Link between climate change and conflict overstated, says report


Academic review finds literature presents a distorted picture of how climate affects social upheaval. Andrew P Street reports.


Syria's civil war has been linked to drought, but researchers aren't so sure.
Syria's civil war has been linked to drought, but researchers aren't so sure.
AMER ALHAMWE/AFP/Getty Images

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced around the world, the link between violent conflict and environmental upheaval is more frequently cited in the media and the scholarly literature. However, a new paper in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that the link is, at best, overstated.

Researchers led by Tobias Ide from the University of Melbourne in Australia conducted an analysis of academic literature from 1990 to 2017 and concluded that it was the eye-catching nature of the conflict in terms of the number of deaths that drew much of the coverage. Smaller, local conflicts received far less exposure than large-scale wars, regardless of the effects of climate change in the region.

For example, a multi-year drought was frequently cited as a contributing cause of the Syrian civil war in 2011. However, there was very little analysis of responses to the same drought in nearby Jordan and Lebanon, where no conflict erupted.

Thus, the researchers also suggest that this perceived link between climate change and civil upheaval suffers from “the streetlight effect”, where undue emphasis is put on areas that are relatively easy to examine. (The phenomenon is named after the old joke about a drunk looking for his lost keys under a streetlight despite having dropped them in a park, reasoning “this is where the light is”.

They also found that former British colonies where English was a spoken language were overrepresented in the literature – especially areas in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East – due to the relative ease of investigation. This was despite Asia, South America and Oceania all being considered at greater risk of adverse effects of climate change, having larger populations and often-volatile political histories.

More specifically, the study found that the cases cited tended to have armed conflict as the primary variable, while the secondary question of their vulnerability to climate change was not predictive. As the paper puts it, “None of the ten most climate change-affected countries … are among the top ten countries considered in the climate–conflict literature.”

In other words, the link between climate change and armed conflict appears to be overblown in research papers, focussing on areas already under conflict, ignoring non-violent solutions negotiated to regional problems, and running the risk of stigmatising areas of conflict as being inherently violent and thus somehow to blame for their own disharmony.

Ide and his colleagues conclude that the bias in academic literature towards violent responses fuelled by climate change limits the ability to research how other societies meet the same challenges without resorting to violence.

“Such knowledge,” they write, “would be particularly valuable from a policy-making perspective.”

They also warn of the risk of “re-production of colonial stereotypes”, noting that 81% of lead authors in their review were affiliated with institutes in countries within the OECD.

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Andrew P Street is a widely published journalist, non-fiction author and former columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald.
  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/s41558-018-0068-2
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/s41558-018-0068-2
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