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Climate Change and Conflict: Is There Any Correlation?

Fargione, Joe 9/6/2012

Will climate change lead to a future with more war? One popular hypothesis among advocates for action to curb climate change is that, if climate change creates or exacerbates resource scarcity for food and water (e.g., via crop failure and low rainfall), and resource scarcity creates conflict, then climate change could lead to increased conflict. But what is the evidence that past changes in climate have created resource scarcity and that such scarcity contributed to war? And how does the resource scarcity factor compare in importance to political drivers of war?

The question is complicated. For example, you have to specify what kind of war/conflict you are talking about (e.g., interstate war, civil war or inter-communal violence) and use consistent criteria for what counts as war (e.g., thresholds for death counts and criteria to exclude one-sided massacres and pogroms). But there is a growing body of literature on this topic, and the surprising answer appears to be that the effect of past climate change on conflict ranges from undetectable to small and, even when present, sometimes goes in the opposite direction than you might predict.

Let’s look at some specific examples from the literature. Although some research argued that increasing temperatures are correlated with increased war in Africa (Burke, 2009), this assertion is contradicted by subsequent analysis and by recent events (Buhaug, 2010). For example, although the first decade of this millennium was one of the hottest on record for Africa, average annual battle deaths were down 38-68% from any of the four previous decades (through 2008, the last year for which battle deaths data are available; see Figure 1). Clearly, whatever factors led to declines in violence are much stronger than the effects of increased temperature.

Figure 1: Battle deaths in Africa (in thousands) and mean annual temperature on the continent, 1950-2008 Sources: Data from Climate Wizard (http://climatewizardcustom.org/) and PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset (http://www.prio.no/CSCW/Datasets/Armed-Conflict/Battle-Deaths/The-Battle- Deaths-Dataset-version-30/)

A recent special issue in The Journal of Peace Research provides more detailed case studies of the relationship between climate and conflict. Researchers are turning toward lower-intensity conflict to test for the effects of climate change on violent conflict. As they define it, low-intensity conflict includes riots, protests and inter-communal conflict, such as between farmers and herders. Such conflict is more frequent, allowing a larger sample size and more rigorous statistics. Such conflict is also potentially more easily triggered by climate since, for example, subsistence farmers and herders are among the most exposed to the effects of climate change. But one recent study of low-intensity conflict in Africa found that it tended to be higher in wetter years (Hendrix and Salehyan, 2012). The causal mechanism is unclear, but these results suggest it is not as simple as climate change -> resource scarcity -> increased conflict.

Of course, lack of past correlation doesn’t mean that there won’t be problems in the future. Rapid climate change could bolt past thresholds of resilience, threatening food security and triggering natural disasters that spur an unsustainable wave of migration from rural to urban areas.

However, political factors are still likely to determine the prevalence of war. The surprising news here is that war deaths (along with pretty much every other form of violence) have been decreasing globally since the end of World War II. But don’t take my word for it. The data are exhaustively compiled in Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Pinker, 2011).

The forces that Pinker has identified as likely causes for the declines in war will still be in effect as the climate changes. Democracies tend to stick around once they are created and are much less likely to be involved in interstate wars than are other forms of government. Weak democracies are still prone to civil war, but several factors have reduced deaths from civil wars. Peacekeepers have proven to be effective in reducing the probability of civil war. Increasing economic co-dependency and the economic benefits of trade, which are disrupted during civil wars, can provide incentives for citizens to avoid conflict. And one of the biggest predictors of civil war is past civil war. As more countries gain distance from their conflicted pasts, the likelihood that old rivalries will resurface decreases. Even the influx of rural residents to urban areas should ultimately decrease inter-communal conflict, as the diversity and proximity of cultures in the urban milieu promotes increased understanding and tolerance among ethnic groups. In other words, climate change is likely to make a lot of people suffer, but not necessarily by increasing war.

What does all this mean for conservation? The conservation movement is desperate to get climate change back in the public conversation, following the build-up and crash of media coverage around Copenhagen. Consequently, you will see climate change linked to a variety of issues that the public cares more about, such as crop production, natural disasters and national security. Highlighting such consequences of climate change in an effort to raise awareness is all well and good. But if such linkages are not backed up by sound science, they will backfire. While the literature around climate change and war has not reached a consensus, it tends to find either no effect or a very weak effect. Attempts to spur action on climate change by linking it to violent conflict are treading on pretty thin ice.

By Joe Fargione, lead scientist, North America Region, The Nature Conservancy

Image credit: JD Hancock/Flickr


Burke, M.B., et al. 2009. Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa. PNAS 106 (49): 20670-20674.

Buhaug, H. 2010. Climate not to blame for African civil wars. PNAS 107(38): 16477- 16482.

Hendrix, C.S. and I. Salehyan. 2012. Climate change, rainfall, and social conflict in Africa. Journal of Peace Research 49(1): 35-50.

Pinker, S. 2011. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined? New York, New York: Viking.