MSU Research Initiative Developing Interventions to Address Interplay of Conflict and Climate Change

July 2, 2021

The Sardashti Camp, a displaced persons camp located in Shingal, Iraq (also known as Sinjar). Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

Sardashte Camp for Ezidi IDPs in Sinjar (Shingal). Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

When we think about conflict and climate change, it can be tempting to blame one for causing the other. But reality is almost never so cut and dry. There is rarely a direct one-to-one correlation between such conditions and outcomes. And while scientists generally agree that climate change does not directly cause conflict, the interplay between the two can undoubtedly exacerbate one another, often in highly intricate and complicated ways. Given the complexities of these two phenomena, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Michigan State University has kicked off an initiative to better assess and develop solutions for addressing these as coupled, complex nested systems. “Look around the globe today, and you’ll certainly find no shortage of regions mired in climate-related conflict issues, or for that matter, conflict-related climate issues. Conflict and climate change are probably the two most serious global challenges we are facing. Their impacts have been devastating, and they are not going away in our lifetime,” said Stephen Gasteyer, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the Environmental Science and Policy Program (ESPP) at MSU. “Reports of increasing droughts, dramatic changes in precipitation patterns, wildfires, flooding, and increased impairment of water quality are just a few of the climate issues that dominate our news feeds regularly. In addition, highly disruptive conflicts and civil wars have destabilized much of the Middle East, along with parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas.”

Conflict often results from a variety of factors, including food and water or other critical resource scarcity. “But at the same time, conflict can also lead to processes that intensify conditions of scarcity,” explains Mark Axelrod, associate professor of international environmental law and politics with a joint appointment in the James Madison College and the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.  “For example, imagine a large group of people fleeing a crisis, perhaps an economic or humanitarian crisis triggered by climate-induced ecological conditions such as drought. Their need for natural resources to survive in a new location may subsequently create additional scarcity, which in turn aggravates situations that lead to conflict.”

In addition, natural resources such as water, arable land, and wildlife more often than not straddle social, political, and cultural borders. Management of such transboundary resources can be a highly complicated and delicate affair under normal circumstances. Even congenial political allies such as the United States and Canada may quibble on occasion over the proper use and care of such shared natural features as the Great Lakes. “Add the lens of climate change, and we often see that the process of achieving consensus regarding how best to utilize such resources can become more challenging and contested,” explains Linlang He, a research associate with ESPP interested in performance evaluation of cross-functional and cross-boundary collaborative environmental management efforts. “This is even more evident when groups with contrary societal norms and views on sovereignty are vying to control those resources.”

Because the causes, conditions, and implications of climate change and conflict cut across social, technical, and engineering specializations, the core research team is comprised of sociologists, political scientists, geographers, ecologists, biologists, hydrologists, and civil and environmental engineers. Stephen Gasteyer is serving as the lead researcher for the initiative. In addition, integrating the host of other influences on these phenomena will necessitate going beyond the confines of these primary disciplines. The work will involve ensuring that attention is given to focal areas such as social and ecological processes, technology and infrastructure, and conditions such as public health, politics, governance, and security, to name just a few. Therefore the team plans to collaborate with colleagues and entities across MSU and beyond, including partner institutions in the Americas, Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

“We will be looking to gain a better understanding of the interconnectedness between a broad range of trends. Bringing together such an extensive array of disciplines, specialties, and inputs will enable us to create highly sophisticated models to uncover the intricacies inherent in the web of conflict and climate,” said Amber Pearson, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Science and the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations. Anthony Kendall, a research assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, will further advance this modeling work. “We need to build strong collaborations with climate scientists, ecologists, agronomists, socio-behavioral scientists, economists, engineers, and related experts to address the complexities of modeling regional-scale landscape conditions and finer-scale socio-environmental processes,” said Kendall. “It’s inspiring because these sorts of collaborative relationships are truly driving forward the next generation of research here at MSU and around the world.”

In addition to determining how the complex processes and feedback issues play off one another, the team plans to explore how innovative policy interventions and technologies can mitigate their potential negative impacts. “I am specifically excited about the opportunity to build and adapt new and existing policies and technologies to address conflict and climate issues. Having the ability to ground-test the interactions of potential solutions in consultation with my colleagues in the social, natural, and agricultural sciences will ensure a more holistic and integrated approach to avoid unintended consequences that could undermine our objectives,” said Yadu Pokhrel, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering. 

“Given the relevant expertise and the emphasis on interdisciplinary research, there’s no doubt that MSU is well suited for a large-scale initiative such as this. There isn’t a College at MSU that doesn’t touch upon these areas in some shape or form,” said Sean Lawrie, assistant director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program. “We’ve been working informally on the preliminary legwork for the initiative for a couple of years. COVID-19 complicated things a bit, but we’ve found a great deal of enthusiasm from across the University, and we’re excited to take the concept to the next level.”

While this current work is being funded by an ESPP Interdisciplinary Team Building Initiative grant, the core team is pursuing additional funding opportunities and working with strategic partners both domestically and internationally. Initial plans include hosting a full-day workshop on campus to bring together those interested in further strategizing to broaden the initiative.