Chris Blattman

Close this search box.

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.

3 Responses

  1. I have to agree with Usi that a link between conflict and climate change seems a bit far fetched. I think we can all agree that anyone good with numbers can statistically prove whatever they want to based upon using data that favors their conclusions. Doing something about climate change is important, but blaming it for violent conflict is not practical.

    I think you are right about using the power of the international community to stop conflicts, but we need to factor in the indifference mentioned in another comment. We can’t just intervene when there are economic reasons to. We have to be involved with issues of social justice as well, and be concerned with stopping all conflicts rather than only certain ones.

  2. Go park your car in your garage (if you have one). Start the engine. Sit in your car for a while. Enjoy yourself.

  3. Let me say this now, and I will say it very clearly. Climate change is a huge propaganda, and the proponents, taking advantage of its moralistic appeal, are doing as much as they can to over-generalize the trend. What on earth has climate change got to do with the level of conflict in Africa? If we were to divert from the rational political explanations to the causes of war, economic or socio-cultural trends would suffice. But climate change? It’s the most absurd development/underdevelopment projections I’ve come across lately. The global decarbonization agenda is quite noble, I agree. I believe that we all owe it to the world, no matter how tangible our efforts. But sometimes, the extent that the campaign is taken leaves me no choice other than expressing cynical concerns. Recently, I read about an advocate calling for a highly active global center like New York utilizing more bicycles as a mode of transportation as opposed to cars. If they had spoken of hybrid cars, I would care less. But bicycles? In New York? Eventually, the world would realize that there are some altruistic ambitions behind the greening agenda, represented by corporations making billions of dollars from alternative energy sources.

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog