Humans have fought over resources for millennia, so recent studies indicating a link between severe drought and the civil war in Syria shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. That said, some researchers warn we might be jumping to conclusions too quickly.
Any attempt by scholars over the past several years to link climate change with conflict has been hotly contested, and not just by climate deniers. Many respected conflict researchers believe that climate change is happening, that humans are contributing to it, and that it’s a big problem, but that focusing on it as a cause of war may be wrongheaded.
The problem is both scientific and social. “If you want to show that climate change has contributed to an increase in civil violence, then you need to control for other factors,” explains Andrew Solow, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. “This is a fundamental scientific principle. But it is difficult to do.”
Half a dozen or so researchers have attempted to do this, and a few have come close. In 2013, Stanford researchers Sol Hsiang and Marshall Burke, for example, conducted a meta analysis of 50 studies on conflict and climate change and found that higher temperatures and extreme precipitation tend to correlate with greater incidence of conflict.
I sometimes have the feeling that some people only care about human suffering if it can be traced to climate change.Andrew Solow
But dig into any particular case and the connection is less clear-cut. “The factors influencing civil violence can be quite complicated and vary in complicated ways from situation to situation,” Solow says. “It’s like what [Tolstoy] said about unhappy families: they are all unhappy in different ways.”
In many cases, the researchers themselves are appropriately cautious when making any claims about the connection between climate and conflict. In a statement that accompanied Hsiang and Burke’s study, for example, Hsiang wrote: “There’s no conflict that we think should be wholly attributed to some specific climatic event. Every conflict has roots in interpersonal and intergroup relations. What we’re trying to point out is that climate is one of the critical factors [that] affect how things escalate, and if they escalate to the point of violence.”
Although some have criticized the pair’s attempts to quantify how climate change impacts the risk of conflict, the bulk of the criticism – both of the Stanford study and the more recent study linking climate change with the conflict in Syria – has been of the media’s oversimplified take on the research.
Each time a study on this connection is released, the majority of headlines tend to be along the lines of “War Linked to Global Warming.” Newspapers might be excused for using such headlines as opposed to the more accurate but unwieldy: “Global Warming Might Exacerbate Some of the Factors that Can Lead to Conflict”. But scientists warn that when discussing these issues, nuance is important.
“I have tremendous respect for the authors of the recent study of violence in Syria,” Solow says. “But given the history of Syria and the region generally, I find it hard to believe that, but for the drought, this violence would not have occurred.”
Edward Carr, a University of South Carolina geography professor, has been a particularly vocal opponent of such reductive takes on climate change and conflict. When Hsiang and Burke’s paper came out, Carr explained his criticism of work connecting climate change and conflict as being driven by a deep concern “that work on this subject (which remains preliminary) might disproportionately influence policy decisions in unproductive or even problematic directions (such as by contributing to the unnecessary militarization of development aid and humanitarian assistance)”.
Climate as threat multiplier
It might be more accurate to consider climate change in the way that the Pentagon has come to think of it: as a “threat multiplier”.
“Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement announcing the US defense department’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap.
As a precursor to conflict, lack of access to basic human needs is a major driver and it’s only getting worse.Pete Newell
Pete Newell, a retired army colonel and a consultant to the defense department and other government agencies, says he has seen the impacts of water and energy scarcity firsthand in conflict zones. “In my personal opinion, that underlies a lot of the issues and conflict,” Newell says. “I saw it a few years ago, watching tribes along the Iraq-Iran border going to war over water rights. And it’s becoming worse as populations migrate to urban coastal centers and those areas’ ability to provide services are overwhelmed. As a precursor to conflict, lack of access to basic human needs is a major driver and it’s only getting worse.”
Focus on access, not climate
Researchers searching for the climate-conflict nexus wouldn’t disagree with Newell, necessarily, so much as expand upon this line of reasoning.
“I’ll put this in a crude way: no amount of climate change is going to cause civil violence in the state where I live (Massachusetts), or in Sweden or many other places around the world,” Solow says. “If we want to reduce the level of violence in other places, then it would be more efficient to focus on these factors: to bring people out of abject poverty, to provide them with the technology that loosens the connection between climate and survival, to reduce corruption, and so forth, rather than on preventing climate change. I sometimes have the feeling that some people only care about human suffering if it can be traced to climate change.”
- This article was amended on 9 March 2015. A quote misattributed a statement from Tolstoy as one from Freud. It was further amended on 10 March 2015 to correct the name of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
A Society Fighting for Social Change Essay
1554 Words7 Pages
“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win” (Marx). While living in London as an adult Karl Marx realized that he was living in a very rich country but only small portion of the people were benefiting from the riches of the country and the larger portion was suffering from poverty. The people that were enjoying the riches of the country he referred to as capitalists, these people seek profit from the factories and businesses that the owned. Then there were the people he considered as proletarians, these people sold their labor for wages to the capitalist. Marx started to think of the idea of social conflict; Investopedia defines the conflict theory as “a state of perpetual conflict due to competition…show more content…
“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win” (Marx). While living in London as an adult Karl Marx realized that he was living in a very rich country but only small portion of the people were benefiting from the riches of the country and the larger portion was suffering from poverty. The people that were enjoying the riches of the country he referred to as capitalists, these people seek profit from the factories and businesses that the owned. Then there were the people he considered as proletarians, these people sold their labor for wages to the capitalist. Marx started to think of the idea of social conflict; Investopedia defines the conflict theory as “a state of perpetual conflict due to competition for limited resources. Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless. Conflict theory also ascribes most of the fundamental developments in human history, such as democracy and civil rights, to capitalistic attempts to control the masses rather than to a desire for social order.” Social conflict can come about in many forms such as quarrels, rivalries or by war. In those times if you weren't born into a certain blood line, capitalist bloodline, you couldn't own anything. People that were born in poverty weren’t able to get