by Anatol Lieven
The idea that ‘climate change causes conflict’ is not so much a red herring as a red whale when it comes to understanding its impacts. Being by its nature unprovable, it also provides a very convenient target for climate change deniers. Equally pointless are attempts to attach mathematical weightings to the likelihood of climate change increasing conflicts. Given the number of variables involved, the results are inevitably so approximate as to be of very limited value in analytical terms. More sensible is to examine existing tensions and vulnerabilities and then assess (or perhaps “imagine” is a better word) how climate change could make them worse. Thus much of the literature on climate change and conflict has focused on the possibility of interstate wars over rivers, including between India, Pakistan and China, as increased water shortages and the melting of glaciers lead to worsening disputes over the sharing of the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers.
Though by no means absent, this threat may have been somewhat exaggerated. Precisely because these rivers are so vital, serious interference with them would be regarded as an existential threat. Pakistan has stated that serious Indian reductions in the flow of the Indus would be regarded as the equivalent of war; and presumably China, as Pakistan’s ally, would respond in kind by reducing the flow of the Brahmaputra river to eastern India. If however, water shortages become so severe that the choice for upstream states is water diversion or state collapse, then all bets would be off. Critically, if this was the case, a combination of internal stress and mass migration would already have brought the states concerned down in ruins.
More significant than interstate war in this regard is therefore internal conflict within states. Precisely because so many states and societies are already facing a growing set of challenges, they cannot afford to face the effects of climate change as well. This is the crucial thing about climate change in the medium term. It will feed into and exacerbate most other existing social, economic, health, and political problems – just as it will also feed into all other ecological problems, from mass extinction through deforestation to the acidification of the oceans. Western democracies also are coming under increasing internal strain, from unemployment, inequality, and growing chauvinism stemming partly from immigration and the reaction against it. With the exception of immigration, these problems are not related to climate change; but with increasing migration and crippling economic growth, climate change may in the future gravely worsen the political condition of Western societies.
I have been struck in this regard by the latest book by Ian Bremmer, Us Vs. Them, which paints a deeply worrying picture of the effects on Western societies of globalisation, automation, immigration, and growing inequality. Factor in the effects of climate change as well, and Bremmer’s grim scenarios become even grimmer, and his hopeful ones a great deal less hopeful. Yet, Bremmer’s book mentions climate change only once. The same is true of Paul Collier’s impressive work on the future of capitalism, which, too, fails to consider the impacts of climate change on Western economies. In the next three generations, by far the greatest threats of climate change to existing states and societies will come in South Asia and parts of Africa, for the simple reason that these societies are already under pressure from a combination of high temperatures and water shortages, leading to a growing threat of famine. Their steeply growing populations increase this danger still further.
The World Bank predicts that if we continue emissions at the rate of recent years, by 2050, in South Asia alone some 800 million people (around 35 per cent of the probable population at that date) will see their living standards decline sharply as a result of climate change. In 2050, Indian teenagers alive today will only be middle-aged. It is not a distant prospect affecting generations yet to be born. If in addition the resulting suffering is very unequally distributed among Indian states and leads to mass migration within South Asia, it is hard to see how Indian democracy and the Indian Union itself will be able to survive. In both India and Pakistan, water shortages are also causing friction between upriver and downriver provinces. Should the water crisis become truly disastrous, these tensions have the capacity to spur separatist movements.
Many parts of South Asia are already experiencing severe water stress, and since 2000, drought in north India and Pakistan has largely wiped out the expected further gains from agricultural development. Drought, coupled with the commercialisation of agriculture, is causing despair among India’s smaller farmers and is fuelling support for the Naxalite communist rebellion in central India. An official Indian report of 2018 stated that six hundred million people (almost half the population) already suffer both physically and economically due to water stress; while a 2017 study by scientists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) drew attention to the severe danger posed by a rise in temperatures to agriculture, both because intensified heatwaves will make it impossible to work outside for months on end, and because beyond a certain level they produce steep falls in rice production.
Moreover, even if economic development allows India to deal adequately with the direct effects of climate change, the country is likely to be overwhelmed by the collapse of the even more endangered neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, it has been estimated that a rise in sea levels of only one metre will render 17.5 per cent of the country uninhabitable, while a rise of ten metres would essentially destroy the country. By the end of the century, Bangladesh is predicted to have a population of 250 million at the absolute minimum (from 160 million at present).
Western studies of international migration have focused overwhelmingly on migration to the West. The most ferociously enforced border fence of all, however, is that constructed by India to prevent illegal migration from Bangladesh. This hostility to Bangladeshi Muslim immigration has increased still further under the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi. In 2019, Modi also introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act, giving rights to Hindu and Christian migrants to India but denying them to Muslims.
In 2010, the US Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, reported to Congress that: ‘For India, our research indicates that the practical effects of climate change will be manageable by New Delhi through 2030. Beyond 2030, India’s ability to cope will be reduced by declining agricultural productivity, decreasing water supplies, and increasing pressure from cross-border migration into the country.’
2030 is now only ten years away.
This article is based on Anatol Lieven’s new book Climate Change and the Nation-State: The Realist Case, published by Penguin in March 2020.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. He is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC and a member of the academic board of the Valdai discussion club in Russia. He also serves on the advisory committee of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He holds a BA and PhD from Cambridge University in England. From 1985 to 1998, Anatol Lieven worked as a British journalist in South Asia, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and is author of several books on Russia and its neighbours including Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power? and Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. From 2000 to 2007 he worked at think tanks in Washington DC. A new edition of his book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism was published in 2012. His latest book, Climate Change and the Nation-State, was published in March 2019 by Penguin in the UK and Oxford University Press in the USA. His previous book, Pakistan: A Hard Country was published by Penguin and OUP in 2012. Anatol Lieven is currently working on the relationship between nationalism and progress in modern history.