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Getting at the root of extreme weather’s connection to civil conflict

There is ample research connecting external causes, like climate and food prices, to conflict. Yesterday, I reported on new research showing that US food aid can prolong smaller civil conflicts. In the case of that study and others, the lingering question is also the most important, what external factors drive conflict as opposed to other issues?

A series of recent research does not necessarily answer the question, but show how a diversity of factors are to blame, not a single reason. In the first paper, Marc Bellemare of the University of Minnesota shows that food price is connected to social unrest, but it is overall changes in price levels, not volatile shifts that are associated with unrest.

“While rising food prices appear to cause food riots, food price volatility is at best negatively associated with and at worst unrelated to social unrest. These findings go against much of the prevailing rhetoric surrounding food prices,” writes Bellemare.

The second paper examines the relationship between drought and conflict in Somalia.  It found that drought was connected to local violent conflict in Somalia. An increase in the intensity of the drought was associated with a higher likelihood of conflict.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

In many parts of the world, climate change does not constitute an immediate threat to national security at present. What matters, and what may matter in the near term, is the way various institutions respond to the idea of climate change,” write Francois Gemenne and his colleagues.

“[I]f response is limited to security responses, fundamental underlying climate threats will remain neglected.”

The overall findings of the papers are in line with research connecting climate and conflict. Much was made of a paper published in Science last August. Major media players led with headlines warning of climate change leading to an increase in violence. Skeptics said that the connections were already known, but the effects were overblown.

“Critiques of the study of this connection (at least credible critiques) have not so much argued that there is no connection, but that the connections are very complex and not well-captured in large-scale studies using quantitative tools,” blogged University of South Carolina researcher Ed Carr at the time.

These research papers and others together show that there are many factors that contribute to the onset of conflict. The underlying problems of instability and poverty can be linked to the problems associated with food prices. There is a reason why the US and Egypt have had differing experiences with rising global food prices.

What looms are questions as to how to mitigate the effects of the different forces that can contribute to conflict. Bellemare recommends that policy makers look at ways to curb rising food prices, from subsidies to investments in agricultural production. These are the very areas where aid organizations have been working for decades. Similarly, Gemenne and his co-authors focus on making changes to the root problems.

Which brings us back into the fold of the aid debate. If there are factors that contribute to conflict, what can be done to address them? What role can donors and NGOs play in addressing some of the core issues that contribute to enabling climate to increase chances of conflict?


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]