Experts say that drought in Mali contributed to the 2012 conflict there. Photo: Flickr/European Commission
Climate change may have played a role in many of Africa’s most recent civil wars, according to a new study published Monday.
It’s one of those studies that doesn’t actually put forth any new ideas, but rather the rare one that disproves a study that disproved another. It all goes back to a paper published in 2009 that suggested there were “strong historical linkages between civil war and temperature in Africa, with warmer years leading to significant increases in the likelihood of war.”
That study suggested we could expect a 54 percent increase in armed conflict in Africa by 2030, amounting to nearly 400,000 more battle deaths than expected if climate stayed constant. The paper suggested an “urgent need to reform African governments’ and foreign aid donors’ policies to deal with rising temperatures.” They found, that for every 1 degree C increase in temperature, there was a 39 percent increase in the likelihood of civil war between the years of 1981-2002.
That was followed up by a study published in 2010 that found problems with the first paper, suggesting that “climate variability is a poor predictor of armed conflict.”
Well, this third study—published by Solomon Hsiang of the University of California, Berkeley, and Kyle Meng, of Princeton, has now revisited the previous two to make sense of them. All three studies were published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. It doesn’t necessarily solve anything, but finds that the data used in the second study was misinterpreted and that the “evidence presented in the second paper is actually consistent with that of the first.”
What does all this mean? First, it's more evidence that many studies published in science journals should be taken with a grain of salt. But it also means that, assuming the findings in this one are true, that there’s at least the chance that climate change is playing some sort of role in recent armed conflicts in Africa, and that, going forward, it could continue to play a role. There are, of course, many reasons for most armed conflict, but from a purely logical perspective, the theory that climate could play a role makes sense: Wars are often fought because of intense inequality and out of desperation, and from what we know about climate change, it can help fuel both.
Most major climate change studies have said that the phenomenon has and will continue to affect the world’s poorest people first. A late-2012 study by the World Bank suggested that global temperature increases will lead to “the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production, potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming drier, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions,” and water scarcity. Lack of resources can cause strife, so it’s not insane to think that climate change might play a role in war.
It’s a theory thats already been put out there by some. The Washington, DC-based Center for Climate and Security was formed to “explore and highlight the security risks of climate change.”
The group has suggested that climate played a role in Malian unrest in 2012 and that the “volatile mix of climate change, drought, food shortages, migration and immobility, armed insurrection and heavy weapons proliferation threaten to plunge the country into a state of instability not unlike Somalia.” The group has also said that water security is key to building a stable Libya, and that climate played a huge role in the Arab Spring and continues to play a role in the Syrian civil war.
According to Francesco Femia, co-founder of the the think tank, a five-year drought in Syria drove farmers to poverty, which ultimately had an impact on the overall stability of the country.
“A massive internal migration was happening, mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely,” he told the Washington Post last year. “They all moved into urban areas—urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.”
“We’re not making any claim to causality here. We can’t say climate change caused the civil war,” he added. “But we can say that there were some very harsh climatic conditions that led to instability.”