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How climate disasters can drive violent conflict around the world


Chelsea Harvey reports: It’s increasingly clear that the consequences of climate change won’t stop at just heatwaves and sea level rise. A new study suggests that violence, war and other forms of human conflict may be driven or worsened by the effects of climate change — specifically in countries with high levels of ethnic divides.

Chelsea Harvey, The Washington Post

It’s increasingly clear that the consequences of climate change won’t stop at just heat waves and sea-level rise. Scientists expect numerous social issues to arise around the world as well, such as food shortages, decreased water quality and forced migrations. And many experts now say that violence, war and other forms of human conflict may be driven or worsened by the effects of climate change.

A new study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lends support to the growing body of evidence behind this idea. The study finds that climate-related disasters may enhance the risk of armed conflict around the world — specifically in countries with high levels of ethnic divides.

“This debate comes up time and again — is climate change really something like a trigger for violent conflict?” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and senior author of the new paper. “Some people say yes, others say no. There’s a heated debate about it.”

Many studies in the past have addressed the question of whether climate events might drive human conflict. Some of these have examined the issue on a global scale, while others have zeroed in on specific events — for instance, several studies have implicated drought as one of many factors that aided in the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Overall, multiple studies have indicated a connection between climate and conflict, although several have suggested that the link may be weak. So the concept has remained something of a controversial topic.

The new study seeks to help lay some of the debate to rest. The researchers compiled a list of armed conflicts and a list of natural disasters around the world between the years 1980 and 2010. They analyzed each disaster in terms of the amount of economic damage it caused to the nation where it occurred. They then conducted statistical tests to determine whether any of the conflicts and disasters coincided.

“What we do is not just correlational analysis, but so-called coincidence analysis, which also looks at which event is coming first and then which other one follows — so you get a certain causality,” Schellnhuber explained. In other words, the tests help to indicate whether one event — say, a drought or a heat wave — might have helped trigger an event that followed it, such as an outbreak of war.

The researchers also grouped countries in terms of other nation-specific factors that might have influenced the outbreak of conflict, such as income inequality, religious divides and ethnic divides.

Altogether, they found a significant link between climate disasters and the outbreak of violent conflict specifically in countries with high degrees of ethnic fractionalization. Notably, the other factors did not seem to play an important role — only when countries were examined in terms of their ethnic divides did climate events significantly exacerbate the outbreak of conflict. This seemed to be the case for climate disasters that caused both large and small amounts of economic damage. In all, about 23 percent of armed conflicts in highly ethnically divided nations coincided with climate-related disasters.

“We cannot explain the full complexity of the emergence of violent conflict, but here we have found something really robust, a factor that really matters,” Schellnhuber said.

The authors have emphasized that their results don’t necessarily suggest that climate events are the root cause behind any given conflict. Rather, they indicate that these events may increase the likelihood of violence erupting in a place that was already predisposed to conflict, or potentially serve as the final straw in an area where trouble was already brewing.

“If a society has already the sort of divisive lines, fault lines … where, in a sense, hostility along the fault lines can emerge, then you need a triggering shock,” Schellnhuber said. This is similar to the arguments that have been made in studies of specific conflicts — for instance, research on Syria didn’t identify drought as the only factor contributing to the civil war, but rather one of many issues that helped contribute to the outbreak of violent conflict.

It’s important to understand the specific conditions that may predispose a region to conflict under certain climate scenarios, he noted, because this knowledge may help scientists identify areas that could be headed for trouble in the future.

“We could turn it into something like a radar system,” he suggested.

The current paper only identifies regions where these factors have coincided in the past and makes no projections for the future, although the researchers have suggested that certain conflict-prone regions of the world where deep ethnic divides already exist — such as in North and Central Africa and Central Asia — are also expected to be particularly vulnerable to the future impact of climate change, making them particular regions of concern. Schellnhuber argues that predictions for the coming decades, using the type of information gathered for this study, could be a focus of future research.

“That would be the logical follow-up paper that could have a very high practical importance,” he said.

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One Response “How climate disasters can drive violent conflict around the world”

  1. 26th April 2019 at 3:02 pm

    I hope Harvey has presented here a reliable summary of the original research paper. My comment is based on this summary.

    It is in order if some scientists choose to concentrate on one particular factor that may have triggered (or also contributed to) the particular kind of conflicts they are studying. But it is not in order if these scientists, while mentioning the other factors also involved in this kind of conflicts, do not mention the most basic factor that generally underlies this kind of violent conflicts, namely imbalance between a growing population and a stagnating or even decreasing quantity of available resources such as arable land (or economic opportunities like industrial jobs) in a given habitat, in short, overpopulation.

    Prof. Schellnhuber is old enough to have sufficient knowledge of the violent, genocidal conflict in Ruanda between Hutus and Tutsis in 1994. The UN Convention on Climate Change was already in force at that time. But climate change did not play any role in the outbreak of that violent conflict. What basically led the Hutu leaders to plan and execute the genocide was the said imbalance. The relevant data from that period, which I found in a well-researched German book published in 1998, is as follows (in 1993 they must have been worse):
    Births per 1000: 52.1; total fertility rate: 8.5 children per woman; population doubling time 21 years (growth rate 3.33% per annum).

    Also in Syria and Iraq, the cases the authors refer to, the basic factor of population growth was in operation: In Syria, from 2000 to 2009 (the civil war began in 2011), the population had been growing on average by more than 2%, in Iraq in the period 2000 to 2017 by more than 2.5%.

    The authors of the paper have of course mentioned “development-related factors such as poverty and inequality”. So one might think economic development can prevent outbreak of such conflicts. But, as we know, the age of development has come to an end. What is needed today is de-growth.

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