Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the probable conflicts that may arise due to the shortage of resources. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
When resources dwindle, conflict soon follows. This is as true today as it was thousands of years ago, when the Roman Empire invaded Egypt in 30 AD largely to secure more grain. The colonial subjugation of peoples in the Americas, India and Africa was partly rationalized as a means to augment declining resource stocks, in everything from timber to enslaved human labor. In this century, the drought in Syria and the famine that followed laid the groundwork for one of the most violent civil wars in living memory.
If current climate change trajectories are not proactively addressed, environmental instability will spark greater resource strain and conflict will spread. These strains will likely take two forms - what researchers call supply-induced scarcity and structural scarcity. The former typically stems from environmental degradation, when the overall amount of a limited resource drops.In the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Sea of Japan, for example, the combined impacts of rising temperatures and overfishing between 1930 and 2010 have diminished fish populations by as much as 35 percent.Structural scarcity, on the other hand, occurs when governmental dysfunction or systemic discrimination leads to the unequal distribution of necessary goods. Think of the ways corruption and mismanagement have compounded the effects of drought in Zimbabwe in recent years, creating an economic crisis that is quickly threatening to morph into famine. It’s the rare government that becomes more just and effective when instability spikes.
Already powerful disruptors, food and water access are poised to become increasingly significant sources of tension. Researchers have found that roughly two thirds of the world’s existing population live without sufficient access to fresh, safe water for at least one month per year. The extreme weather events and ecosystem collapse that come with our changing climate will exacerbate those numbers. The rise of new diseases, another significant consequence of climate change, could spark greater disruptions in supply chains, leading to rising agricultural vulnerability and economic volatility. Without meaningful intervention, food security is slated to rapidly deteriorate in poorer regions. Already, supply chain disruption from the current coronavirus pandemic is creating a hunger emergency from Sudan to Mozambique that threatens the lives of millions.
The types of conflicts that arise from these resource-constrained conditions will differ depending on location and circumstance. In wealthier nations, trade wars may well be the first step. While technically non-violent, trade wars often lead to increased tension, which can easily grow into larger conflict or outright war. Among other tragedies, warfare creates more refugees. If environmental instability continues as many climate models predict, the amount of places torn apart by aggression will grow, exponentially multiplying the number of humans in need of safe haven.
Which brings us back to the core of the issue -- when population levels are high and resource levels are low, conflict isn’t far away. Rather than isolated incidents, these resource-related conflicts often spark associated tensions. As refugees fleeing aggression migrate to other countries, factors like border disputes and institutional instability can instigate new hostilities, augmenting what becomes an increasingly vicious cycle. In today’s interconnected world, the chain effects of resource-induced conflict cannot be discounted.