Climate Conflict

The general public’s discourse regularly reveals conflict about climate change. Among scientists, though, the interesting debates revolve around the complex chemistry of the gases that make up our atmosphere and the mechanisms of alteration to the chemistry and physics of those gases. There is almost no disagreement in the scientific community about the reality of greenhouse gas disturbance of our atmosphere and climate. There is plenty to argue about on the underlying mechanisms and possible remediations, but little disharmony about the actual authenticity of human-induced climate change.

But why worry about climate change? Does it really matter if the earth gets a couple of degrees hotter?

A new study in Nature approaches such questions by examining the relationship between global climate and civil conflicts. History tells us that weather can influence conflicts: think George Washington’s troops in the Valley Forge winter, or navies unable to fight because of severe thunderstorms.

Temporary local weather variations, however, are an altogether different subject than global climate patterns. The Nature study uses El Niño oscillations to search for connections between conflict and large scale climate changes. El Niño currents cause large periodic shifts in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean. The research plan divided the world into 93 countries that are strongly influence by proximity to El Niño, and 82 that are not because of their geography.

The results are striking: the probability of violent civil conflict doubles in the 93 affected countries during the warm cycle of El Niño (La Niña is the cold cycle). The 82 unaffected countries show no such relationship and the results are not sensitive to assumptions defining “conflict” or subtleties of El Niño conditions.

One could correctly point out that El Niño effects on the earth’s climate are not the same as greenhouse gas induced climate change. It is also not obvious what mechanisms might link warmer weather with increased international hostility. However, the results are a proxy for the kinds of social instabilities that might be expected if we continue ignoring the changes we are inflicting on our climate. This research should open our minds to elevating the dialogue on public policy around our irreplaceable planet.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Climate and Energy [CHF Programs]
Episode 119: Climate Change [Distillations]

Posted In: Policy

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