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.
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Still, the new study "really is a heroic effort. They're the first people to sit down and say: Can we make sense of this?" he says, referring to the 60 studies the team included in its analysis.Skip to next paragraph
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The studies span some 10,000 years of human history, "conflicts" ranging in scales from incidents of domestic violence to all-out war, and shifts in temperatures and rainfall that range from events lasting a few hours to centuries.
The studies involved criminologists, geographers, psychologists, and archaeologists who "all had been working on related issues," Hsiang says. "We set about trying to understand what everyone was finding."
The studies varied in important ways, he adds. But once his team set the studies into "a single coherent framework, we saw that people were seeing the same thing around the world."
The common thread: Higher temperatures, or higher extremes in precipitation – either more of it or less of it – "are associated with higher levels of human conflict around the world, throughout time, in different types of societies," Hsiang says.
How tightly associated, compared with other factors linked to conflict, is another issue, other researchers say.
The deepest concern about the link between climate and conflict centers on Africa, says Andrew Solow, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who studies sustainable development and marine resources.
He points to a study conducted several years ago by researchers in Norway who noted that since the early 1990s, civil conflicts in Africa have declined, despite recent headlines, even as temperatures were warming and extreme rainfall or drought were rising. Factors that overwhelmed any climate effect on conflicts included the end of the cold war – with its proxy wars in Africa – and economies in many countries picking up steam, he says.
From a policy perspective, he cautions, the new study could become a distraction, diverting attention from the need to help countries in Africa grow in a sustainable way and focus on other factors that historically have helped reduce conflicts.
"It's certainly worth worrying about what will the role of climate change be in all of this. We need to be thoughtful and careful about that," he says. But if conflict is the concern, the lesson from the Norwegian and other studies is that a higher standard of living, an equitable society, and other non-climate factors "are where the attention is best placed."
Others, such as Dr. O'Loughlin, see shortcomings in the study itself that suggest the team is overreaching in its conclusions and exaggerating climate's effect on conflicts.
Still, he suggests, the team's agenda for future research on the topic is enough to make it noteworthy.
The study represents "a very valuable brush-clearing exercise," he says. "I think all future work on this topic will have to reference this paper" for the scientific road map it draws and the questions it raises.
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