Violent conflict feedback on the Earth system

When conflicts escalate, exhibiting a tipping dynamic (Chadefaux, 2016), they can in turn impact the Earth system. This can happen directly as warfare itself is producing excessive GHG emissions and destroying vital ecosystems such as forests, as is for instance currently the case of Russia’s war in Ukraine (de Klerk et al., 2022) or has been in the past when oil wells were burned during the Gulf War or systematic deforestation has been inflicted upon Vietnam during the Vietnam War (Stoddard et al., 2021). Even beyond involvement in war activities, everyday military operations directly generate vast emissions of GHGs (Crawford, 2019; Kester and Sovacool, 2017). Research has found that militarization amplified the effects of economic growth on carbon emissions as militaries have a significant influence on the production and consumption patterns of economies and on the ecological demands to uphold and expand military infrastructure (Jorgenson et al., 2023). The feedback impact of conflicts on the Earth system can also be indirect, through impeding humanity’s ability to collaborate in order to find solutions to global challenges such as climate change. Within societies entangled in a conflict, resources are diverted to winning the conflict rather than to mitigate climate change. In Ukraine, 90 per cent of the country’s wind power and 50 per cent of its solar energy capacity had to be taken off-line since the war began (Brown, 2023). Internationally conflicts moreover impede collaboration. Again, Russia’s war in Ukraine is an exemplary case, as it impacted the ability of the international community to come together at COP27 and beyond. For instance The Arctic Council is currently put on hold (Brown 2023; Harris, 2022).


Lake Chad

The Lake Chad region has experienced some of the most striking social and biogeophysical changes in recent times. Just 50 years ago, the lake was larger than the size of Israel (25,000km2) and provided livelihoods to over 30 million people (Gao et al., 2011). Today, only 10 per cent of the lake waters remain due to rising temperatures (1.5 times faster than global average), longer dry seasons and changes in water flow from feeding rivers. These changes, combined with megadroughts, heat waves and sand/dust storms, have led to crop failures, livestock losses and depletion of fisheries, and have placed the region on the edge of systemic criticality and conflict tipping (Okpara et al., 2015).

The region has been afflicted by several political, identity/ethnic, communal and resource conflict events. Most of these events have tipped over into massive upheavals in the form of terrorism, triggering brutal violence. Conflict tipping into violence under conditions of rapid lake water oscillation and shrinkage has triggered a shift from a state of relative tension to a heightened violent situation where self-perpetuating cycles of open violence become more prevalent and harmful to the Lake Chad biogeographical/ecological landscape (Avis, 2020). Conflict tipping pathways in this setting are diverse and multifaceted. One conflict tipping pathway is the abrupt breakdown in small-scale farming, fisheries and local food systems triggered by multi-year oscillations of the Lake Chad waters (Okpara et al., 2017). This has amplified social grievances against the state. Grievances have fuelled the formation of violent solidarity networks (many with links to criminal gangs and insurgent groups) and have led to brutal regional conflicts and the death and displacement of millions of citizens. Another tipping pathway is the escalation of a conflict economy where armed groups illegally control natural resources, agricultural trade routes and food supply chains, and secretly divert arms, drugs, stolen cash and cattle into areas they control (Sampaio, 2022). Armed groups recruit and radicalise young fighters, who previously depended on the resources from the Lake. In doing so, they trigger spiralling territorial dynamics where the intensity and scope of conflict and violence rapidly increase. At the same time, cycles of retaliation, reprisals, and counterattacks between state and non-state actors (linked to the conflict economy) have continued to create self-perpetuating chains of violence.

Conflict tipping over into violence and terrorism harm the Lake Chad biogeographical landscape in many ways. Approximately 80 per cent of the conflicts take place in nature-rich, biodiversity hotspots, and with the increasing use of the environment as a hideout, military base or camp for hostage taking, attacking the environment has become a military/warfare objective (Okpara et al., 2015). Aerial and ground bombardments by soldiers primarily target the inland hardwood forests and the mangroves covering remote insurgent groups’ camps, causing direct environmental damage. And bombing by both sides produces many hundreds of thousand tons of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, sulphur monoxide, and CO2, which adversely impact humans and ecological systems in the region and beyond. Bombing also leads to contamination of water supplies in communities, undermining public health. Conflict tipping also has an indirect effect on the Earth system. Conflict tipping triggered population displacement and complex emergencies in the region, led to overcrowding in destination areas and intensified pressures on regional water, food, land, and energy systems (Oginni et al., 2020; Vivekananda et al., 2019). These outcomes in turn spurred unsustainable agricultural practices, overfishing and deforestation. Displaced people are often forced to turn to the environment to meet their basic needs (e.g. illegal logging, poaching). Finally, Lake Chad conflict tipping is characterised by a breakdown in environmental laws and governance, causing weak enforcement of nature conservation mechanisms (Magrin, 2016). For an in-depth exploration of cascading effects in this case example, please see Chapter 2.4.

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