Is climate change a driver of armed conflict?

Abstract

The world is generally becoming less violent, but the debate on climate change raises the specter of a new source of instability and conflict. In this field, the policy debate is running well ahead of its academic foundation—and sometimes even contrary to the best evidence. Although comparative research on security implications of climate change is rapidly expanding, major gaps in knowledge still exist. Taken together, extant studies provide mostly inconclusive insights, with contradictory or weak demonstrated effects of climate variability and change on armed conflict. This article reviews the empirical literature on short-term climate/environmental change and intrastate conflict, with special attention to possible insecurity consequences of precipitation and temperature anomalies and weather-related natural disasters. Based on this assessment, it outlines priorities for future research in this area.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We refer to Buhaug et al. (2010) for a more comprehensive exposition of possible causal linkages between climate change and violent conflict.

  2. 2.

    Conversely, the study suggests that rates of violent crime dropped due to a rise in beer prices.

  3. 3.

    A summary table obscures the fact that not all analyses are of the same scope and rigor. However, the lack of consensus on specification issues precludes us from ranking studies according to such (yet to be established) objective criteria. We try to partially compensate for this by indicating some findings that are more recent.

  4. 4.

    That said, there is no consensus on the extent to which global climate change will impact the incidence and severity of El Niño and La Niña episodes (IPCC 2007: 780).

  5. 5.

    Guha-Sapir et al. (2011: 7) define a disaster as ‘a situation or event which overwhelms local capacity, necessitating a request to a national or international level for external assistance; an unforeseen and often sudden event that causes great damage, destruction and human suffering.’

  6. 6.

    Brancati (2007) studied only earthquakes and Nel and Righarts (2008) also found stronger results for geological than for climatic disasters.

  7. 7.

    More recent estimates tend to be higher. Grinsted et al. (2009) project sea-level to rise between 0.9 and 1.3 m within the twenty-first century, based on the A1B scenario.

  8. 8.

    Several earlier summaries of the extant literature (Bernauer et al. 2012; Gleditsch 2012; Scheffran et al. 2012) point in the same direction.

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Acknowledgments

This article builds on a paper prepared for the DoE/EPA workshop on Research on Climate Change Impacts and Associated Economic Damages, Washington, DC, 27–28 January 2011. It draws on work at the Centre for the Study of Civil War at PRIO, funded by the Research Council of Norway, including Buhaug (2010a), Buhaug et al. (2010), and Nordås and Gleditsch (2007a, b), as well as papers presented to a conference on Climate Change and Security in Trondheim, 21–24 June 2010 (www.dknvs.no/climsec). Selected papers from that conference have been published in Journal of Peace Research 49(1), January 2012. We thank colleagues at PRIO and participants at various conferences and workshops for valuable input on our work. We are also grateful to the Editor and three anonymous referees for constructive comments on earlier drafts of the article.

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Correspondence to Ole Magnus Theisen.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on “Improving the Assessment and Valuation of Climate Change Impacts for Policy and Regulatory Analysis” edited by Alex L. Marten, Kate C. Shouse, and Robert E. Kopp.

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Theisen, O.M., Gleditsch, N.P. & Buhaug, H. Is climate change a driver of armed conflict?. Climatic Change 117, 613–625 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0649-4

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Keywords

  • Climate Change
  • Natural Disaster
  • Communal Violence
  • Armed Conflict
  • Economic Shock