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Conflict Deaths And Global Warming

The Lukewarmer's Way

It would appear to me that those believing that climate change is a contributor to conflict may be intuitively making sense, but they do not appear to have numbers on their side.

It has been claimed for more than a decade that global warming will contribute to increased conflict, primarily due to competition for scarce resources.

Global warming has been blamed for the Arab Spring, the current conflicts inSyria and Sudan, etc. They haven’t said anything about what’s going on in the Ukraine yet. A paper published in PNAS in 2009 bluntly declared that “Warming Increases The Risk of Civil War in Africa.”

The problem is that the conflicts that are cited as examples of the phenomenon are located in areas known for both frequent conflict prior to the current warming period and for historical patterns of extreme climates similar to those seen today. Attribution is everything. If places with frequent droughts have frequent conflicts, you might be able to make the case that more (and stronger) droughts will lead to more conflict. But you would have to be very careful with the numbers.

When Egypt experienced its short-lived version of the Arab Spring, people attributed it in part to climate change causing food shortages. A bit of closer examination showed that their agricultural output had increased during the years before the conflict–that perhaps population growth was a more effective explanation.

Similarly, looking at climate change as a primary contributor in Sudan, given the civil unrest, religious differences in regions, competition over large oil resources, etc., seems a bit unwise. It also would be a bit foolish not to look at the historical periodicity and intensity of drought in the region–the same being true in Syria and other places.

Some of those who have written on the subject have been suitably cautious, saying that global warming may have been a contributor along with many other factors.

However, others have been more simplistic–perhaps far too simplistic. In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region as the world’s first climate change conflict. He was not alone. Rebecca Solnit’s article in the Guardian is headlined, “Call Climate Change What It Is: Violence.”  Tom Friedman wrote about climate change as one of the causes of conflict in the Middle East, but apparently didn’t read one of the experts he quoted in the article. “Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, the executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London, writing in The Beirut Daily Star in February, pointed out that 12 of the world’s 15 most water-scarce countries — Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel and Palestine — are in the Middle East, and after three decades of explosive population growth these countries are “set to dramatically worsen their predicament.”

One of the problems is that both conflict and weather extremes are rare, so looking at regional patterns can’t provide adequate numbers to justify authoritative pronouncements.

So let’s look globally. The current warming period had a strong period of temperature climbs from 1976 through the present, with many claiming that 2014 was the warmest year on record. And it does seem clear that 14 of the warmest 15 years in the past 500 occurred since 2000.

What has happened to conflict during this period? Here is a chart that shows conflict from 1946 to 2013.

Conflict trends


Here is what happened to temperatures:

temperature anomalies

It is difficult for me to spot a positive correlation between rising temperatures and armed conflict.

What about deaths in conflict? This chart shows trends:


Again, deaths begin to decline around 1987.

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