When one of the strongest El Niños ever recorded hit the South American country of Peru in 1982, the abnormal warming it brought to the Pacific Ocean was a catastrophic blow to the already economically fragile nation. The fishing industry quickly suffered massive losses as the anchovy harvest collapsed and the sardines suddenly migrated south into Chilean waters.
Heavy rains and flooding crippled agriculture and infrastructure in the north. Crops in the south and the highland were battered, too, with a drought that for some areas seemed to be the continuation of a short but intense dry spell that had ended just two years before. By 1983 the country was an economic and violent mess. It had lost more than 10 percent of its gross domestic product in a matter of months. Inflation was rampant. Poverty was widespread but particularly overwhelming for the indigenous population, and the Shining Path, a terrorist insurgency that went on to kill more than 70,000 until its demise in the mid-1990s, was ramping up deadly coordinated attacks.
“The hemisphere is facing an unprecedented threat,” said then-President Fernando Belaunde Terry during his annual address to Congress. “This is not an open war over boundaries, but a criminal attack; a cowardly infiltration conducted from a remote and unknown location.”
Social scientists have for several decades tried to understand what makes a country experience conflict, with poverty, income inequality, weak governance, and ethnic animosity making up the long list of compounding factors at play. As human-caused climate change brings a rise in extreme weather events, scientists have now increasingly looked into the climate as another significant driver of conflict. On Monday, a study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research reported that climate disasters increase the likelihood of armed conflict outbreaks in highly ethnically divided societies, though researchers didn’t find a direct triggering effect.
“There is something going on which is just not clear cut,” said lead author Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, in an interview with ThinkProgress. He added the idea is that climate disasters contributed to the turmoil that eventually led to a conflict outbreak. “There is a risk enhancement due to these natural disasters.”
Published in the National Academy of Science, the study used a method of statistical analysis that scientists at times employ to evaluate neuronal spike triggers. Researchers applied this so-called coincidence analysis on some 240 conflict outbreaks, along with 18,000 climate disasters that included droughts, floods, frosts, heat waves, and wildfires from 1980 through 2010 extrapolated from two different datasets. According to the study, some 23 percent of conflicts in the 50 most highly ethnically fractionalized countries coincided with climate calamities occurring in the same month. When different types of disasters were treated separately, they found that 9 percent of conflict outbreaks worldwide coincided with droughts or heat waves within the same month.
Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and parts of South America seem to be the most at risk, said Schleussner, noting these are countries already more vulnerable to climate change. Indeed, in a warming world, countries near the already-hot tropics disproportionately suffer from the increasing heat, in part because they are closer to biophysical thresholds, according to studies. Countries south of the Equator tend to be poorer, too, and lack resources to swiftly adapt to food insecurity or respond to climate disasters. For their part, northern countries like the United States and European nations are much more politically stable and resilient to climate emergencies. However, they are also facing the many challenges climate change poses, including rising seas and loss of land productivity.
“I think the paper does provide additional evidence that climate-related events are associated with increases in conflict, and is consistent with a growing body of evidence on the climate-conflict link,” said Marshall Burke, assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science, in an email to ThinkProgress. But Burke, who was not part of the study, said the study lacks evidence that ethnic fractionalization is a mediating influence, partly because the authors found evidence that other factors are likely important. “I think their results are better interpreted as additional evidence that climatic changes matter for conflict, than as evidence on the particular factors that mediate this relationship.”
Burke was not alone in questioning the evidence behind ethnic diversity.
Cullen Hendrix, who directs the Environment, Food and Conflict Lab at the University of Denver, said the research design was “somewhat problematic.” In an email to ThinkProgress, Hendrix said most highly ethnically fractionalized countries are poor, highly agriculturally dependent, and characterized by comparatively weak governments. “There are plenty of reasons to believe that such societies and governments would be more susceptible to climate-related shocks and conflict, but I didn’t see any attempt to address these potential confounds. This is incredibly important from a policy perspective.”
CREDIT: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi,
If poverty and agricultural dependence drive the relationship between climate shocks and conflict instead of ethnicity, organizations or governments may approach solving the problem through different channels, Hendrix said. “I don’t see this [study] as iron-clad evidence that ethnic diversity, rather than things that co-occur with it, mediates the climate shock-conflict relationship.”
The link between climate disasters — let alone climate change — and conflict is highly complex, researchers reached said. That is a function of the many variables that may push a person, a neighborhood, or a town to support an insurgency, or for one country to attack a neighboring country. There may be convoluted politics and historical grievances, as well as other socioeconomic variables that are difficult to isolate to reach a clear cause and effect.
Even the concept of ethnic fractionalization is daunting to measure as social scientists come up with more sophisticated ways of figuring out how fractionalized a country is. (For this study, researchers followed pre-established definitions and state of the art data sets). Such complexity has in turn long inspired a debate on whether climatic factors are too simplistic to include in the mix of components that social scientists have discussed over the years to explain war, insurgency, or terrorism. Another major worry is that blaming conflict on climate depoliticises the problem, and may even provide a scapegoat to failed approaches.
Meanwhile, the evidence is for some mounting. In 2014, Stanford’s Marshall Burke examined dozens of studies and found that changes in drought, rainfall patterns, and temperature all increase violence in individuals and larger groups.
Moreover, studies have found that human-caused climate change is a major security risk that can precipitate conflict. Even the Department of Defense has expressed their views on this topic. After a report published last year, the agency called climate change a security risk because “it degrades living conditions, human security and the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations.”
Many most recently pointed to Syria as a telling example. There, a drought hurt the livelihood of some 800,000 people shortly before the civil war erupted some five years ago, according to United Nations data. In addition, megadroughts in the Middle East from 2006 through 2010 have been blamed for the poverty and political instability that the self-proclaimed Islamic State exploited for gains in Iraq and Syria. Other researchers have found droughts and competition over land and water precluded militarized cattle raiding in Kenya.
“You can find cases and studies for both arguments,” said Jurgen Scheffran, a professor at the University of Hamburg and an expert in security risks and climate change. “New publications and methodologies can contribute to better understand the puzzle of the climate-conflict relationship, but should not be seen as deciding or winning the controversy in one or the other direction,” said Scheffran, a pioneer on this topic who was involved with the study’s peer review process.
But though most scientists reached said the relationship between climate and conflict remains poorly understood, the notion of a meaningful connection seems concrete for the growing number of researchers and agencies now exploring the link between environment, security, conflict, and violence.
“I am pretty convinced there is a relationship between climatic shocks and conflict, but I am not convinced the relationship is the same regarding all types of conflict and at all scales,” said Hendrix, whose work suggests that climate shocks are more strongly correlated with conflict in poorer and more agricultural societies. “There’s a lot of nuances that unfortunately doesn’t make it into the headlines.”