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Five Conflicts and Collapses That May Have Been Spurred by Climate Change

Earth’s changing climate has been a spectre in centuries of civil conflict and, at times, the collapse of whole civilizations

Some argue that the recent civil war in Syria was caused, at least in part, by droughts in the area, which led to greater social instability. (© Ali Sultan/NurPhoto/Corbis)
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21st Century Climate Conflicts

Modern society often has the benefit of industrial agriculture, such as better irrigation or drought-resistant crop varieties. The hope is that these technologies will lessen the threat of conflict due to agricultural failings. "There is a lot of optimism with innovation in agriculture, and some of that is warranted, because we've done some amazing things," Hsiang says. "But some things we can't fix." Corn, for example, has become more sensitive to heat and drought—even with technological advances in planting and genetics. 

The Center for Climate and Security argues that modern, human-induced climate change is already having violent repercussions, such as the recent Syrian uprising. "[The Bashar al-]Assad regime’s failure to effectively manage water and land resources, the drought, and the subsequent displacement of close to 1.5 million people contributed to social unrest," the center says in a 2012 report. Looking toward the future, U.S. security officials worry that Asia-Pacific, which could face the displacement of millions of people due to sea-level rise, might be the next location to face a breakdown in security due to climate change.

But it's not necessarily all violence on the horizon; some research has shown that countries are far more likely to cooperate over water shortages than go to war because of them, which is an encouraging precedent for a world on the brink of unprecedented change.

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