From Climate Change to War

COP22 From Rhetoric to Action

The work of researchers has established that climate change and the monopolisation of resources are factors in the development of armed conflict and terrorist groups. These relatively little-explored connections are relevant in many areas of the world, including Syria, Iraq, Burma and numerous African countries.

A study by NASA found that between 1998 and 2012, drought in the Middle East was ’the worst for nine centuries’. Has this had an impact on the wars and conflicts that have affected the region? Abdullah bin Yehia, Syrian representative to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), thought so in 2008. In a report to the US State Department, released by Wikileaks, he predicted that drought in Syria and the resulting famine and displacement of populations would combine with other factors to create an explosive situation.


In 2007, on the subject of Darfur, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon wrote: ‘almost invariably, we discuss Darfur in a convenient military and political shorthand - an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers. Look to its roots, though, and you discover […] the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change […] Until then, Arab nomadic herders had lived amicably with settled farmers.’ In the same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put the probability that global warming was the result of human activities at above 90 %. The conflict in Darfur, still ongoing nearly ten years after that declaration, has at first sight all the ingredients of an ‘ordinary’ war: Africa, poverty, religious tensions and terrorism perpetrated by groups calling themselves Islamic, in this case the ‘Janjaweed’. Researchers who have explored the causes more deeply, however, point out that discord broke out in areas rich in coveted natural resources, in the context of battles over territory and the involvement of foreign powers, and that populations of different religions or ethnic backgrounds had not previously had trouble living together in peace. Since then, new wars have broken out in Africa and in many countries with predominantly Arab and/or Muslim populations. More groups have emerged and been labelled ‘terrorists’ or ‘jihadists’, the most widely-reported being Islamic State (IS). How and why was this group able to form and expand in the parts of Syria and Iraq where it has had success? A glance at two maps offers the answer: the zones of greatest penetration of IS and its cells correspond exactly with those most affected by drought. In view of this, then, and warned of the risks, why did the US decide to train and arm the Syrian opposition forces?


The United States, along with France, the UK, and many other Western powers, has nurtured alliances with autocratic regimes across ‘the Arab world’. It has done so principally because of the natural resources these countries are blessed with, most notably oil.

Climate change is never the only factor in the outbreak of war. The parts of the globe where Western armies intervene are those that contain the planet’s most important energy resources. The wars are often motivated by the desire to control these resources, and this inadmissible motive is concealed behind a discourse of ‘civilising’ or ‘emancipation’. This is the strategy that helped give birth to Al-Qaida -to Oussama Ben Laden, the presence of Western military bases on the holy lands of Saudi Arabia and in the Middle East was sacrilege – and then to Islamic State.

The dependence of the world’s superpowers on the black gold has led the European Union (EU) to ‘buy oil from Islamic State’, as Jana Hybaskova, EU Ambassador to Iraq, lamented in the European Parliament on September 2nd 2014.

The presence of oil has enabled Algeria and some of the Gulf States to emerge relatively unscathed from the Arab revolts, by engaging in political bribery to purchase social peace. However this strategy can only be successful as long as resources are abundant and the oil crisis continues. In order to feed their populations, the rich Emirates, up to 90 % dependent imports of food, have begun to follow in the footsteps of the Western powers and their multinationals, and seek to control African land.


France’s conquest of Algeria consisted in part of installing populations on fertile land, because after the Franco-Prussian war, France did not have enough wheat to feed its population. The 1962 Evian Accords granted Algeria independence, but also ensured the colonial power retained control of the country’s natural resources, notably its oil. This interference, one of the foundations of the ‘Françafrique’ relationship, still operates today. Although hydraulic fracking is illegal in France, in 2014 the minister for foreign affairs, Laurent Fabius, announced his support for French companies exploring shale gas in other countries using this extremely polluting method. The CEO of Total, Christophe de Margerie, said1 : ‘It is paradoxical to hear a member of the government announcing that France will do fracking tests in Algeria with a view to bringing the technique back to France if it proves to be environmentally acceptable.’ Algerian researcher Hamza Hamouchene denounces this ‘persistent colonialist and racist attitude’.

In the book he edits, ‘North Africa’s Next Revolution: the Fight for Climate Justice’, Hamouchene observes that ‘despite the talk of promoting democracy and human rights that has been used to justify the civilising mission since the end of the colonial period, the French state continues to promote the interests of its ruling classes, imposing its hegemony through the pillaging of resources. Western countries continue to offer their support to dictators and authoritarian regimes if they are prepared to collude in the disempowerment of their own people.’

