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Yesterday, Clionadh Raleigh, an conflict expert from the University of Sussex, gave an extraordinary talk at the Oxford Martin School. In it, she took a fairly hefty axe to the idea that a link between climate and conflict has been demonstrated, although she saved the real fireworks for the Q&A session at the end.

The whole presentation can be seen on Youtube and it’s well worth a watch.

I looked at at the (frequently alleged) link between climate and conflict in my GWPF report on heatwaves and drought, noting in passing the extraordinary steps that one Colin Kelley had taken to arrive at his widely reported finding that the Syrian conflict was caused by climate change. Reading between the lines of Prof Raleigh’s talk, it seems that I’m not the only one to have noticed problems in the field, because this is what she has to say about it:

There is a cottage industry that has emerged to promote [the climate conflict relationship] and others very similar to it, and those people and institutions …will find evidence or will…I hesitate to use the word “manipulate”…they will provide evidence as they see fit. There’s plenty of evidence that many of these presumed relationships are nonsense, but they are routinely used by the military or development organisations or by government…”

And when she spoke on Syria she had this to say:

…the 150 different militia groups that have emerged in Libya or the 1000 that have emerged within Syria are not doing it because it didn’t rain 10 years ago. That’s not why they’re fighting…

It did disturb me, the way [climate] caught on as the main lens through which people wanted to understand violence…especially the narrative about Syria is quite disturbing”

At times Prof Raleigh has quite a lot of fun at the expense of our green friends. She wonders about the oft-claimed increase in raiding behaviour by pastoralists, allegedly caused by climate change or, more specifically, drought. As she deadpan explains, the problem with this argument is that no self-respecting pastoralist is going to steal animals during a drought because there will be no fodder around to keep them alive. Any pastoralist who wasn’t born yesterday (or in Islington) knows that you steal your neighbour’s animals at the start of the rainy season. The argument for some kind of a climate link is, once you understand the situation on the ground, completely preposterous.

But perhaps she is at her most devastating when she comes to the implications of the arguments put forward by the environmentalists and their friends in the Guardian and the New York Times:

In very recent years, natural scientists have picked up on [the climate conflict] discussion. I would go so far as to say that their arguments are out and out environmental determinism: temperature goes up, violence goes up. It’s horrific…to imply that about people who are leading very difficult lives…to imply that they are somehow naturally violent is appalling.”

Which could be seen as…quite a strong accusation. It only gets worse when she considers the policy implications, which she says are “wide and profound”.

The notion of “threat multiplication” and that the US sees climate conflict as one of the most important lenses through which to view African violence…will have long-term effects on these regions and their ability to adapt and mitigate if they are treated as a security issue.”

I sense, however, that environmentalists are not bothered in the slightest.