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Global warming will increase likelihood of civil war in Africa by 55 percent

There have been many warnings by policymakers that rising temperatures in Africa could lead to civil conflict, however a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is the first to uncover empirical evidence for these warnings and quantify them. The results—that higher temperatures increased the likelihood of civil war in sub-Saharan Africa by over 50 percent—took aback even the researchers.

“We were definitely surprised that the linkages between temperature and recent conflict were so strong,” Edward Miguel, professor of economics at the University of California (UC), Berkeley and faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Evaluation for Global Action, told his university. “But the result makes sense. The large majority of the poor in most African countries depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and their crops are quite sensitive to small changes in temperature. So when temperatures rise, the livelihoods of many in Africa suffer greatly, and the disadvantaged become more likely to take up arms.”

The researchers compared data on civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa with rainfall and temperature records. Between 1980 and 2002, civil conflict was far more likely in warmer years. The researchers found that an increase in temperature by a single degree in Celsius raised the likelihood of civil conflict by almost 50 percent.

AK-47 among other household items in a Turkana hut. The Turkana live in a hostile desert environment in Northern Kenya. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

With this data in hand the researchers turned to the future. Using predictions of future temperature and precipitation in the region from 20 different global climate models, the researchers found that the likelihood of civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa in 2030 jumped by 55 percent. If these conflicts prove as destructive as recent ones, the death toll could be near 400,000 people.

“On average, the models suggest that temperatures over the African continent will increase by a little over 1 degree Celsius by 2030,” explained David Lobell, study co-author and assistant professor of environmental earth systems science at Stanford, to UC Berkley. “Given the strong historical relationship between temperature rise and conflict, this expected future rise in temperature is enough to cause big increases in the likelihood of conflict.”

Lobell added that the researchers strenuously tested their results: “no matter what we tried – different historical climate data, different climate model projections, different subsets of the conflict data – we still found the same basic result.”

The researchers say that even in a warmer world there are ways to stem the likelihood of civil conflict. African farmers should be provided with drought-resistant crops, irrigation should be expanded, and farmers should have access to innovative insurance in case of crop failure, according to the study.

“Our findings provide strong impetus to ramp up investments in African adaptation to climate change by such steps as developing crop varieties less sensitive to extreme heat and promoting insurance plans to help protect farmers from adverse effects of the hotter climate,” explains Marshall Burke, the study’s lead author and a graduate student at the UC Berkley’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

Even as the chances of a robust and binding climate agreement from the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen appear to have stalled, the researchers say that their study should influence policy-makers at the summit.

“If the sub-Saharan climate continues to warm and little is done to help its countries better adapt to high temperatures, the human costs are likely to be staggering,” warns Burke.

Civil conflict has ravaged parts of sub-Saharan Africa over the last few decades, including Rwanda, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to a press release from UC Berkley, the International Rescue Committee estimates that at least 5.4 million people have died from civil war—due to violence, starvation, and disease—in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past decade alone. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

CITATION: Marshall B. Burke, Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, John A. Dykema, and David B. Lobell. Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. www.pnas.org_cgi_doi_10.1073_pnas.0907998106.

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