This politics also informs the approach of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the European and American treaties and the handling of the debt that profoundly destabilises the societies in question. For example, it was the debt strategies of France and the United Kingdom that allowed them to conquer Tunisia and Egypt. The banking institutions are also involved. In 2013, a report by Oxfam denounced the four main French banks, BNP, Crédit Agricole, Société Générale and BPCE, for speculating on famine.


Amzat Boukari-Yabara, African researcher in the history and civilisations of Africa at the French School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) notes that added to the consequences of global warming, ‘the pillage of resources and the monopolising of land deprives communities of their means of survival. The asphyxiation of the economic and food cycles and the depletion of resources is a vicious circle: it allows ‘jihadist’ groups to recruit as well as to finance themselves through the control of cattle and land.’

For the researcher, ‘the modus operandi of all these groups –including Boko Haram, the terrorist organisation that caused the largest number of deaths in the world in 2014– is entirely compatible with unfettered capitalism.’ In this sense, these groups ‘do not offer an alternative model to capitalism.’ They adapt to it, and ‘the multinationals are not at all inconvenienced by their presence.’ Le Monde revealed the French company Lafarge has paid taxes to IS in order to continue working in Syria. Along with Total, it is the biggest producer of greenhouse gases of any French company according to a report.

The case of Libya illustrates the interplay of these factors. ‘Its diversified agriculture, including all the staples, and its long coastline, allowed Libya to attain food self-sufficiency,’ comments Amzat Boukari-Yabara. ‘This allowed it to act as an agricultural and industrial power. It invested heavily in in the countries of the Sahel, and used this to exert control over some of those local populations. Then NATO bombed its entire agricultural infrastructure.’ After the war led by France and the United Kingdom and the overthrow of Mouammar Kadhafi, the country was deeply fractured. Huge numbers of people were displaced. Some fishermen became smugglers. The traffic in human beings between Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya, the Sinai and Israel began. The Libyan conflict had repercussions for many countries on the continent.

Who can offer solutions? According to NGOs and civil society organisations the world over, the answer is neither the companies sponsoring the COP nor the states who inflame the conflicts and extract profit from them. For Hamouchene, the ‘civilising model’, based on capitalism and extractivism, must be rejected. Yet world leaders, from Barack Obama to François Hollande, agree that the climate crisis is a grave risk to ‘security’.

The French researcher Mathieu Rigouste explains: ‘Since the end of the 1980s, in France, the ‘climate crisis’ has emerged as one of the ‘new threats’ in the archives of the Institute of Higher Studies in National Defence (IHEDN). ‘Studies on defence and security’ focus more and more on what has been branded ‘ecoterrorism’, as well as on ‘the threat of climate refugees’.’ For Mathieu Rigouste, ‘this discourse tends to absolve the economic system of responsibility and establish the social and activist movements fighting against the devastation caused to the planet by capitalism as the cause.’ During the COP21, France created a spurious state of emergency to avoid issuing visas to civil society representatives from ‘the Souths’, as well as increasing police searches and house arrests of those labelled by the media as... ‘green jihadists’. In response, says Hamouchene, the activists have dubbed this state attitude ‘environmental terrorism’.


Are the climate crisis, battles over resources and opportunistic strategising ultimately more relevant than religion in understanding the causes of wars? ‘Behind what are described as ‘religious wars’ you generally find violent state regimes geared towards the accumulation of power, profit and privilege who use religion for justification, mystification and mobilisation,’ concludes Mathieu Rigouste.

In Congo, where what the UN has termed ‘a genocide’ claimed 6 million deaths in 2014, ‘militias from the east and other regions of the country have seized territory in order to use it for economic and financial negotiations over resources. These groups have become political, and some occupy land with the support of jihadist groups’, says Amzat Boukari-Yabara. ‘In the Central African conflicts or in the oil regions of the Sudan, Christian communities have been directly implicated […]’

The same scenario can be found as far away as Burma, where Buddhist groups and the ruling army were accused of what the UN Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana called ‘crimes against humanity’ against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Some of the regions where this violence took place, as well as having gas and oil, are ‘rich in timber, precious stones and minerals, and potentially hydraulic power. […] The local ethnic communities are battling to protect their land from the army and the conglomerates that are closely linked with them, as well as from foreign companies’ explains Renaud Egreteau in Le Monde diplomatique. He confirms: ‘the question of ethnicity is bound up with territorial and economic challenges. […] Bringing peace to these peripheral areas would mean coming up against some very powerful interests.’

1Source: Le Monde.