevention put a stronger focus on cities affected by fragility and conflict.

An important topic to go over is the characteristics and types of NSAG’s resulting from the end of the Cold War. Mary Kaldor in her book are  New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era describes a new type of armed conflict and non-conventional armed violence dominated conflict settings post-Cold War era. This new type of conflict is often referred to as “new wars.” New wars have several defining characteristics, shifts, and changes. Since 2004 the number of NSAG’s involved in civil conflicts has increased fourtold [McQuinn and Olivia 2014].

  • A shift from regular armed forces to non-state actors, illicit networks, paramilitaries, and warlords.
  • A change of motives from geopolitical to identity politics.
  • A shift of methods to asymmetric warfare.
  • The emergence of new war economics including illicit activities, smuggling, and human trafficking instead of state finance.

The definition of NSAG’s in the past was largely confined to organized groups partaking in international or intra-state conflict. However, more recent definitions go further than the traditional definition. More recent definitions define NSAG’s as “groups that challenge the state’s monopoly of power and it’s capacity to control violence throughout its territory” [Small Arms Survey 2013], thus covering the broader spectrum of actors both with and without the intention to take over political power and induce political change. NSAG’s are generally perceived as challengers without any kind of formal responsibility and are not part of any state structures. Contrasting NSAG’s to state actors like governments that are tasked with maintaining peace, security, and providing public goods. NSAG’s are also implied not to adhere to international humanitarian law, such as the Geneva Conventions or the Hague Conventions.

The NSAG’s of today are increasingly operating in non-conflict and non-war settings. This “unconventional” armed violence includes violence that is not captured by the terms “armed conflict” or “post conflict,” and doesn’t violate international human rights law. A non-conflict setting is a broad concept that describes scenairos in which armed violence has become an epidemic and includes threats such as transnational organized crime, gang violence, domestic violence, gender-based violence, and terrorism. Some prime examples would be the mafia in Italy, above-average levels of violence and homicide in South Africa, and illicit weapons in Mexico and the Philippines [Small Arms Survey 2013].

NSAG’s span a wide variety and range of actors. They each operate on different levels whether inside or outside of formal armed conflict and include youth and street gangs, criminal groups and organized crime along with highly professionalized terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab, or other militias providing community security. Another key set of characteristics are that they often have networked structures, rely on civilian control to achieve their goals, and engage in illicit trade and acts of terrorism. The hybridity of agendas ends up manifesting itself in the blending of violence and crime, inter and intrastate conflict, terrorism, and cross-border crimes. As a result, the distinctions between political motivations and organized crimes and gangs has become blurred. The hybrid motivations also lead to NSAG’s becoming engaged in provisions of public services and goods including security to build legitimacy and to establish rapport with the local population.

Screenshot (1)
Characteristics of Notable NSAG’s

A 2015 report “A New Climate for Peace” [Rüttinger et al. 2015] commissioned by the G7 Foreign Ministries identified 7 compound climate-fragility risks that pose serious threats to the stability of states and societies.

Screenshot (4)
7 Compound Risks

A majority of these risks are intricately interconnected and linked to food, water, energy security, natural resources, and ecosystems. This means they are not isolated from each other and are affected by the same pressures such as climate change, increasing population and resource demand, mismanagement of resources, and environmental degradation. The defining characteristics and difference between the 7 compound risks is how the pressures interact and what fragile situations they can create. Local natural resource competition and conflict and livelihood insecurity are primarily at the localized level, but they can have significant regional or national knock-on effects such as migration. Where these compound risks pass a threshold, they can destabilize countries and regions. screenshot-6.png

Boko Haram and Climate Change

The Lake Chad region that includes Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon is a focal point for many stresses to converge. The region is prone to pressure as a result of the dangerous mix of unemployment, depleting resources, economic hardship, and violent conflict. The region has also been hit hard by climate change such as severe droughts causing a massive shrinking of Lake Chad; the main source of livelihood for millions of those in the lake regions. As a result of resource scarcity, livelihood insecurity has flared tensions between pastoralists, farmers, and fishers. The combination of extreme poverty, economic instability, drought, and environmental degradation provide a fertile ground for NSAG’s such as Boko Haram to thrive and contest state authority. The lack of opportunity makes young people very vulnerable to recruitment by NSAG’s and illicit employment, feeding into armed conflict, contributing to large-sclae terror group violence, and mass migration. As Boko Haram has spread across the region, the already fragile situation has become even tenser.

