International Order & Conflict

The Looming Accelerant: the Growing Links between Climate Change, Mass Atrocities, and Genocide

in Program

The purpose of this research commentary is to show a growing link between climate change and genocide and mass atrocities. The International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific reports describe the dire environmental effects that will exacerbate ongoing ethnic, religious and other intrastate tensions, as witnessed in Syria and Darfur (see below). Moreover, even before we reach the far-reaching climatic changes foreseen by the IPCC in 2030 and beyond, there are multiple cases of how climate change and related environmental effects drive mass atrocities and potentially even genocide. These linkages are expected to grow as the effects of climate change worsen.

This commentary employs the UN Framework of Analysis on Atrocity Crimes for its definitions of mass atrocities and genocide. Mass atrocities are large-scale attacks against civilians, and genocide is the intentional targeting of one group because of their membership in that group. For clarification of when a mass atrocity becomes genocide, this brief study relies on whether or not a country or international body has declared a case genocide.

The recent climate meeting in Katowice Poland, in December 2018, developed the Katowice Protocol to set rules to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord. The IPCCand the United States Government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment declared that not only is climate change real, but that it will have dire effects on the planet in the next 10 to 20 years. These effects include rising sea levels, increased food insecurity, and an increase in the number of natural disasters.[i] All of these issues will degrade stability and limit the ability of countries to protect their populations. Climate change can also increase competition for dwindling land and resources, which could exacerbate conflict between groups.

While there is, as of yet, no published definitive research on how climate change can precipitate mass atrocities, there is a growing body of research showing an empirical relationship between climate change and conflict. For example, a 2009 report from the Wilson Center Climate Change, Demography, Environmental Degradation, and Armed Conflict stated “Globally, medium to high levels of land degradation are related to increased conflict,” and a 2015 study on Darfur, Climate Change and Conflict Prevention, found that climate change will acerbate conflict when states are weak and have little legitimacy. A 2017 report by the United Nations Development Program and the Overseas Development Institute, Climate Change, Migration and Displacement: The Need for a Risk-Informed and Coherent Approach, showed that climate change will increase migration; the international community needs to better understand this risk. Another study by the Center for American Progress, Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict, stated that there was not only a link between climate and conflict but argued that it poses a threat to U.S. national security.

In addition, the dynamics of the Syria conflict suggests a close link between mass atrocities and climate change. The year before the civil war broke out in 2011, Syria experienced one of its worst, extended droughts, which strained the rural agriculture sector and forced many of its people into the cities.[ii] This migration exacerbated existing tensions with the ruling Alawite regime headed by Bashar Al Assad. As protests (particularly in areas affected by drought) against the government became more intense, the Syrian government started to massacre civilians. Eventually, the protests and crackdown from the government boiled over into a civil war with escalating mass atrocities on all sides. With the further destabilization of Syria, multiple armed factions emerged, the most well-known being ISIS. Amongst their many atrocities, ISIS started a campaign to wipe out the Yazidis (in both Syria and Iraq) that the U.N. Human Rights Council has declared a genocide.[iii]  While multiple factors led to this war, there is evidence that climate change was an exacerbating factor leading to drought. That drought exacerbated tensions that would eventually undermine the state, making it a contributing factor for mass atrocities and even genocide.[iv]

Beyond Syria, other cases show possible links between the effects of climate change and mass atrocities (see chart below). Both Myanmar, where a recent UN fact-finding mission stated that top military leaders must face charges of genocide,[v] and Darfur, where the former Sudanese president Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for acts of genocide,[vi] have experienced severe environmental problems. However, in Darfur, it is still not clear whether the drought that exacerbated the conflict was climate-related or part of a natural cycle.[vii] In Myanmar, the central province of Rakhine experienced severe climate events, such as typhoons and droughts.[viii] In the Central African Republic (CAR), the Anti-Balaka militias are actively trying to cleanse their areas of Muslims who are then retaliating.[ix] The country has suffered from political instability, for which scientists view climate-related problems such as desertification as exacerbating factors.[x]  In Nigeria, it is established that climate change is causing a drought that is driving herders into farmers’ lands;[xi] this conflict claimed 1,400 lives in 2018, along with a myriad of atrocities.[xii]

