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Over the past few years a number of studies have warned about the links between climate change and violent conflict. While the precise causal connections are not yet well-defined, it is likely that famine, flooding, and displacement will spur increasing conflict and war as the 21st century unfolds. This is a serious concern. Already the conflict in Darfur has been labelled as the world’s first climate-change conflict, and many more will probably follow.

But I can’t help but wonder if this analysis misses the point. What if we look at it from a different angle, and think of climate change itself as a form of violence, as a kind of war being waged upon human habitats and livelihoods? How does this change our conclusions? What does this mean for responsibility, justice and the rule of law? Do we have the institutions we need to help us respond to this crisis?

If climate change is a form of violence, the victims are relatively easy to identify. According to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, the global South is significantly more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change than the global North, in pretty much every dimension.

Why is this? For one, climate change is causing patterns of rainfall to shift north, increasing the risk of drought in the global South. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in Africa, “by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% in some regions, agricultural production, including access to food, may be severely compromised.” By 2040, the growing period in Africa could be reduced by 20%, and Indian crop yields are predicted to decline by up to 9%, too. By 2080, agricultural production across the global South could be 21% lower than it is today — while demand for food continues to rise. As calorie availability diminishes around the world, hunger is predicted to worsen significantly, increasing up to 20% by 2050.

This October 23, 2015, 06:00 UTC Eumetsat satellite image shows category 5 Hurricane Patricia, off the Pacific coast of Mexico. (AFP / Handout – Eumetsat)
This October 23, 2015, Eumetsat satellite image shows category 5 Hurricane Patricia, off the Pacific coast of Mexico. (AFP / Handout – Eumetsat)

According to data from the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, developing countries have to bear around 82% of the total costs of climate change, which in 2010 meant $571 billion in losses due to drought, floods, landslides, storms and wildfires. The Monitor predicts that as these costs continue to increase, the share of losses borne by developing countries will also increase — to 92% by 2030. By then, developing countries will suffer losses amounting to $954 billion a year. That is a significant toll.

But it looks even worse when we shift from counting dollars to counting bodies. In 2010 there were 400 000 people killed by climate change, mostly due to hunger and communicable disease. Ninety-eight percent of these deaths occurred in developing countries. By 2030, climate-related deaths in the developing world will have increased to more than 500 000 a year.

Why are we worried about possible future wars induced by climate change when our war on the climate itself is already yielding such casualties?

My students at the London School of Economics often ask whether it is possible to assign responsibility and seek justice for this humanitarian catastrophe. In a way, it is. We know that the West is responsible for the vast majority of historical greenhouse gas emissions. From the start of the Industrial Revolution until today, humans have released a total of 595 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Western economies are responsible for about 70% of this, about half of which comes from the US. These patterns are changing, of course. In terms of annual CO2 emissions, developing countries as a group recently caught up with their richer counterparts — a change for which China is almost exclusively responsible. But if we correct for population size, Western economies remain the biggest polluters by far.

There are other ways that the West is responsible for the climate catastrophe. We know that neoliberal “structural adjustment” reforms and “free trade” deals imposed around the world — largely by the US and Western Europe — have not only reoriented economies toward exports (which require emissions-intensive long-distance transportation), they have also enshrined endless GDP growth at the heart of economic strategy. At the same time, such reforms have prevented states from taking steps to mitigate the climate crisis by, say, spending on green public works or subsidising alternative energies.

Assigning blame is not that difficult. The problem is that we lack the legal framework necessary to achieve justice and prosecute anyone (whether that is states, companies, institutions, or individuals) for perpetrating the violence of climate change, or for blocking progress toward solutions.

In fact, we don’t even have a framework for thinking about such violence. Is it a war crime? Is it a crime against humanity? Is it something else? As a result of this deficit, there are no legal checks on continuing pollution — all we have is a series of non-binding agreements, which are routinely violated to the point of being effectively meaningless. This is the greatest moral hazard of our time. Our ideas about justice are adequate for thinking about the violence of the climate wars that are beginning to erupt, but not adequate for thinking about the violence of climate change, which causes those wars in the first place.

What might a just solution to the climate catastrophe look like? Scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute have devised a fair system for apportioning responsibility for climate change and dividing the costs, based on a metric that accounts for the historical emissions, economic capacities, and poverty burden of each country. The UK would have to cut its emissions by 75% on 1990 levels and transfer $49 billion to developing countries. The US would have to cut emissions by up to 65%, while paying out $634 billion. And so on. These reparations would be used to help developing countries mitigate the costs of climate change, and to fund the transition to a carbon-free future — a necessary first step toward the sort of real climate justice that might genuinely mitigate the chances of violence.


  • Having spent the first half of his life in Swaziland, Jason earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia and now holds a fellowship at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on development, globalisation and labor, with an emphasis on Southern Africa. He lives in constant fear of being sniffed out for his counter-revolutionary penchant for bourgeois wine and jazz. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhickel.


Jason Hickel

Having spent the first half of his life in Swaziland, Jason earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia and now holds a fellowship at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on development,...

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