The Lake Chad Basin has a rapidly growing population of approximately 38 million from a variety of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Human development indices are among the lowest in the world, youthful age structure [almost 50% of Nigerians are under 15], and population growth rates at about 3% create intense demographic pressures. Screenshot_9

Poverty rates have gotten increasingly worse from about 55% in 2004 to 61% in 2010. On the Nigerian region around Lake Chad literacy rates are about 30%. The surrounding region is heavily agriculture based or related which is very sensitive to climate change. Low labor productivity, large-scale informal employment, lack of innovative private investment, and poor infrastructure makes the Lake Chad region very unstable and poor in terms of economic growth. Screenshot_10

The violent conflict of the Chad Basin including civil war and rebellions have been deeply rooted in ethnic conflict and religious divisions. Nigeria is considered to be relatively stable, but Niger, Cameroon, and Chad are still under authoritarian rule or transitioning to a democratic rule. All 4 countries contain rampant corruption. All 4 countries have also been ranked on the OECD’s list of fragile states in 2015. The economic fragility only contributes to the instability of the region. The increasing risk of Boko Haram attacks has increased commodity prices in northern Nigeria as many farmers and supply traders fear for their safety. Agriculture has also decreased yield in general as Boko Haram is using the wetlands for shelter.

The Chad Basin is very vulnerable to climate change and the effects can already be seen today. Since the 1970’s the number of rainy days in north-eastern Nigeria has decreased by 53% and southward desertification of the Sahara of 1-10km per year is reducing arable land [Odjugo 2014]. Lake Chad has been the primary source of irrigation and freshwater for livestock and other agrarian livelihoods providing for about 30 million people along the shores of Lake Chad. As the population living in the lake’s catchment area doubled between 1960 and 1990, human water demand rose rapidly. Variations in water levels between rainy and dry seasons have always occurred naturally [Brown and Crawford 2008]. Over the past 50 years however, a combination of water over-use, shifting climate patterns, increasing temperatures, and unreliable rainfall has caused the lake surface to shrink by 90%. According to UNEP 2008, about 50% of the decrease can be attributed to climate change, and the other half is caused by human activity such as dam construction or irrigation [Ovie and Emma 2012]. If the rate of shrinking continues, the lake could completely be dried up within the next 20 years.

Now, onto an overview of Boko Haram. Boko Haram was founded in 2002, and in 2009 launched an insurgency against the Nigerian government. The insurgency spread to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. Since then, Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people and is responsible for the displacement of approximately 2 million or more. Boko Haram is thought to have control over 18 local governments in Nigeria alone with a total size equal to Belgium. Screenshot_11


Boko Haram evolved from poorly planned attacks into attacks with strategic and sophisticated actions. The people attracted to Boko Haram were poor and unemployed people who were disgruntled with the state and the provision of meals, arrangement of marriages, and loans for commercial activity. As the group changed in 2009 the recruitment tactics changed as well. Boko Haram began to use coercion, monetary incentives, family pressure, and kidnapping.

Many conflicts among farmers and pastoralists have already occurred and taken the lives of hundreds. The government has been inadequate at solving these conflicts. Corruption and the inability to respond to violent outbursts has led to a steep decline in trust in the government. It is difficult to find direct links between conflicts around natural resources and Boko Haram violence. However, these conflicts contribute to instability overall creating more regions for Boko Haram to gather support, commit violent acts, and engage in criminal activity. With the factors of diffuse, daily violence from cattle rustling and vigilantism, and inadequate government intervention has caused many communities to support Boko Haram in the hopes that government change would occur [ICG 2016].

