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Climate change may fuel increase in warfare, finds study

Nature study finds Wars twice as likely during hot, dry years

 Armed men on the island of New Guinea, which has seen its fair share of civil conflict. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Armed men on the island of New Guinea, which has seen its fair share of civil conflict. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Civil war is twice as likely in tropical countries during particularly hot and dry years, according to a new study in Nature. The researchers found that El Niño conditions, which generally cuts rainfall and raises temperatures in the tropics, may have played a factor in one-fifth of the world’s total conflicts during the past 50 years. El Niño conditions occur every 3-7 years. While the study did not examine global climate change in conjunction with conflict, the study links a warmer world to a more conflict-prone one, as least in the tropics.

“We can speculate that a long-ago Egyptian dynasty was overthrown during a drought. That’s a specific time and place, that may be very different from today, so people might say, ‘OK, we’re immune to that now.’ This study shows a systematic pattern of global climate affecting conflict, and shows it right now.” Solomon M. Hsiang, the study’s lead author and PhD graduate of sustainable development at the Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said in a press release.

Examining 234 civil conflicts in 175 countries (in which at least 25 people died) from 1950 to 2004, researchers found that climate played an important role in the tropics. Civil conflict occurred about 3 percent of the time during La Niña years (cooler and wetter) in the tropics and 6 percent during El Niño years (dryer and hotter), essentially doubling the chance of conflict.

“No one should take this to say that climate is our fate,” cautioned co-author Mark Cane, a climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Rather, this is compelling evidence that it has a measurable influence on how much people fight overall. It is not the only factor—you have to consider politics, economics, all kinds of other things.”

Solidifying the link between climate and conflict, however, the study found that in countries not impacted by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (which spawns El Niño and La Niña conditions) the chance of conflict remained steady at 2 percent.

According to the authors El Niño climate appears to exacerbate tensions already in place, pushing stand-offs and threats of violence into civil war. For example, the pattern can be seen repeatedly in the Sudan when, during a series of El Niño drought years (1963, 1976, and 1983), when smoldering tensions burst out into full-scale war, the final one lasting two decades. Other conflicts that rose with El Niño droughts include Peru’s civil war against the Shining Path set-off in 1982, a coup in Haiti during 1991, worsening civil conflict in the Congo in 1997 that eventually led to the second Congo Civil War, and revolution in Indonesia that began in 1997.

“If you have social inequality, people are poor, and there are underlying tensions, it seems possible that climate can deliver the knockout punch,” adds Hsiang.

Researchers have come to increasingly see a link between climate, especially long droughts, and the collapse of past civilizations: the fall of the Akkadian empire in 2,154 BC, the end of the Mayan empire between 800-900 AD, and the end of Angkor in 1400 AD among others.

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