By Robert Kiel

The purpose of this commentary is to show climate can act as a risk multiplier for mass atrocities and genocide, which policymakers will need to account for as climate change is predicted get worse. The current International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific reports describe dire effects on the environment that, as this commentary will demonstrate, can exacerbate existing ethnic, religious, and other intrastate tensions. While the IPCC estimates the effects of climate change will become considerably worse in the coming years, there are several cases demonstrate likely links between existing climate events and mass atrocities (such as Syria and Darfur), which will be discussed in this commentary.

syria drought

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 IPCC and 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 political 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 existing ethnic, economic, and political tensions.

warming rate

While there is no published definitive research on how climate change can potentially 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 on page 30 “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 exacerbate 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, stated on page 7 that while the effects of climate change on conflict are not fully understood, “patterns of human mobility are highly likely to shift as the climate continues to change,” and policymakers must update refugee laws to protect these migrants. 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. This growing body has culminated in the Global Peace Index, a yearly report on the conflict potential of countries, included climate change and environmental factors as its indicators because (Page 49) “Climate change can indirectly increase the likelihood of violent conflict through its impacts on resource availability, livelihood, security, and migration.”

In addition, the dynamics of the Syria conflict provides a clear demonstration of how climate change can accelerate existing ethnic, and political tensions into mass atrocities, and genocide. The year before the civil war broke out in 2011, Syria experienced one of its worst and most extended droughts, which strained the rural agriculture sector and forced many of the people into the cities.[ii] This migration exacerbated existing tensions with the ruling Alawite regime headed by Bashar Al-Assad. Protests—which were based on anger towards the government—became more intense; most protests were in areas affected by drought; the government started to massacre civilians, particularly in cities that were now overpopulated—a prime example of a mass atrocity. Eventually, the protests and crackdown by the government boiled over into a civil war, with escalating mass atrocities on all sides. With the 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, which the UN 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 in the drought. That drought exacerbated tensions that would eventually undermine the state, making it a contributing factor to mass atrocities and genocide.[iv]

rohingya refugees

Beyond Syria, other cases show possible links between 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 Sudanese President Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for acts of genocide,[vi] experienced severe environmental problems. However, in Darfur, it is still not clear whether the drought that exacerbated the conflict was climate change-related or part of a natural cycle.[vii] In Myanmar, the central province 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 retaliating.[ix] The country has suffered from political instability, which scientists have attributed to climate-related problems such as desertification.[x] In Nigeria, desertification of the Sahel is driving Fulani herders into farmers’ lands.[xi] This likely accelerates a conflict, which claimed 1,400 lives in 2018, along with a myriad of atrocities.[xii]


Reference 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




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, the dynamics outlined here could easily be missed by traditional conflict assessments and tools, as they do not traditionally consider environmental factors. Likewise, many expert reports,[xiii] including the recent U.S. and IPCC reports, predict an imminent increase in climate change. Moreover, the cost is high – mass atrocities and genocide are a particularly devastating category of conflict with immense human and material cost, as well as international security implications.

Many scholars argue against the climate conflict nexus, stating that a lack of scientific rigor in reports can link climate to conflict. Some scholars point to humanitarian problems that precede conflicts.[xiv] These critiques would be valid for one case, but the world now has had multiple cases of severe climate events preceding conflict before horrific mass atrocities are committed. Finally, just because myriad other causes contribute to a conflict does not mean that there is not a linkage to climate. For example, in Syria, a series of problems preceded the drought, but the drought and water crisis are estimated to have displaced upwards of 1.5 million people, which many point to as a driver of the conflict.[xv]

The IPCC states unequivocally that the climate crisis is going to get worse,[xvi] and the Global Peace Index now states that these events can and have been threat multipliers in conflict,[xvii] and this commentary shows that many of these climate events have led to mass atrocities and genocide. Therefore, entities that predict mass atrocities will need to factor in climate change into their predictions. 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 avoid increases in violence, including the kind of mass atrocities witnessed in Darfur, Syria, and Myanmar.

States near severely climate-affected countries will also need to plan ways to reduce instability and risks of violence. Options range from developing means to anticipate shifts in migration, tools for resource management, and inclusion in conflict assessments. This approach could help 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 factor that can fuel mass atrocities and genocide by accelerating migratory movements, exacerbating food scarcities, and escalating the potential for violent feuds between ethnic and sectarian groups.

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; 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.; Kelley, Colin P., Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager, and Yochanan Kushnir. “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 11 (2015): 3241-246. doi:10.1073/pnas.1421533112.

[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] Brzoska, Michael, and Christiane Fröhlich. “Climate Change, Migration and Violent Conflict: Vulnerabilities, Pathways and Adaptation Strategies.” Migration and Development 5, no. 2 (2015): 190-210. doi:10.1080/21632324.2015.1022973.

[xv] Kelley, Colin P., Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager, and Yochanan Kushnir. “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 11 (2015): 3241-246. doi:10.1073/pnas.1421533112.

[xvi] 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.

[xvii] “Global Peace Index 2019.” Institute for Economics and Peace, June 12, 2019, 42. Accessed July 20, 2019.