Global climate change has the potential to significantly undermine the resource base upon which people have built their livelihoods and socio-political institutions, thus potentially contributing to armed conflict or violent social unrest.  As we move beyond the question of whether climate change will impact conflict, we need to know which aspects of climate change will drive conflict, how they will do this, and which counties will be most affected.

A discussion panel held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, on December 19 served as a venue for experts to discuss their research on the links between climate and conflict. However, panelists were careful to place their conclusions within the large landscape of the still uncertain; in this way, the event served to highlight the fact that the emerging links between climate, conflict, and national security are far from being thoroughly understood, and that more research is necessary.

The relationship between climate change and conflict has received copious attention during the past few years for its links to US national security.  CSW has been commenting on this emerging framework for regarding climate change since 2009. We’ve hoped that thinking about change from a national-security perspective would grant the issue an additional dimension of immediacy without reducing it to an exclusively US-centric view of energy use and the climate change problem.

According to Marc Levy, Deputy Director at ColumbiaUniversity’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, what we know definitively about climate and the risk of conflict is actually quite limited.  His September 2010 post for the New Security Beat, blog for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, presents four points as the only aspects of the climate-conflict-security relationship that are certain:

1. Economic deprivation almost certainly heightens the risk of internal war.
2. Economic shocks, as a form of deprivation, almost certainly heighten the risk of internal war.
3. Sharp declines in rainfall, compared to average, almost certainly generate economic shocks and deprivation.
4. Therefore, we are almost certain that sharp declines in rainfall raise the risk of internal war.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of how future climate change and variability could affect the risk of conflict, and by extension the future of US national security, we need to know much more.  We are moving beyond the question of whether climate change will impact conflict – we need to know which aspects of climate change will drive conflict, how they will do this, and which counties will be most affected.

Answering these questions, Levy maintains, requires that we combine research of the potential evolution of a society with research of the potential evolution of the climate. This implies the need for collaboration between physical and social scientists, reconciliation of the constraints in which each group conducts research, and for the future of policymaking to be taken into account.  Levy writes:

“To say something credible about climate change and conflict, we need to be able to articulate future pathways of economics and politics, because we know these will have a major impact on conflict in addition to climate change.  Since we currently lack this ability, we must build it.”

A recent Nature article attempts to delve into some of these more detailed questions by demonstrating that there are links between the global El Niño/La Niña cycle and the probability of conflict within states.  The authors, including Solomon Hsiang, Postdoctoral Research Associate with Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs, claim that the article constitutes “the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies relates strongly to the global climate.”

They found that the probability of a civil conflict for countries affected by the El Niño/La Niña cycle doubled in El Niño years compared to La Niña years.  In addition, they found that El Niño events might have had a role in 21 percent of all civil conflicts since 1950.

While Hsiang et al. were able to conclude that the effect of El Niño events on the risk of conflict in a given nation is very large compared to other socioeconomic factors known to impact conflict, the relationship is not one of cause and effect.  In fact, the article has received notable criticism from Edward Carr, professor in the University of South Carolina’s geography department and fellow at the US Agency for International Development, for leaving less-knowledgeable readers with an impression of an oversimplified causal connection between climate and conflict.  Perhaps taking into account this criticism, Hsiang was careful to emphasize that his paper does not imply any determinism of conflict in El Niño-affected countries at the panel discussion.

The article and criticisms of it indicate a lively debate between experts to identify whatever links exist between climate and conflict.  True, Hsiang’s stated policy implications are modest; he suggests that policymakers should be able to predict and prepare for upcoming conflicts based on the ability of scientists to predict El Niño events in advance.  Yet the paper constitutes a step in the right direction in that it proposes a stronger integration of policymaking and scientific analysis to protect populations from potentially conflict-inducing environments.  A good summary of the article, along with analysis of the controversy can be found at New Security Beat.  Carr’s criticism and Hsiang’s responses can be found in a blog post at his personal blog, Open the Echo Chamber.

Joseph Hewitt, from the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation in USAID, also sought to avoid determinism and a simplified cause-effect relationship between climate and conflict.  Climate, he asserted, is filtered through the pre-existing characteristics of a certain nation, which condition any impact that it may have.  Assessing this impact requires not only assessing the future of economics and politics at a broad scale as Levy suggested, but also micro-level impacts on livelihoods, entrepreneurs, and communities.  This implies a need for high-quality fieldwork to observe how these relationships develop on the ground.

Still another approach to teasing out these links was demonstrated by Josh Busby in his work on the Climate Change and African Political Security (CCAPS) climate security vulnerability index for Africa.  His work, funded by the Department of Defense, is a testament to the importance climate change and national security has gained in government attention. His work “is designed to identify trouble spots where extreme weather events and changing patterns in rainfall and temperature are likely to put large numbers of people in Africa at risk of death.”  A clear and simple explanation of his work can be found at UT Austin’s website.

The goal is to provide a tool that will allow governments and international donors to prioritize spending and resources, hopefully preventing climate shocks from becoming disasters in affected areas.  This could limit the potential contribution of the disaster to a subsequent outbreak of conflict. The tool also provides a method for determining if aid is going to those countries that are most vulnerable to climate shocks.  Right now, this is not the case; political instability and danger to development workers on the ground prevents it.  The question of how aid is to be effectively utilized in these nations to prevent conflict remains to be seen.

This last observation echoed the sentiments of all three other speakers: the interaction between climate, conflict, and security is in need of much more research in order to successfully inform US policymakers on foreign aid and adaptation to climatic pressures, both for the present and for the future.

Earlier posts:

U.S.National Research Council: Climate Change Impacts “Call for Action byU.S. Naval Leadership”

The national security frame: a path forward for climate change communication?

AMS Climate Briefing Series takes on national security implications of climate change

Report from a conference on Climate Change, State Resilience and Global Security

Senate testimony on climate change and national security raises questions: Whose

Climate Security Index: Global climate disruption seen as aUS national security problem