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Global warming, more wars? Climate could spark more conflict, study says.

A 'metastudy' of 60 other studies suggests that there is a clear link between the climate and violence. Global warming raises the specter of more conflict, especially in Africa.

By Staff writer / August 1, 2013

Armed militants from Somalia's Hizbul Islam rebel group walk in a formation as they patrol southern Mogadishu, Feb. 4, 2010. Violence in Somalia has killed at least 21,000 people since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes, helping trigger one of the world's worst humanitarian emergencies.

Feisal Omar/Reuters

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Peacemakers are likely to be in great demand by 2050 if global warming proceeds unabated.

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That is the implication of a new analysis exploring the links between climate change and conflict. The work represents the first attempt to survey a burgeoning number of studies on the subject to see if they point in a common direction and to quantify the overall effect the studies identify, researchers say.

The scientists conducting this "metastudy" estimate that if greenhouse-gas emissions from human industrial activity follow the business-as-usual path, and especially if people respond to changing climate in the future in much the same way they have throughout human history, warmer temperatures could significantly increase the risk of tribal, ethnic, or civil wars, as well as battles between countries.

The largest increase in risks appears in countries in the tropics, where people are expected to bear the brunt of climate change, the researchers note. Significantly warmer temperatures and increases in extreme rainfall could push the risk of so-called group conflict up by 56 percent over today's risk. The risk of friction among individuals could rise by 16 percent, the study implies.

They also point to a change in relative risk since 1950, after which changes in temperature have emerged as a higher risk factor than changes in precipitation, and the risk of group violence is greater than the risk of person-to-person conflict.

The researchers caution that climate clearly is not the only factor at work. Not all climate events affect all conflicts. Nor does a changing climate alone determine whether conflicts will occur.

Still, "for a long time, people have been arguing: Is there an effect or not, yes or no?" says Solomon Hsiang, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley who focuses on sustainable development and the effects of climate on societies.

The answer is yes, says Dr. Hsiang, who along with two colleagues from Princeton University and Berkeley conducted the analysis. The results are set to appear in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

The new questions, he continues, are why, and how heavily does climate influence conflict compared with other influences, such as personal or national wealth, political stability within a region or country, or how governments respond to migration within or across their national borders.

Other researchers exploring the links between climate, social, economic, and political conditions and conflict say the new study overstates climate's effect on the risk of conflict.

John O'Loughlin, a geographer at the University of Colorado at Boulder who explores the interplay of environmental conditions and conflict, notes that in his research, as in the new study, climate conditions play a role. But his own work suggests that warming temperatures or extreme precipitation are poor predictors of risk compared with the social, economic, and political drivers for conflict.

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