Climate Change: What is installed for our future?



Across the world there is a rise in the frequency of climatic anomalies with potentially disastrous consequences. Besides direct ecological impact of climate change there are political and social consequences of equal impact. Scientific evidence asserts that the earth is warming at an unprecedented rate largely owing to human activity. Long-term changes in climate that have already set in ― such as the rise in sea level, droughts of growing intensity and longer duration, increasingly intense tropical storms, frequent heat waves and heavy precipitation ― are projected to continue. The likely consequences of these changes and of the environmental degradation associated with them are grave. These in turn may increase a range of risks to human security, including the risk of deadly conflict.

Globally, there is a rise in the number of “environmental refugees”, namely those who, as a result of soil erosion, desertification, water shortages or rise in sea level, face such desperate living conditions cannot continue to live in their homes. Also, many flee, at least temporarily, from weather-related catastrophes such as droughts, floods and devastating storms. Given the anticipated population growth of the developing world from the current 6 billion to pass 9 billion by 2050, the number of environmental refugees, currently estimated at 25 million per year, will probably continue to rise (Pittock 2009). Refugees will seek other places to live such as the emerging mega-cities of developing countries or the overpopulated but still fertile regions of their own or neighbouring countries. Alternatively, they will try to reach the rich industrialised countries. This situation has serious potential for conflict. Christian Aid (2007) claims that an estimated one billion people will be forced to leave their homes between now and 2050, destabilising whole regions with increasingly desperate populations competing for dwindling supplies of food and water (Hansen et al. 2010). Along the same lines, Homer-Dixon (2007), a reputed scholar in environmental conflict, argues that ‘climate change will help produce…insurgencies, genocide, guerrilla attacks, gang warfare, and global terrorism.’

The relationship between climate change and conflict, however, is complex and insufficiently understood. This is in part because climate projections are somewhat limited in geographic and temporal specificity, and the ability of societies to adapt to climate changes and related effects varies with society because the process that leads to violent conflict in any given situation is generally complicated. Although environmental change most probably was never, and is highly unlikely to be, the sole or proximate cause of deadly conflict, it can contribute to conditions that decide its severity.

The research of Binningsbø et al. (2007) who examined environmental pressure in 150 countries from 1961 to 1999 shows minimal connection between climate change and conflict. Using an internationally recognized technique to measure the environmental sustainability of a country ― the Ecological Footprint ― they compared these numbers with statistics on armed conflict during the same period. Their conclusion are seemingly paradoxical: lands where resources were heavily exploited show a strong correlation to a lack of armed conflict. This could be because the rate of exploitation of natural resources in nations troubled by war was low during the period of study. Such conclusions provide ammunition to those seeking to de-link environmental scarcity and violent conflict.

However, the issue of correlation between climate change and armed conflict is characterized by two aspects that have been largely ignored in the debate on the subject. Firstly, many activities contributing to global warming, were publicly acknowledged only in the past fifteen years, with a remarkable decline in the frequency and severity of armed conflict. While oversimplified comparisons will not provide the basis to decide on the possibility of current and future links, opposing trends nonetheless deserve note. Secondly, the empirical foundation for a general relationship between resource scarcity and armed conflict is at best indicative, and many questions on the proposed causal association remain unanswered. While several single-case analyses have suggested that resource scarcity contributes to the outbreak of organized violence, there has also been interaction with exogenous conflict-promoting factors. Statistical literature appears to have failed to converge on any significant and robust association between resource scarcity and civil war.

A question worth exploring concerns the main causes for climate anomalies? Marxist understanding of the subject is worth exploring as it draws attention to how the emergence of capitalism and the combination of global capitalism and free markets have accelerated environmental degradation. Foster (1999), among and others, has argued that the pace of commodification and extraction of raw materials under conditions of capitalist expansion and the great distances over which raw materials, food resources and waste are transported in the ever-expanding circuits of capitalist economic organization, human interchange with the natural environment under capitalism results in serious disruption of natural ecosystems systems and bio-geochemical cycles.

Foster (2016) points out that capitalism to survive as a system must expand continually, in its ceaseless search for new natural sources, cheaper labour and, above all, new markets. He argues that the system, by its very nature, must grow and expand until it eventually confronts the reality of the finite nature of natural resources so that the expansionist strategy results in inevitable winners and losers, with strong implications for global social and environmental justice. It is in view of such prospect that it is necessary to take a broader view of climate change.


