Climate Change, Conflict & Ill Health Linked, Pose 'Grave Threat'

North Darfur, mother, sick baby

Climate change poses an immediate and grave threat, driving ill health and increasing the risk of conflict, such that each feeds on the other.” asserts a new report in the British Medical Journal by a group of UK defense, medical and public health officials.*

The somewhat unusual collaborative report draws upon several previous studies’ findings (in the U.S. and UK) to make its case. In particular, a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) is quoted at length, citing “the effects of climate change will present a threat to collective security and global order in the first half of the 21st century. This will limit access to food, safe water, power, sanitation, and health services and drive mass migration and competition for remaining resources.”

The report also notes that — as a result of increasing conflicts around the world — starvation, diarrhea and various infectious diseases (such as cholera) will grow more common, as will neonatal and adult mortality. Using statistics from a 2004 Lancet paper (Salama et al), the report notes that in 7 out of 10 countries with the highest infant mortality rates (of children under 5 yo), 5 of these countries were engaged in military conflict or had just emerged from conflict.

The report further summarizes data analyses conducted by US and UK military and intelligence communities, to wit:

“Climate change may already be changing weather and precipitation patterns” and will “continue to drive extreme weather events and changes in water resources (through flood, drought, and rising sea levels), and it will adversely affect global food and energy production.”

youth bulge, world map
Median age by country. A youth bulge is evident for Africa, and to a lesser extent for South and Southeast Asia and Central America. A "youth bulge" of young "cohort" males in a population pyramid - with a lack of regular, peaceful employment opportunities -- is seen as a risk pool for violence.

Stressing the three synergistic factors of poverty, environmental degradation, and the weakening of already fragile governments, the report offers additional conclusions from a 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review prepared by the Pentagon for Congress:

“Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.” These conditions may increase the probability of instability and risks to national security in the form of failed states.

Echoing these findings, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense states that “climate change will amplify existing social, political and resource stresses” and will “shift the tipping point at which conflict ignites.”

UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, recently described climate change as “perhaps the 21st century’s biggest foreign policy challenge.”

Los Angeles metropolitan area , urbanization
The expanding Los Angeles metropolitan area

Noting that increasing urbanization of human populations, the report warns that the  infrastructures of large urban centers (over 10 million) will become greatly strained and susceptible to increasing demands on resources, leading to resource shortages.

“Damage to this fragile infrastructure by severe weather systems or rising sea levels will disrupt public health, and shortages of water, sanitation, heating, and food will combine to increase disease and ill health.”

The report advises immediate, preventive measures, offering this  urgent recommendation:

“We must adapt our cities and their infrastructure to cope with these challenges through combining engineering design and public health initiatives.”  (for example, developing resilience in clean water and drainage systems, using human and food waste for energy generation, and building roads to act as flood pathways).

These paramount issues will be discussed at the up-coming BMA meeting this June 20, whose topic of concern is “Climate change—how to secure our future well being: a health and security perspective” (contact: climatechange{at}

While pointing out the role that doctors can, and must, play in calls to action and adequately dealing with the crisis, the sobering report concludes:

“Although discussion is good, we can no longer delay implementing tough action that will make a difference, while quibbling over minor uncertainties in climate modelling. Unlike most recent natural disasters, this one is entirely predictable.”

* Lionel Jarvis, surgeon rear admiral (Ministry of Defence), Hugh Montgomery, professor (UCL Institute for Public Health and Performance), Neil Moresetti, rear admiral (Ministry of Defence), Ian Gilmore, professor (Royal Liverpool Hospital)

Read the entire BMJ report:

Climate Change, ill health and conflict’

Top image: (A mother with her sick baby at Abu Shouk IDP camp in North Darfur) Sean Woo, general counsel to Sen. Brownback, or John Scandling, chief of staff to Rep. Wolf

Chart: (“Youth bulge”) Joeyramoney

City photo: (Los Angeles) Thomas Pintaric ; CC – By – SA 3.0

Sean Woo, general counsel to Sen. Brownback, or John Scandling, chief of staff to Rep. Wolf

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