Is Climate Change Responsible for Global Conflict?

Is Climate Change Responsible for Global Conflict?

A scientific study, aiming to explore possible associations between dynamic shifts in the environment and human conflict has been published in the well-respected research journal, Science. Reading through the piece, entitled “Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict,” Hsiang et al., (2013) find “… strong, causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions in the world.”

The U.S. study, jointly collaborated on by the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University, found that minor alteration in temperature or precipitation correlated with a statistical increase in a plethora of different crimes, including physical and sexual assaults, as well as murders. On a much greater scale, the authors claim to have unearthed links between outbreaks of war and group conflict, citing race-related altercations in Europe, violent acts in drought-stricken Australia and African civil wars, as prime examples.

The researchers fail to specify the precise mechanism, responsible for inducing such changes. However, several of studies have sought to investigate the influence of temperature and an individual’s exposure to sunlight, many of which have focused upon seasonal affective disorder (SAD) sufferers; these individuals experience severe depressive episodes during short photoperiods, an affliction which remits, during periods of higher light intensity and duration. Other, rather ancient studies, have explored the influence of body temperature on reasoning, memory and mood (Holland et al., 1985), corroborating a positive, causal relationship between irritability and temperature. It has also been suggested that the environment may play a part in shaping socio-economic success, particularly regions of the world that rely upon agrarian industries.

In terms of what this could mean for the future, the authors stress, based upon the foundations of this research, violence could escalate by 2050, due to a rapid temperature increase. They surmise, “… amplified rates of human conflict could represent a large and critical impact of anthropogenic climate change,” seemingly inferring self-inflicted, yet unintended, changes in human behavior.

However, Marshall Burke, a contributing author, errs on the side of caution, indicating, “We want to be careful, you don’t want to attribute any single event to climate in particular, but there are really interesting results.” Reaching greater levels of reservation, fellow scholar, Dr. Halvard Buhaug, conducting research, at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, vehemently snubs a great many of the findings. Buhaug refutes the “sweeping conclusions (the authors) draw,” passing off the derived link as “unwarranted by the empirical analysis that they provide.” One of the principle reasons for his strong objections lies in, what he perceives to be, an obvious omission of examples where climate change does not inspire human conflict. It’s important to note, during his own studies, Buhaug has concluded links between conflict and both infant mortality and population density.

Arguably, additional factors, such as culture, social norms and values, economic stresses, political movements, etc., could equally elucidate the aforementioned, historical changes in human behavior. Looking at any singular factor, such as climate change, and attempting to attribute it to major global conflict is bound to stir controversy. In the absence of any tangible understanding of the specific biochemical and physiological changes, caused by environmental parameters, it could be argued that we remain at the mercy of conjecture and guess work. The authors seem fully aware, however, that the situation is far more complex, with a variety of inter-dependent factors contributing towards human conflict.

In conclusion, if you ever find yourself experiencing uncontrollable rage, maybe you should consider cooling off in the fridge. All joking aside, however, these data provide an interesting springboard, from which future research may be launched, and it’s clear that further investigation is warranted.

Written By: James Fenner