The most commonly discussed scenarios are that resource scarcity due to climate change prompting violent conflict, and migration induced by resource scarcity leading to conflict in target region. Several scholars (Nordas and Gleditsch 2007; Barnett and Adger 2007; Raleigh and Urdal 2007) link these discussions to existing research on the causes of conflict, particularly the “greed or grievance” debate. They argue that if conflict is primarily motivated by resource-abundance (or greed) as opposed to scarcity, then water or arable land shortages prompted by climate change are of minimal concern to conflict prevention analysts. Despite critique of the “greed or grievance” debate in recent studies, environmental conflict research does not give it prominence.

Since the end of the Cold War, armed conflicts have steadily fallen in number and so has the accompanying causality rate. Nevertheless, war and armed conflict remain the most serious challenges for development policy as armed confrontation impedes development. The risk of armed conflict in poor countries is twice as high as elsewhere. Promoting development in countries affected by internal armed conflict is among the hardest development policy tasks, so that conflict has direct bearing on development. Many analysts argue that encouraging development will reduce armed conflicts. But, as argued by many, if climate change plays a role in creating and aggravating conflict, then development will, at least indirectly, be affected by climate change which poses a serious challenge to social and economic development. Developing countries are most vulnerable as their economies generally depend strongly on climate-sensitive natural resources while they are less able to cope with the impact of climate change. The path of development thus has implications for climate change and its impact on the vulnerability of societies.

Bridging the gap between climate change and development is not easy. Scant attention has been paid to ways of making development more resilient to the impact of climate change. In a narrow engineering sense, this would involve taking climate change into account in the siting and design of structures and infrastructure. At policy level, it would involve addressing implications of climate change for development activities including poverty reduction, sectoral development, and natural resource management.

Climate is closely intertwined with development. For climate is a resource in itself and affects the productivity of critical resources, such as crops and livestock, forests, fisheries and water. Natural climate fluctuations such as the El Niño phenomenon cause severe disruption of harnessing of resources and social survival. But, most importantly, human development choices as a whole have had a demonstrable impact on local and global climate patterns. Over-construction has led to the formation of urban “heat islands”; deforestation and changes in land use affect regional temperature and rainfall patterns; and increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations caused by industrial activity has been a key contributor to global climate change.

Besides natural climate variability, long- and short-term trends in climate change have already had a discernible impact on development. A prime example comprises the link between rising temperatures in the Himalayas leading to glacier retreat and the accompanying risk of catastrophic glacial lake outburst flooding. Many development activities, from setting up of hydropower to rural development and settlement, will need to adapt to such impact. Even where there is no immediate impact, possible scenarios of future impact will urge ensuring that adaptation responses are built into planning, one reason being that it is cost-effective to implement adaptation measures early, particularly for long-life infrastructure. Another is that current development activities may irreversibly affect future adaptation to the impact of climate change. Examples include destruction of coastal mangroves and the building of human settlements in areas that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. In such instances, near-term policies will need to consider long-term implications of climate change.
The general dialogue on adapting to a world affected by climate change by definition excludes the world’s poorest people and most of them belong to developing countries. And yet it is the world’s poorest who are often put forward as the ones who are most likely to suffer the impact of climate change and least likely to be able to deal with them. Thus climate change and its effects become more important to developing countries than to developed countries. Nearly 40% of the world’s population or just under 3 billion — survive on less than $2 a day. None of them is likely to exchange an automobile for a far more expensive greener model or to install photovoltaic solar panels atop their roof, for such exercises are neither affordable nor priority.

Comparing the average annual per capita carbon footprints of rich and poor countries is revealing: The average American’s annual carbon footprint ― 20.4 tons ― is around 2,000 times that of someone living in land-locked Chad in Central Africa. And the average daily carbon dioxide emission of Britain is as much as the annual per capita average for Kenya (De Soysa 2002a). Overall, the UN estimates that the carbon footprint of the world’s poorest one billion (those living on less than $1 a day) represents just 3% of the global total. Between 1990 and 1998, more than 94% of the world’s biggest natural disasters (and there were 568 of them) occurred in the developing world, according to Oxfam. One reason is that 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas, relying on the land to make a living (Pittock 2009).

One way to link climate and conflict is to extrapolate existing temporal trends. The earth is already warmer, even as patterns of conflict have changed considerably. Yet, the linkage between climate and conflict is neither linear nor isolated. The very “zones of peace” that distinguish the developed world are also “zones of pollution”. Industrialization ― the consensus culprit in global warming ― is arguably the major determinant of democratization and economic development, which in turn have close links to inter-state peace. Democracies seldom fight each other, and the democratic community has been credited with making the world less warlike. Developed states cluster together peacefully, while at the same time projecting force to distant places. Since indirect effects of global warming on conflict are more substantial than the direct effects, the overall impact of climate change would be to reduce the incidents of interstate conflict.

