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Climate Change, the Economy, and Conflict

Abstract

Purpose of Review

The relationship between climate change and violent conflict has been the subject of intense academic as well as policy debate over the past few decades. Adverse economic conditions constitute an important channel linking the two phenomena. Here, I review the theoretical arguments and recent empirical evidence connecting climate-driven adverse economic conditions to conflict.

Recent Findings

Climate-induced adverse economic conditions could lead to conflict by lowering the opportunity cost of violence, weakening state capacity, and exacerbating political and economic inequalities/grievances. The empirical literature does not provide robust evidence for a “direct” climate-economy-conflict relationship.

Summary

Recent empirical research offers considerable suggestive evidence that climate-driven economic downturns lead to conflict in agriculture-dependent regions and in combination and interaction with other socioeconomic and political factors. Future research should further examine the context(s) in which climate-induced adverse economic conditions led to conflict, and also identify and test the precise empirical implications of the theoretical mechanisms through which these adverse economic conditions lead to conflict using disaggregated data and appropriate estimation procedures.

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Notes

  1. Climate change refers to a statistically significant variation in either the mean state of the climate or its variability that persists for an extended period of time (typically decades or longer), e.g., temperature increase and sea level rise. Climate variability, on the other hand, is defined as variations in the mean state and other statistics of the climate on all temporal and spatial scales, beyond individual weather events ([63], 188–189). While climate change and climate variability are different analytic constructs, they are still likely to have common effects on conflict. For example, studying the effects of a persistent period of high temperature could yield imperfect yet useful insights into the effects of global warming. In addition, since reliable data on economic and political variables are only available for the past few decades, especially for countries that have experienced civil conflict (e.g., sub-Saharan countries), it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to examine the effects of climate change on conflict in a rigorous quantitative manner. In this review, I use the terms climate, climate variability, and climatic conditions to refer to climatic variables: temperature, precipitation/rainfall and extreme weather events.

  2. Following the trend in the literature, the focus of this review is on intrastate (domestic) conflict as opposed to interstate conflict and includes all types of conflict, ranging from violence against the government (civil war (1000 deaths) and civil conflict (25 deaths)) to low intensity conflict (e.g., protests and riots), inter-communal violence (conflict occurring between competing groups within a state), and land occupations. The justification for this broad definition of conflict is that the literature does not specify any standard violent reaction to climate-induced economic downturns and societies tend to experience multiple types of violence when economic conditions deteriorate.

  3. Climatic conditions could also affect the likelihood of conflict via a direct physiological channel, i.e., warmer temperatures by elevating levels of discomfort and aggressiveness increase interpersonal violence (e.g., [71, 83]) as well as via other indirect channels such as migration (e.g., [41, 66]).

  4. Hsiang and Burke [59] make this claim based on a meta-analysis of 50 studies (see also [19, 60]). Yet, their meta-analysis has been criticized with respect to sample selection, selection of indicators and interpretation of results [16].

  5. For example, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program Geo-referenced Event Dataset (UCDP GED), the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), and the Social Conflict Analysis Database (SCAD).

  6. See Carleton and Hsiang [21], Burke et al. [18], and Dell et al. [31] for recent reviews on the climate influences on various economic outcomes; and Arnell et al. [2] for a global assessment of the potential impacts of climate change across several sectors.

  7. Income volatility could also inhibit credible bargaining and commitments if it is associated with rapid shifts in power across groups [80].

  8. See Yohannes [97] for a review on the relationship between climate change and agriculture.

  9. Zhang et al. [98] argue that other climatic variables, especially humidity and wind speed, are also important for crop growth and their omission is likely to bias the effects of climatic changes on crop yields.

  10. See Blattman and Miguel [7] for a review of the conflict literature.

  11. There also exist studies based on historic data showing that climate-driven economic downturns are associated with war in preindustrial Europe and the Northern Hemisphere [99], political instability in feudal Europe [89], the collapse of the Ming dynasty [100], and the peasant revolts in China over the 1470–1900 period [64].

  12. In one of the rare country studies, Bohlken and Sergenti [11], examine the outbreak of Hindu–Muslim riots in 15 Indian states between 1982 and 1995 and report that low economic growth (instrumented by annual changes in rainfall) increases the incidents of riots and that this result is driven primarily by the relationship between growth and riots within a state over time rather than across states.

  13. Maystadt and Ecker [73] focus on administrative regions in Somalia and report that droughts by decreasing livestock prices (a proxy for household income) increase the risk of violent conflict.

  14. Buhaug et al. [15] is the only study I reviewed that reports that although there exists a strong link between climate variability and agricultural output, still lower agricultural production is not associated with violent conflict in sub-Saharan Africa from 1960 to 2010.

  15. Sarsons [85] by presenting evidence of violation of the exclusion restriction casts serious doubt on the validity of rainfall and temperature as valid instruments for economic conditions.

  16. Hertel [51] argues that using food prices to assess climate impacts on food security is misleading and suggests that future research should use a broader indicator which encompasses other determinants of food security such as income as well as nutrition outcomes.

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Koubi, V. Climate Change, the Economy, and Conflict. Curr Clim Change Rep 3, 200–209 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40641-017-0074-x

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Climate variability
  • Economic and agricultural output
  • Food prices
  • Conflict