Climate causes wars

  • Published on August 25th, 2011

One of the key questions of our time: If there is climate change, how bad would the effects be?

A new study shows that during the modest disruption of the El Niño global climate cycle, the chance of war breaking out in affected areas doubles.

Its arrival every three to seven years boosts temperatures and cuts rainfall, doubles the risk of civil wars across 90 affected tropical countries, and could be behind as many as a fifth of worldwide conflicts during the past half-century, says the Columbia University team.

That’s pretty scary.

“This study shows a systematic pattern of global climate affecting conflict, and shows it right now,” says Solomon M Hsiang of the university’s Earth Institute.

That shouldn’t be surprising – the oscillations in climate caused by El Niño shift rainfall patterns, affect temperature and can lead to multi-year severe draught. That’s a recipe for conflict, and the researchers found them:  234 conflicts across 175 countries.

And the odds? When the weather cycle is in its La Niña phase, chance of warfare breaking was 3 percent across affected countries (mostly in the tropics) in any given year. When the cycle shifts into El Niño, that chance doubles to 6 percent.

In comparison, unaffected countries’ rates of conflict were consistently 2 percent regardless of the cycle – pretty solid evidence of correlation.

  • In 1982, a powerful El Niño struck impoverished highland Peru, destroying crops; that year, simmering guerrilla attacks by the revolutionary Shining Path movement turned into a full-scale 20-year civil war that still sputters today.
  • Forces in southern Sudan were already facing off with the domineering north, when intense warfare broke out in the El Niño year of 1963. The insurrection abated, but flared again in 1976, another El Niño year. Then, 1983 saw a major El Niño–and the apocalyptic outbreak of more than 20 years of fighting that killed 2 million people, arguably the world’s bloodiest conflict since World War II.
  • Other countries where festering conflicts have tended to blow up during El Niños include El Salvador, the Philippines and Uganda (1972); Angola, Haiti and Myanmar (1991); and Congo, Eritrea, Indonesia and Rwanda (1997).

If climate shifts as modest as El Niño/ La Niña may be responsible for  21 percent of civil wars worldwide — and nearly 30 percent in those countries affected, imagine the chaos we could be facing under global climate change over the next 20 to 50 years.

Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you “We can manage climate change”. We can’t manage the climate disruptions we already have.

The paper, written by an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, appears in the current issue of the scientific journal Nature.

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(Image Trevor Snapp/Global Post via Columbia University)

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.