Climate conflict: Warmer world could be more violent

Using data from nine East African countries, researchers found that warmer temperatures triggered more conflicts.

Doyle Rice, USA TODAY, October 22. 2012

If climate change predictions turn out to be true, some parts of the world could become a more violent place, according to a new study released today. “The relationship between temperature and conflict shows that much warmer-than-normal temperatures raise the risk of violence,” the authors write in the study, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was led by John O’Loughlin, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado. It was done in concert with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

This isn’t just using modeling data looking forward at a possible future scenarios — O’Loughlin and his team actually examined the influence of temperature and precipitation on the risk of violent conflict in nine East African countries between 1990 and 2009, and found that increased precipitation dampened the risk of violence, whereas very hot temperatures raised it. As precipitation increases, then the conflict risk goes down dramatically, the study found, as there is more rain for the crops and grasslands.

The nine countries studied were all in the horn of Africa: Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Very detailed conflict data was used, a total of 16,000 conflicts in those countries.

This study is not related to how violence escalates in the summer due to heat in some urban areas, reports O’Loughlin. This is about how warmer temperatures cause stresses on crops and grasslands, forcing people to fight with their neighbors for food and other resources.

O’Loughlin acknowledges that social, economic and political factors all play a huge role as well, of course, and that much more research into the subject will be necessary. “Sweeping generalizations have undermined a genuine understanding of any climate–conflict link,” he notes in the study.

His team is already working on studying how climate affects violence in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

O’Loughlin says that “we should expect to see more of these kinds of wars, with climate as the triggering factor.”

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