More now refer to this phenomenon as “environmental injustice,” and it has rankled those who see climate change as a “rich nations’ problem.” Several recent studies suggest that the impact of rising temperatures on agriculture will be far worse for developing countries, which are mostly located closer to the equator, than for high-income countries located in temperate regions.

Climate change once had relatively low priority in the policy agendas of most developing countries, partly because of the priority for economic development and poverty reduction. Although the views of developing countries on climate change have changed, they are divergent. Low-lying, small island developing states (SIDS) or countries with vast floodplains (like Bangladesh) view their situation from the perspective of a potential victim of rising sea level. Developing countries with large populations are subject to external pressure to curb their total Green House Gas (GHG) emissions which, despite relatively low per capita emission, comprise a significant component of global emissions.

The diversity in the way countries see global warming and climate change is more than matched by that among different interest groups in each country, ranging from unawareness or scepticism to serious concern and voluntary action. Interest groups frame their views of climate change based on their own perceived costs and benefits of action or inaction. Research is needed in the region to make reluctant groups conscious of the real costs and benefits, particularly where actions are guided by wrong assumptions, and to identify effective policy interventions that will alter their assessment of costs and benefits.

Given the differences in the understanding of and response to climate change among individuals, groups and governments of developing countries, let us examine what kind of policy analysis might lead to a better understanding of the way decision makers are responding and prevailing upon them to respond more proactively in the near future. A helpful approach to understanding what underlie the climate change debate and policy responses will to be to study how various interest groups interact in their respective political settings (Koubi 2005). Evidence of environmental policy decisions in several developed countries suggests that an amalgam of group interests and general social welfare maximisation will decide the outcome.


Climate change manifests itself as temperature increases, changes in precipitation, rise in sea level, and more intense natural hazards such as storms, floods, droughts, and landslides (IPCC 2007). A major implication of global warming is greater scarcity and variability of renewable resources in many parts of the world (IPCC 2001, 2007). With concern rising about such effects of climate change, some scholars, commonly referred to as neo-Malthusians, posit that climate change is a security threat. For instance, Homer-Dixon (1999) suggested that environmental scarcity is at least in part responsible for some recent conflicts.

Arguments of the above kind imply that impaired access to renewable resources increases frustration among affected individuals and social groups. Such frustration, in turn, creates grievances against the state, to weaken the state and civil society, and increase opportunity to instigate insurrection. Building on this hypothesis, neo-Malthusian arguments focus on two interrelated processes that could exacerbate resource scarcity and competition for means for livelihood. Firstly, rise in temperature, precipitation anomalies and extreme weather aggravate processes of resource degradation that are already under way (Homer-Dixon 1999; Kahl 2006). Secondly, climate change implications, such as extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels, force people to migrate. Such migration, in turn, can lead to greater pressure on resources in destination areas and to increased resource competition there (Barnett 2003; Homer-Dixon 1999; Reuveny 2007).

Scholars referred to as cornucopian or resource optimists dismiss this pessimistic view. While acknowledging the likely negative impact of environmental degradation on human wellbeing, they argue that humans can adapt to resource scarcity through market mechanisms pricing mainly, technological innovation, and other means (Lomborg 2001; Simon 1998). Simon notes that, while population growth can lead to shortages or increased economic burdens in the short run, the ability of society to respond to such circumstances by advances in technology and efficiency usually outstrips the constraints imposed by an increasing population.

The neo-Malthusian argument has also been criticized for being overly deterministic, and ignoring important economic and socio-political factors (Buhaug et al. 2008; Barnett and Adger 2007; De Soysa 2002b; Gleditsch 1998; Salehyan 2008). Critics have argued that scarcity of renewable resources is just one factor in the overall relationship between climate change and conflict. Buhaug et al. argue that “climate change may increase the risk of armed conflict only under specific conditions and in interaction with several socio-political factors, and reject the theory that climate change has a direct effect on the prospect of conflict. They point to several causal pathways by which economic and political instability, social fragmentation, and migration could strengthen the prospect of climate change leading to armed conflict.