Cases of Mass Atrocities and Genocide

Country One sided Mass Atrocities Genocide Climate related problems Stated Link
CAR no yes no yes no
Myanmar yes yes yes yes no
Nigeria no yes no yes yes
Darfur yes yes yes maybe yes
Syria no yes yes yes yes



With climate change seeming to influence isolated instances of mass atrocities, multiple new reports predict with scientific rigor and reasoning a growing likelihood of events that are likely to drive conflict.[xiv]  Entities that predict mass atrocities, such as the UN Offices for Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect, will, therefore, need to factor climate change into their predictive models. States that will be hit the worst by climate change need to anticipate this shift and consider new infrastructure and approaches to conflict management. They could, for example, alleviate ethnic tensions by creating resource-sharing agreements that may head off any rise in violence, including the kind of mass atrocities witnessed in Darfur, Syria, and Myanmar.

Some scholars may argue that there is no need to examine the effects of climate change and genocide, since most of the dynamics linking the two are already addressed by analyzing the links between climate change and conflict. Yet with the predicted increase in the intensity of climate change, dynamics outlined here could easily be missed by traditional conflict assessments and tools that do not traditionally consider environmental factors.  Likewise, many expert reports,[xiii]including the recent U.S. and IPCC reports, predict severe climatic change to occur soon.  The cost is high – mass atrocities and genocide are a particularly devastating category of conflict with immense human and materials costs, as well as international security implications.

States near severely climate-affected countries will also need to plan ways to reduce instability and risks of violence across their borders. Options range from developing the means to anticipate shifts in migration, tools for resource management, and inclusion in conflict assessments. This approach could help to mitigate against and even avoid conflicts, such as those in Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Organizations that try to predict and prevent mass atrocities through early warning indicators and other tools should give special consideration to countries ill-equipped for climate change, particularly those with vulnerable minority groups. In short, climate change appears to be one emerging factor that can fuel mass atrocities and genocide by accelerating migratory movements and exacerbating food scarcity, escalating the potential for violent feuds between ethnic and sectarian groups. It is not too late to take action now to anticipate and prevent such violence.

Robert Kiel is a research assistant with the Just Security 2020 program at The Stimson Center. 

[i] United States. (n.d.). Fourth National Climate Assessment.

[ii] Palmer, L. (2017). Hot, hungry planet: The fight to stop a global food crisis in the face of climate change. New York: St. Martins Press.

[iii] UN human rights panel concludes ISIL is committing genocide against Yazidis. (2016, June 16). UN News. Retrieved from

[iv] Werrell, C. E., Slaughter, A., & Femia, F. (2013). The Arab Spring and climate change: A climate and security correlations series. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

[v] Myanmar: UN Fact-Finding Mission releases its full account of massive violations by military in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States. (2018, September 18).

[vi] International Criminal Court. (n.d.). Alleged crimes (non-exhaustive list) Al-Bashir.

[vii] Were, M., & Conley, L. (2012). Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict. Center For American Progress.; FACTBOOK Mapping environmental conflicts and cooperation. (n.d.). Civil War in Darfur, Sudan. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from

[viii] United Nations, United Nations Environment Programme. (2012). Myanmar’s National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) to Climate Change

[ix] Fear Inc. (2018, November). The Sentry.

[x] Johnson, K. (2013, August 22). Tackling climate change may lessen Central African Republic conflict risks – scientists. Forest News. Retrieved December 26, 2018, from; USAID. (n.d.). CLIMATE RISKS IN THE CENTRAL AFRICA REGIONAL PROGRAM FOR THE ENVIRONMENT (CARPE) AND CONGO BASIN. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from

[xi] Akinwotu, E. (2018, June 25). Nigeria’s Farmers and Herders Fight a Deadly Battle for Scarce Resources. New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2018, from

[xii] Dion, E., & Kemakolam, I. (2018, November 7). Nigeria’s Worst Violence Is Not Boko Haram. Retrieved December 23, 2018.

[xiii] Greshko, M. (2017, October 31). Current Climate Pledges Aren’t Enough to Stop Severe Warming. Retrieved January 6, 2019, from

[xiv] United States. (n.d.). Fourth National Climate Assessment.; UN, IPCC. (2019). Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments.


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