JPR Special Issue on Climate Change and Conflict

Will global climate change increase resource-based conflicts around the world? Journal of Peace Research has a special issue on the topic, looking at how weather variability has already influenced the rate of conflict. The issue is free to the public until the end of February. Most of the studies find that weather variability does not cause conflict. Indeed, the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005 actually led to a quick, apparently durable peace agreement between secessionist rebels in Aceh and the Indonesian government. Here’s the abstract from the introductory essay by editor Nils Petter Gleditsch:

Until recently, most writings on the relationship between climate change and security were highly speculative. The IPCC assessment reports to date offer little if any guidance on this issue and occasionally pay excessive attention to questionable sources. The articles published in this special issue form the largest collection of peer-reviewed writings on the topic to date. The number of such studies remains small compared to those that make up the natural science base of the climate issue, and there is some confusion whether it is the effect of ‘climate’ or ‘weather’ that is being tested. The results of the studies vary, and firm conclusions cannot always be drawn. Nevertheless, research in this area has made considerable progress. More attention is being paid to the specific causal mechanisms linking climate change to conflict, such as changes in rainfall and temperature, natural disasters, and economic growth. Systematic climate data are used in most of the articles and climate projections in some. Several studies are going beyond state-based conflict to look at possible implications for other kinds of violence, such as intercommunal conflict. Overall, the research reported here offers only limited support for viewing climate change as an important influence on armed conflict. However, framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erik Gartzke notes that if knee-capping development in middle- or low-income countries is the price of preventing climate change, it is those policies to address climate change that will produce conflict, since development is associated with peace:

The analysis here also suggests that efforts to curb climate change should pay particular attention to encouraging clean development among middle-income states, as these countries are the most conflict prone. Ironically, stagnating economic development in middle-income states caused by efforts to combat climate change could actually realize fears of climate-induced warfare.

If curbing carbon emissions is indeed the only way to stop drastic climate change (natural forcings don’t continue to counteract the human effect, and geoengineering doesn’t work), this argument suggests a possible rationale for having high-income countries pay the biggest initial price.

5 thoughts on “JPR Special Issue on Climate Change and Conflict

  1. I am not sure if any readers are familiar with British military historian John Keegan. In his “History of Warfare”, he looks at warfare and more importantly why man wages it. His conclusion, it varies by culture and over time. Thus it is almost impossible to predict what cultures will wage war, when they will wage it and most importantly why. The book really informed the way I view the world and warfare. It also made me hugely skeptical of any prognostication over whether this or that policy will induce a war.

    1. I haven’t read it, but what you say here does resonate with a good deal of recent rational-choice analysis of war, which sees war as a result of (usually) short-term bargaining failures, not hostility or dispute as such. My Buffalo colleague Phil Arena has a lot more to say about that kind of thing!

      1. Keegan’s best book is “The Face of Battle”. Phil Arena’s blog looks very interesting. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. While I don’t have time to read through Peace Research piece at the moment, from skimming through I thought I spotted an interesting connection, in that I presented a paper a year ago on the prospects of conflict in the Nile River basin based primarily on water scarcity (which is somewhat tied to climate change in the area). While conflict in the region is a near certain, our conclusion was that water scarcity wouldn’t actually be as big of a factor relative to cultural or religious differences.

    It would be interesting to see if the Arab Spring in Egypt changes the outlook much, as unstable countries tend to be unpredictable.

    1. Interesting. The usual “resource curse” argument is that resource abundance causes conflict, so if you buy that line of argument, it’s unclear whether resource scarcity would also do so. Now, I’m skeptical of the broadest forms of the resource curse hypothesis as well.

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