The combination of economic, environmental, and socio economic problems all converge to create a hot bed of illicit activity. NSAG’s such as Boko Haram can thrive and recruit in regions such as this. Many inhabitants of these regions are often living in poverty and are malnourished. In the face of the lack of livelihood, scarce resources, and other factors Boko Haram can offer tempting alternative livelihoods to those suffering under these conditions. The drying of Lake Chad will displace tens of millions in the Basin leading to massive instability and fragility in the region, and will also present ripe opportunity for Boko Haram to recruit and thrive. The looming threat of climate change will only serve to multiply these factors and create even more fragility for Boko Haram and other NSAG’s to thrive. West African politicians have also voiced their concerns with climate change. Niger’s defense minister MKahamadou Karidjo explained that dwindling water resources make people more prone to extremism. Boko Haram has also started using natural resources as a weapon by poisoning water supplies showing that Boko Haram and other NSAG’s will use natural resources as weapons and have already done so. This simply strengthens the fact that those who control scarce natural resources gain more power.Screenshot_13

ISIS and Climate Change

After a string of uprisings in the Middle East and promises of the Arab Spring, protests that were initially peaceful erupted into civil war. According to the UNRWA the 5 years of conflict in Syria had rolled socio-economic indices back by approximately 35 years. Although the initial outbreaks are a result of a repressive and corrupt regime, climate change can also be blamed due to the eroding of social contract. Water scarcity played a role in the events leading up to the civil war and even now affects the parties involved and the strategic choices of those parties. The combination of violence, devastation, and fragility of the region all provided fertile grounds for jihadi extremists who benefit from both resource scarcity and livelihood insecurity.

The effects of the Syrian conflict have been catastrophic. 5 years into the conflict approximately 6% of the population has been killed or wounded and over 10 million displaced. More than 80% of the population is living in poverty, and the cost of the war has been about $202 Billion USD. According to the Fund For Peace, Syria had the second most critical deterioration behind Libya. The economy was very agriculture based contributing to 15% of the workforce and about 25% of the GDP, but was heavily reliant on subsidies for fertilizers, seeds, and fuel.

Climate predictions for the regions future are grim as well. Increasing temperatures, drier winters, and more events of droughts are all in the forecast. 10 of the 12 driest winters of the region have occurred during the last 20 years according to NOAA [Hoering et al. 2012]. The average rainfall has been at record lows during the past 3 decades. Droughts have always been a factor in Syria, but the frequency and intensity has increased since the 1990’s. Some studies have shown that anthropogenic influences have made the occurrence of severe droughts 2 to 3 times more likely than natural variability [Kelley et al 2015]. Climate change analysis of the Mediterranean region show an average increase of summer temperatures by 0.5-0.9 degrees Celsius per decade, 50-60 additional warm days by 2100, and a decrease of annual rainfall by up to 25% in the 2060’s [Akesson and Falk 2015].

The roots of the Syrian uprising can be traced to 2010 when a group of school boys were tortured by secret police in Dara’a. Initial peaceful protests sparked as a result of the regime not addressing the basic needs of the drought-stricken population against corruption and repressive officials. The regime brutally repressed the protests and resulted in the movement being militarized and spread around the region. Eventually full fledged conflict broke out between the state and armed groups. The fragility and lack of control by the state facilitated the rise of the Islamic State. The fragility is linked to ethno-religious grievances, decades of brutal political repression, economic discontent and the cutting of subsidies to basic commodities, environmental degradation, mismanagement of natural resources, resulting loss of livelihoods, and massive rural to urban migration. Screenshot_14

ISIS has installed governance structures including military, security and intelligence councils, and controls and manages the education system, humanitarian aid, and water and power systems [Stanford 2016].

