Jenna Ladd | February 15, 2018
It has been accepted in many scientific communities that climate change can lead to civil unrest and violence, but a recent editorial in the Journal Nature tells readers not to be so sure.
The editorial’s authors did a literature review of 124 studies which assessed the link between climate change and war or civil unrest. They claim to have found three kinds of sampling biases among the studies. First, researchers overwhelmingly looked at regions where violence was already happening or had happened recently. Second, they noted that the studies primarily included countries in Africa and left out other nations that have been severely impacted by climate change. Finally, the mostly-white, Western researchers usually chose to study countries that were easily accessible to them and where the locals spoke English; think countries like Kenya.
Tobias Ide studies peace and war at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research and is one of the paper’s authors. He said to The Atlantic, “If we only look at places where violence is, can we learn anything about peaceful adaptation to climate change? And if we only look at those places where there is violence, do we tend to see a link because we are only focusing on the places where there is violence in the first place?”
Solomon Hsiang has been openly critical of the paper’s claims. Hsiang’s 2013 findings showed that for every standard deviation change in precipitation or temperature, the likelihood that an area will experience civil unrest rises by 14 percent. The University of California Berkeley economist and public policy professor said in an email to The Atlantic, “Studying conflict-prone regions isn’t a problem, it’s what you would expect. Nobody is studying Ebola outbreaks by studying why Ebola is not breaking out in cafés in Sydney today, we study what happened in West Africa when there was an actual event.”
Either way, the paper draws attention to the myriad opportunities for study of climate change and conflict in countries outside of Africa and the Middle East. Ide said, “I was a bit surprised that even within American studies, there’s not really a focus on Latin America, basically. You can be concerned about Iraq, Syria, or India because of geopolitical relevance—but why not look for [climate-related conflict] in Mexico, or Honduras, or Brazil? Because that would have much sharper consequences for the United States.”