Zhang et al. (2007) hypothesize that climate change influences conflict by its impact on agricultural productivity and conclude that changes in average temperature strongly correlate with changes in agricultural production and the frequency of wars. Several studies have sought to explain conflict using environmental degradation― water scarcity, soil erosion, land degradation and such factors that are likely to hurt human activity, economic development and the political system in particular. There are other studies that suggest that poor economic conditions could increase the chances of intra- and inter-state conflict (Fearon and Laitin 2003, Collier and Hoeffler 2002, 2004), and that such conflict may in turn increase the probability of recessions and affect economic growth (Schaffer 2007; Blomberg et al. 2006; Koubi 2005). This two-directional effect could create a poverty-conflict trap. Miguel et al. (2004), for example, in a study of 41 African countries in 1981–1999, offers evidence that negative deviations in annual precipitation (an instrumental variable for economic growth) substantially reduces national economic growth and thereby indirectly increases the probability of intra-state conflict. Hence it will be important to not merely identify theoretically the exact pathway by which climate change would influence civil conflict but also to align the empirical analysis closely to the theoretical arguments.

There is a much literature on security and climate change, particularly by authors who take a broad view of ‘human security’ including sustainable livelihood, food security etc. There is a general consensus that climate change poses a serious threat to human security. This literature is relevant only if it specifically links increased human insecurity to increase in outbreaks of violent conflict. Some of the popular literature on climate change emphasises the threat to international security. The suggested scenario is that increased global competition for resources will lead to more international tension, which could spark violent, inter-state conflict. At the time of this query, no academic research was found that supported this view. The popular literature frequently refers to an important link between climate change and violent conflict. But when it comes to academic articles or reports, or even web pages, climate change and conflict are seldom mentioned in the same sentence. Moreover, the link is rarely substantiated by convincing evidence (Nordas and Gleditsch 2007). Thus there is a case for caution in seeking links between climate change and conflict. Much of the literature on environmentally driven conflicts is more theoretical than empirical, and motivated by Northern political and strategic interests rather than by research informed by solid empirical data. This in part explains the long-standing problem in finding meaningful evidence of the determinants of violent conflict and war at international and sub-national levels (Barnett 2003).

Marxist Perspective on Climate Change

On a planet that is being slowly poisoned by the economic system under which it is run, transforming energy sources is the single biggest item that demands change, which needs to be put in place rapidly. Most scientists agree that CO2 emissions need to be reduced by up to 80 or 90% globally by 2050 to avoid serious irreversible climate change. The fact that the entire economy runs on essentially three fuel substances ― oil, coal and natural gas ― which are most responsible for global warming poses capitalism with an effectively insurmountable problem.
Karl Marx, introduced the notion of ‘social metabolism’ (or socio-ecological metabolism), defining the labour process as the metabolic relation between humans and nature, thus providing an ecological perspective that underpinned his entire critique of political economy. A similar concept of metabolic relations underlies the concept of ecosystem as developed by early twentieth-century system ecologists. Given this historical background, it should not be surprising that Marx’s approach to social metabolism and his concept of metabolic rift (or ecological crisis) are becoming increasingly central to the political-economic critique of the alienation of nature under capitalism, constituting the single most important legacy of social science in this realm.

Frederick Engels, in his ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man’ declares “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.”

Capitalism in its highest form is creating havoc. One outcome of the present phase of globalization of capital and the spectre of global food shortages is the ongoing massive land grab. Private capital and government sovereign wealth funds (state-managed investment funds, often under the control of a central bank) are striving to gain control of vast areas of fertile land across the world to produce food and biofuel feedstock crops for their home markets. It is estimated that some 30 million hectares of land (approximately two-thirds of the arable land in Europe), much of it in Africa, has been recently acquired or is in the process of acquisition by foreign countries and international corporations. This global land seizure (even by “legal” means) comprises part of the larger history of imperialism.

Another outcome is that, multinational corporations scour the world for resources and opportunities wherever they find them, to exploit cheap labour, lax environmental regulations and tax benefits offered by poor countries desperate for foreign investment. All of them reinforce, rather than reduce, divisions between the wealthy countries and poor countries. The result is a more rapacious global exploitation of nature and increased differentials of wealth and power. Such global corporations know no loyalty to anything but raising their profit levels. Despite rapid income growth in some countries, primarily in Asia, inequality between the poorest and richest countries of the world persists and has deepened for much of the world.

It is noteworthy to look at Marx’s arguments for metabolic rift. The concept of metabolic rift is rooted in Marx’s theory of alienation: the estrangement of human beings from themselves as producers, from their production process and products, from fellow human beings and from their being as human species. This metabolic rift is a concrete expression of human estrangement from the material conditions of life and from nature. Marxian dialectics provided the only scientific approach that would recognize the ecological problem as simultaneously economic and ecological, and rooted in the capitalist mode of production. No other approach has had the capacity to integrate a natural-scientific and social-scientific critique that can inform our practice in the Anthropocene.