Syria is not naturally water scarce. However, rapid population growth and years of resource mismanagement have stressed the countries water system. Water use exceeded natural capacity and was further heightened by the countriesuse of crops such as cotton and wheat which are water intensive. In 2007 Syria’s water situation was already looking grim; then the worst long-term drought on historical record hit the region. In the northern regions over 1 million people depend on this rain and people lost up to 85% of their livestock. The subsidy cuts of 2008/9 and lack of social safety nets made coping with the situation almost impossible. The regime downplayed the drought, and failed to provide economic measures to alleviate the impact of the drought and respond to the humanitarian crisis. Screenshot_15

Now, to explain why people join extremist groups we need to take into account individual decision making processes (micro level) and the context in which the decision takes place (macro level). The fragile political state of Syria was most definitely a key factor in facilitating the rise of ISIS, but is not the only variable. Climate change must also be looked at in influencing people’s decisions.

Livelihood insecurity and water scarcity were important factors in creating fertile breeding grounds for ISIS. Ideological factors and the lack of response by the state made getting recruits easy picking for ISIS in local regions. ISIS control in 2014-2016 was greatest in the northeastern region that was most affected by the drought. The lack of clean water, resources, and economic opportunity made recruitment easy for ISIS due to populations feeling neglected by the state. A recent study by International Alert found that the main drivers of vulnerability of Syrians to recruitment by extremist groups include a “lack of economic opportunity, disruptive social context and experiences of violence, displacement, trauma and loss” and lack of education and opportunity [Aubrey et al. 2016]. ISIS pays its fighters an estimated $400 USD per month which is about 5 times the normal wage for the region.

Water has also been used as a strategic weapon in the conflict. The different actors in the Syrian conflict have rerouted and directed water to weaken forces on both sides. Although many actors use water tactics, ISIS uses it the most often. ISIS would often take control of dams and diver the water where it was beneficial for them and away from those who opposed them. The water not only provided a strategic advantage to ISIS, but also provided economic benefits as the water could be taxed. ISIS has also allegedly poisoned water in Iraq with crude oil. Screenshot_16

Although the link is hard to establish, one can see how climate change will affect the region more as time goes on. By 2100 the region will be even more fragile and prone to climate change, and as early as 2060 climate change will impact the region significantly. Longer dry seasons and higher temperatures will definitely have a negative effect that will continue to allow NSAG’s to breed, establish, and maintain holds over populations. Vulnerability and fragility is a combination of multiple effects, and climate change cannot be excluded.

To conclude, we see that we cannot exclude climate change when discussing NSAG’s. Climate change multiplies the effects that lead to instability and fragility in regions. Screenshot_17

Looking at climate change we see a complex interplay of factors that intertwine with other actors in regions. As the effects of climate change become worse as time goes on the already fragile regions become even more fragile. In general, climate change will make it increasingly difficult for fragile states to provide basic services for their population and lead to a deterioration of social contract. Slow and inadequate responses by government lead to unrest and a breeding ground for NSAG’s to thrive. Climate change is just one factor among many which breed NSAG’s and instability. Other important drivers of fragility include ineffective responses by state security forces, a lack of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, a lack of government legitimacy, marginalization, religion, identity, and endemic corruption. Screenshot_18

Action must be taken to break the vicious cycle of climate change and instability. However, policy makers must first understand the hybrid and complex natures of new NSAG’s. Policy makers must create strong, stable states that are well equipped to handle the effects of climate change and maintain the social contract. Many current acts to reduce violence and conflict fail to take climate change and environmental degradation into account. Policy makers must create stable industries, strengthen local and government institutions, manage natural resources more carefully, build better infrastructure, combat climate change and create sustainable livelihoods in areas prone to fragility. NSAG’s use a lack of these factors to gain legitimacy and ground in areas. The solution is not clear or simple, but neither is the problem. I hope I have shown a new side of the danger climate change presents not before considered to those reading this.


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