Climate change and civil war

We provide quantitative evidence linking past internal armed conflict incidence to variations in temperature, finding substantial increases in conflict during warmer years, and we use this relationship to build projections of the potential effect of climate change on future conflict risk in Africa.

…When combined with climate model projections of future temperature trends, this historical response to temperature suggests a roughly 54% increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030, or an additional 393,000 battle deaths if future wars are as deadly as recent wars.

That is Burke, Miguel, Satyanath, Dykema, and Lobell writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Miguel is my co-author in a recent review of the civil war literature.

I find the past temperature-conflict link compelling (and frightening) but wonder if past responses to marginal changes can be so straightforwardly extrapolated to future, non-marginal shifts in temperature.

To me, the global political environment is key. Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells have a new paper on the subject: “International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the Cold War Shaped Internal Conflict”. (The latest version is not released, but an earlier working paper is here.) Their main message: the form and intensity of conflict is shaped by the global political environment.

This idea resonates with another school of warfare: the rationalist approach. War is costly, and competing parties would be better off merely threatening to fight, but then finding a bargained solution. War happens when bargaining breaks down. That is, when politics fails.

Burke and his co-authors recommend insurance schemes to protect the poor from climate shocks. This is worth discussing. But a more political solution might be in order. Brokered agreements, peacekeeping interventions, and heavy-handed threats from the great powers have brought more than half of all wars to a close in the last decade. If this international system can be sustained, or extended, I’m hopeful climate change need not mean more war.

As we move to a more multi-polar world, it’s the threat to this order that frightens me even more than temperature change.