Climate change will lead to more conflict! Well, not exactly

Storm clouds form in Babati, Tanzania.
Mauritania village struck by drought in 2011.

Mauritania village struck by drought in 2011.

Researchers have long connected climate change and conflict. They warn that the effects of climate change will lead to instability that will lead to fighting. Problem is that the evidence was quite thin.

A new study, published last week in Science, by Princeton’s Solomon Hsiang and University of California, Berkeley’s Marshall Burke again found that conflict and climate change are connected. They say that the evidence is overwhelming, but other researchers disagree.

“We think that by collecting all the research together now, we’re pretty clearly establishing that there is a causal relationship between the climate and human conflict,” said Hsiang in a press release. “People have been skeptical up to now of an individual study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can now show that these patterns are extremely general. It’s more of the rule than the exception.”

The findings come from an analysis of 60 previous studies on climate change and conflict. The data shows that for every standard deviation increase in temperature and extreme rainfall person-to-person violence increases by 4% and group-based conflict rises by 14%. In other words, climate change leads to more fighting. They raise the alarm by saying that parts of the world are expected to warm up by 2 to 4 standard deviations by 2050. Fighting is on its way!

So news outlets perked up. The math seems easy and it makes for quite the headline. Slate’s headline was ominous reading:

Increased murder and war linked to climate change

Some researchers say it is not quite so simple.

“I fundamentally question the contribution of this paper. In a nutshell, there is almost nothing new here,” blogged University of South Carolina geographer Ed Carr after the paper’s release.

“Yes, there appear to be some new quantifications of the risk of conflict under different climate situations, but overall the claims made in this paper are exactly the claims that have been made by many others, in many other venues, for a while.”

Storm clouds form in Babati, Tanzania.

Storm clouds form in Babati, Tanzania.

He dismisses the idea that people refute the idea that climate change and conflict are linked. Rather, critics like Carr argue that the problem is still complex. Researchers have yet been able to figure out what changes contribute to conflict. In fact that is what the Hsiang and Burke paper finds.

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The authors say that climate change could influence the factors that lead to conflict, but it is not the sole factor nor is it always going to lead to conflict.

However, it is not true that all types of climatic events influence all forms of human conflict or that climatic conditions are the sole determinant of human conflict. The influence of climate is detectable across contexts, but we strongly emphasize that it is only one of many factors that contribute to conflict.

Climate change has an impact, but the research is no smoking gun.  The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer points out that “the 2000s were the warmest decade on record, but they also managed to be “the least conflict-ridden decade since the 1970s.”

Keith Kloor in the Discover Magazine Collide-a-Scape blog points to a University of Colorado study on conflict in East Africa. The researchers also found that changes in temperature and rainfall were correlated with changes in conflict, but they were not the most significant factor.

“The relationship between climate change and conflict in East Africa is incredibly complex and varies hugely by country and time period,” said CU-Boulder geography Professor John O’Loughlin. “The simplistic arguments we hear on both sides are not accurate, especially those by pessimists who talk about ‘climate wars’.  Compared to social, economic and political factors, climate factors adding to conflict risk are really quite modest.”

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Hsiang and Burke make a couple of guesses as to what happens, but have no answers. It could be lost jobs due to flooding that causes communities to fight or drought that forces people to flee. It also may be policies enacted by governments to peg grain prices that harm farmers when there is a bad season. Lots of possibilities exist without an answer. A lack of causal mechanism is the sticking point for Carr and others.

“Even if we accept that the authors have indeed established causal relationships between climate variability and change and the risk of conflict/rates of conflict, they do not know exactly how these changes in climate actually create these outcomes,” writes Carr.

Unfortunately the cat is out of bag, the reports were made and the article appeared in a well respected journal, says Kloor. Halvard Buhuag of the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway told Peter Aldhous at the New Scientist that he does not take the findings seriously, but Kloor is skeptical.

“I doubt that will happen, since any study published in a prestigious journal that associates climate change with war and violence is bound to be taken very seriously,” writes Kloor.

A former USAID climate change coordinator, Carr says there is little use for the paper in affecting policies. It says what was already known with little insight in how to avert conflict caused by climate change. The connections appear to be there between climate change and conflict, but nobody really knows what is happening and what can be done to prevent conflict.

Why then did Science, a respected journal, publish the paper? Carr poses it is for the headlines. Given the early media response, he may be right.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.