The assessment report of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council on Climate and Social Stress and the Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security both refer to a possible link between climate change and social instability in countries around the world. They argue that climatic variations in combination with preexisting social and political problems may contribute to social disruptions that could result in political instability, state failure, and sub-national violence, and thereby pose threats to international security.
Although there is a growing consensus about climate change’s ability to disrupt societies, and ultimately threaten global security, little is understood about what these climate-induced social and political stresses will look like and how they may interact with each other, as well as with other factors endogenous to a society, to destabilize countries and regions. Most of the literature on the subject points to a mono-causal link between climate change and resource scarcity (predominantly food and water), and explains how food and water insecurity may stoke socio-political stresses. Although, this “neo-Malthusian” theory has improved our understanding about the dangers that climate change poses to international security, it is far from being complete and is over simplistic.
Using Pakistan as a case study, this paper argues that the link between climate change, resource scarcity, and conflict is not as straightforward as many studies suggest it to be. Piecing together publicly available data about Pakistan, this paper suggest two points: First, climatic changes disturb the social and political equilibrium of a society by either creating new fault lines in the social, political, or ethnic landscape of that society, or by exacerbating existing ones. Disequilibrium brought about by climatic variability creates new winners and losers, and manifests itself in the form of social and political unrest by heightening tensions among them. Conflict may come later and will be difficult to reverse, as it will occur not only due to resource scarcity but also because of political grievances and tensions in a highly fragmented society.
Second, the preexisting social and political configuration of a society will determine how that society responds to climate change disturbing this equilibrium. For example, a reduction in water availability may not always translate into a lower agricultural yield. This dynamic is likely to depend on the influence agriculturists have over the distribution of water resources and related policy tools. The nature and level of stresses will differ from society to society and will depend on how new winners and losers adjust as climatic changes alter the availability of resources.