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New Research On The Links Between Climate Change And Conflicts

The emerging links between climate, conflict, and national security are far from being thoroughly understood

Katherine O’Konski has an interesting post at ClimateScienceWatch entitled New research on the links between climate change and conflicts.” Some excerpts:

discussion panel held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, on December 19 served as a venue for experts to discuss their research on the links between climate and conflict. However, panelists were careful to place their conclusions within the large landscape of the still uncertain; in this way, the event served to highlight the fact that the emerging links between climate, conflict, and national security are far from being thoroughly understood, and that more research is necessary.

Mark Levy

Mark Levy was one of the panelists, who argued that what we know definitively about climate and the risk of conflict is actually quite limited. His argument  is summarized in his  post at The New Security Beat entitled “Climate Security Links – Lost in Translation.”

Here’s how I would characterize what we know and we are trying to learn:

1) Economic deprivation almost certainly heightens the risk of internal war.
2) Economic shocks, as a form of deprivation, almost certainly heighten the risk of internal war.
3) Sharp declines in rainfall, compared to average, almost certainly generate economic shocks and deprivation.
4) Therefore, we are almost certain that sharp declines in rainfall raise the risk of internal war.

To understand how climate change might affect future conflict, we need to know much more. We need to understand how changing climate patterns interact with year-to-year variability to affect deprivation and shocks. We need to construct plausible socioeconomic scenarios of change to enable us to explore how the dynamics of climate, economics, demography, and politics will interact and unfold to shape conflict risk.

The same scenarios that generate future climate change also typically assume high levels of economic growth in Africa and other developing regions. If development is consistent with these projections, the risk of conflict will lessen over time as economies develop and democratic institutions spread.

To say something credible about climate change and conflict, we need to be able to articulate future pathways of economics and politics, because we know these will have a major impact on conflict in addition to climate change. Since we currently lack this ability, we must build it.

[A] more profound confusion reflected in the headline concerns the term “climate change.” Buhaug’s research did not look at climate change at all, but rather historical climate variability. Variability of past climate is surely relevant to understanding the possible impacts of climate change, but there’s no way that, by itself, it can answer the question headline writers and policymakers want answered: Will climate change spark more conflict? For that we need to engage in a much richer combination of scenario analysis and model testing than we have done so far.

Solomon Hsiang

Another panelist was Solomon Hsiang, author of the Nature article entitled “Civil conflicts are associated with the global climate.” The abstract:

It has been proposed that changes in global climate have been responsible for episodes of widespread violence and even the collapse of civilizations. Yet previous studies have not shown that violence can be attributed to the global climate, only that random weather events might be correlated with conflict in some cases. Here we directly associate planetary-scale climate changes with global patterns of civil conflict by examining the dominant interannual mode of the modern climate, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Historians have argued that ENSO may have driven global patterns of civil conflict in the distant past, a hypothesis that we extend to the modern era and test quantitatively. Using data from 1950 to 2004, we show that the probability of new civil conflicts arising throughout the tropics doubles during El Niño years relative to La Niña years. This result, which indicates that ENSO may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts since 1950, is the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies relates strongly to the global climate.

The controversy surrounding this paper is summarized by a post at the New Security Beat entitled “El Nino, Conflict, and Environmental Determinist:  Assessing Climate’s Links to Security.” Some excerpts:

The authors found a statistical correlation between natural, predictable shifts in global climate – the ENSO effect – and incidences of civil conflict, but they are not sure why the correlation exists, offering instead a general theory:

Precipitation, temperature, sunlight, humidity and ecological extremes can adversely influence both agrarian and non-agrarian economics. In addition, ENSO variations affect natural disasters, such as tropical cyclones, and trigger disease outbreaks. All of these have adverse economic effects, such as loss of income or increasing food prices, and it is thought that economic shocks can generate civil conflict through a variety of pathways. Furthermore, altered environmental conditions stress the human psyche, sometimes leading to aggressive behavior. We hypothesize that El Niño can simultaneously lead to any of these adverse economic and psychological effects, increasing the likelihood of conflict.

In Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny points out some of the study’s limitations: The findings do not apply to anthropogenic climate change or interstate conflict; do not explain the specific mechanisms that link conflict and climate; and should be considered an additive – not primary – explanation for any conflict. Given these caveats, the title of the study is perhaps a bit misleading, but the authors do recognize all these limitations in the text.

Edward Carr, a professor in South Carolina’s Department of Geography and visiting AAAS fellow at USAID, had what may be the strongest critical response. In a post on his blog Open the Echo Chamber, he called the study “horrifically flawed, to the point that I cannot see how its conclusions actually tell us anything about the relationship between El Niño and conflict, let alone climate and conflict.”

In response to Carr’s criticism that their regression “is populated with massively over-aggregated data such that any causal signal is completely lost in the noise,” Hsiang writes:

It is true that our data is the most aggregated social data that we have ever seen analyzed (it summarizes the conditions for half the world’s population) and often aggregation makes signal detection difficult. However, this only makes the fact that we can extract a signal from the noise that much more remarkable. Despite everything else in the world that’s going on, we can observe a signal from ENSO loud and clear. And not only do we observe a single correlation, but we observe four patterns all of which point towards the idea that ENSO affects conflict.

Joseph Hewitt

O’Konski summarizes Hewitt’s arguments:

Joseph Hewitt, from the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation in USAID, also sought to avoid determinism and a simplified cause-effect relationship between climate and conflict.  Climate, he asserted, is filtered through the pre-existing characteristics of a certain nation, which condition any impact that it may have.  Assessing this impact requires not only assessing the future of economics and politics at a broad scale as Levy suggested, but also micro-level impacts on livelihoods, entrepreneurs, and communities.  This implies a need for high-quality fieldwork to observe how these relationships develop on the ground.

Josh Busby

O’Konski summarizes Busby’s arguments:

Still another approach to teasing out these links was demonstrated by Josh Busby in his work on the Climate Change and African Political Security (CCAPS) climate security vulnerability index for Africa.  His work, funded by the Department of Defense, is a testament to the importance climate change and national security has gained in government attention. His work “is designed to identify trouble spots where extreme weather events and changing patterns in rainfall and temperature are likely to put large numbers of people in Africa at risk of death.”  A clear and simple explanation of his work can be found at UT Austin’s website.

The goal is to provide a tool that will allow governments and international donors to prioritize spending and resources, hopefully preventing climate shocks from becoming disasters in affected areas.  This could limit the potential contribution of the disaster to a subsequent outbreak of conflict. The tool also provides a method for determining if aid is going to those countries that are most vulnerable to climate shocks.  Right now, this is not the case; political instability and danger to development workers on the ground prevents it.  The question of how aid is to be effectively utilized in these nations to prevent conflict remains to be seen.

Busby’s web site is worth a visit, it provides a detailed online vulnerability assessment for Africa.

JC comments: For reference, there have been several previous posts at Climate Etc. on security, the main reference post on this topic is Climate Change and Security.  This paragraph bears repeating:

These statements from the White House, military, and intelligence agencies clearly recognized climate change and natural disaster impacts as accelerants that can exacerbate existing sources of instability.  Climate change and natural disasters are not intrinsic security threats; rather, climate change impacts and natural hazards can serve as multiplier stressors on potentially already-unstable conditions, or can disrupt components of a country (infrastructure, health, governance systems, etc.), thereby resulting in destabilized conditions. These destabilized  conditions may result in conflict, migration, terrorism, and humanitarian disasters.

In this context, I particularly like the work that Josh Busby is doing.