We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

A Controversial Claim: Climate Change = War & Violence

By Keith Kloor
Aug 2, 2013 8:19 PMNov 20, 2019 4:58 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

In the late 2000s, the notion that climate change could trigger wars and geopolitical instability gained currency in military and intelligence circles. Security scholars gave credence to the possibility, think tanks were debating it and the media had another angle into the climate story. (I covered this news at the time--see here,here, and here.) One book captured the zeitgeist.

As The Economistreported in 2010:

The forecast is close to becoming received wisdom. A flurry of new books with titles such as “Global Warring” and “Climate Conflict” offer near-apocalyptic visions. Cleo Paskal, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, predicts that floods, storms, the failure of the Indian monsoon and agricultural collapse will bring “enormous, and specific, geopolitical, economic, and security consequences for all of us…the world of tomorrow looks chaotic and violent”. Jeffrey Mazo of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, also in London, calls climate change an “existential threat” and fears it could usher in “state failure and internal conflict” in exposed places, notably Africa.

[UPDATE: See below for note on Cleo Paskal] This piece, unlike most of the coverage at the time, was skeptical:

Yet surprisingly few facts support these alarming assertions. Widely touted forecasts such as for 200m climate refugees in the next few decades seem to have been plucked from the air. Little or no academic research has looked at questions such as whether Bangladeshis displaced by a rising sea would move a series of short distances over a long period, or (more disruptively) a greater distance immediately.

There were some respected scholars, such as Geoff Dabelko, trying to tamp down the hype. "Don't oversell the link between climate change and violent conflict or terrorism," he advised several years ago in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. But it was too late. A cottage industry was born and it built on the climate/conflict meme. In 2011, researchers published a study in Nature that got wide media play. Ed Carr, a geographer and development expert, wondered how it made it through peer review. He was blunt:

Look, the problem here is simple: the connection between conflict and the environment is shaky, at best...The simple fact is that for interstate conflict, there are more negative cases than positive case . . . that is, where a particular environmental stressor exists, conflict DOES NOT happen far more often than it does. Intrastate conflict is much, much more complex, though there are some indications that the environment does play a triggering/exacerbating role in conflict at this scale.

Carr goes on to lay out an extensive rebuttal to the Nature study and concludes:

This paper is a mess. But it got into print and made waves in a lot of popular outlets (for example, here and here). Why? Because it is reviving the long-dead corpse of environmental determinism…people really want the environment to in some way determine human behavior (we like simple explanations for complex events), even if that determination takes place via influences nuanced by local environmental variation, etc. Environmental determinism fell apart in the face of empirical evidence in the 1930s. But it makes for a good, simple narrative of explanation where we can just blame conflict on climate cycles that are beyond our control, and look past the things like colonialism that created the foundation for modern political economies of conflict. This absolves the Global North of responsibility for these conflicts, and obscures the many ways in which these conflicts could be addressed productively.

Well, it so happens that the same researchers are it again, and Carr will probably be none too pleased to see that they are still seemingly intent on reviving the long-dead corpse of environmental determinism. The researchers (from Princeton and Berkley) have published a new paper in Science that is generating splashy headlines like this:

Violence will rise as climate changes, scientists predict

And my personal favorite:

Climate change EVEN WORSE than you thought: It causes WAR and MURDER

But once you get past the headlines, there are good news stories that take a critical look at the new study, such as this one by Lauren Morello in Nature, who reports that

the lack of causal mechanisms [between climate change and conflict] leaves many political scientists sceptical about the environment’s role in conflicts, which they say are driven by a complex array of social factors.

Excellent context on the controversial nature of this research is also provided by Peter Aldhous at the New Scientist, who writes:

this provocative attempt to quantify the influence of climate on human conflict is itself setting off clashes among researchers who study the issue. "I would take their projections with a huge grain of salt," says Halvard Buhuag of the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway.

I doubt that will happen, since any study published in a prestigious journal that associates climate change with war and violence is bound to be taken very seriously. Fortunately, there are scholars like Carr and Dabelko who plead for a more a nuanced discussion of a field with serious research gaps. UPDATE: I should have mentioned that I favorably reviewed Cleo Paskal's book, which I think the Economist has unfairly characterized in the quote I excerpted above. In fact, I would count Paskal as one of those scholars who has a nuanced take on the climate/conflict issue. UPDATE: EdCarr dives into the Science paper. His longish post is respectfully critical. UPDATE: For additional recent scholarly perspective (not behind a paywall), check out the 2012 PNAS study that examined the relationship between climate change and war in East Africa over the last 30 years. From the press release:

While a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder shows the risk of human conflict in East Africa increases somewhat with hotter temperatures and drops a bit with higher precipitation, it concludes that socioeconomic, political and geographic factors play a much more substantial role than climate change.

Indeed, as one news analysis put it:

Unlike previous studies on the climate-conflict nexus, this new study paints a more nuanced picture of the linkages between climate, resources and conflict.

Also, I want to point out the work of other journalists who have covered this issue in a larger context. Brad Plumer examined the climate security argument in a 2009 TNR piece. And John Horgan at Scientific American has dissected the related "water wars" meme, some of the "overheated" resources war rhetoric, and more recently, the "Deep Roots Theory of War, which holds that war is ancient and innate." Finally, Andrew Holland of the American Security Project takes note of the contested debate among scholars, but finds it "exhausting." He writes:

In the end, this academic debate has largely been overtaken by events. Militaries and governments around the world overwhelmingly do see climate change as a threat to their national security. ASP’s Global Security Defense Index on Climate Change shows that more than 70% of the countries in the world see it as a threat to their security.

That begs an interesting question: Are important nuances of this debate irrelevant to the larger specter of climate change, which as Holland points out, is being taken seriously by militaries and governments around the world?

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.