Marx maintained that capitalism generated an unhealthy circulation of matter from urban industry and industrial agriculture, which damaged the reproductive capabilities of both human labour power and the land (Foster and Burkett 2016). Whereas Marx saw that humans’ pre-industrial interaction with nature enabled harmonious and sustainable production, capitalism failed to sustain the social relations or the conditions for the recycling of nutrients back to the soil. Thus was born the metabolic rift. Today, the rift has grown both in scale and complexity, to the point where economic activities of the human society cause unprecedented environmental change. Thus Marx’s theory on metabolic rift helps us to scientifically understand the notion of climate change.

The Case of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has entered a new phase following the end of the thirty years long civil war. Post-war Sri Lanka has several new dimensions to it. The new setting poses enormous challenges. The destruction caused by the civil war in the economic, social and cultural spheres have torn Sri Lankan society into pieces. Sri Lanka in the past decade has felt the impacts of climate change.

Being a small island nation, Sri Lanka falls into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and IPCC’s category of ‘vulnerable’ small island nations under serious threat from various climate change impacts, such as sea level rise and severe floods and droughts. Sea level rise and related scenarios will have major impacts on the coastal zone of the country. Around 40% of the country’s population lives in coastal areas. However, Sri Lanka’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are negligible compared to those of other developed or larger developing countries. This means that its potential for contributing to the mitigation of global GHG emission is minimal. Analysis has shown that the maximum and minimum temperatures in all metrological stations in Sri Lanka have clearly been increasing, with the highest increase of minimum temperature being about 2.0°C at Nuwara Eliya. Rainfall data reveals that the variability has been increasing in the past in most parts of the island resulting in water scarcities in the dry zone of Sri Lanka. All above have the potential to create conflicts in future in Sri Lanka.

Post-war Sri Lanka now engaged in full scale development. Climate change poses a serious challenge to social and economic development. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable because their economies generally depend more on climate-sensitive natural resources, and because they are less able to cope with the impacts of climate change. How development occurs has implications, in turn, for climate change and for the vulnerability of societies to its impact. Bridging the gap between climate change and development is not easy. Very little attention has been paid to making development more resilient to the impact of climate change (Gartzke and Rohner 2009). In a narrow engineering sense, this would involve taking climate changes into account in the siting and design of roads, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure. At policy level, it would involve considering the implications of climate change for various development activities including poverty reduction, sector wise development, and natural resource management. Climate is closely intertwined with development since climate is a resource in itself and affects the productivity of other critical resources, such as crops and livestock, forests, fisheries and water resources. Natural fluctuations in climate such the El Niño phenomenon cause widespread disruption in society’s ability to harness resources and even to survive (Raleigh and Udal 2007). But human development choices also have a demonstrable impact on local and global climate patterns. Over-construction contributes to the formation of urban “heat islands”; deforestation and changes in land use can influence regional temperature and rainfall patterns; and increases in greenhouse gas concentrations as a result of industrial activity are responsible for global climate change.

Very little research has been done on climate anomalies affecting Sri Lanka. Notable studies include Yamane (2004), Munasinghe (2008), and Eriyagama and Smakhtin (2007). But all of them have looked at specific aspects of climate change such as agriculture, irrigation and water resources. But very little research has been done on the climate change ― development ― conflict nexus.


All the factors discussed above bring into question whether climate change marks the onset of armed conflict. Scholars have argued for and against the prospect. Much of the debate has been, in a way, between statically proven data and politico, socio and economic analysis. To put it simply, it has been a battle between quantitative and qualitative data. Is there a middle ground in this whole gamut of research done on the field of inter linkages between climate change and conflict? Understanding the connection between the two in order to rethink the conflict–development nexus from the perspective of climate change is key. There is no clear link between climate change and conflict, although there is clear link between conflict and development. Then the question of the link between climate change and development remains alongside the question of the impact of development on climate change and conflict. Underlying the studies of all of them has been a liberal reading of development.

Capitalism with the help of neoliberal policies and globalization is plundering the earth and its resources, but the liberal thinking which dominates academic discourse works on the assumption that capitalism is capable of resolving the problem of climate change. The truth is that capitalism has no solution to the environmental problems facing humanity and the planet. International treaties to arrest deterioration of global climate within the confines of capitalism are doomed to fail, as evident from the fruitless outcomes of the series of UN sponsored climate change conferences, the reason being that capitalism, besides its inability to solve the problem, lies at the root and heart of the problem.


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