December 20, 2011

Events from Around Town: New Research on Climate and Conflict Links

Yesterday, I took in an event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson
Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program on “New
Research on Climate and Conflict Links
.” There was a lot of great
discussion that I found particularly relevant to the policy community. Below
are just a few quick takeaways that I found instructive.

Marc Levy of Columbia University’s Center for International
Earth Science Information Network, Earth Institute made a great point about the
relevance of some of the questions being asked by the policy community. The
question that gets asked quite often is could climate change contribute to a
greater risk of conflict?  The answer,
according to Levy, is almost certainly, with the important caveat that we are
talking about the risk of conflict, not the actual occurrence. The risk of
conflict will go up relative to a hypothetical world of no climate change, Levy
noted. Climate adaptation efforts could reduce the potential for actual
occurrence if conducted appropriately.

But the point I found particularly important was that we
(researchers, practitioners and policymakers alike) need to get passed this
first-order question and begin taking the implications more seriously by asking
when, where, how much and what types of conflicts are at greater risk of
occurring in a world of climate change? This is where the current research
effort is moving toward, albeit with some roadblocks.

Levy spoke to a few of these research roadblocks. In
particular, there are structural handicaps between the climate change and
conflict communities that prevent perfect collaboration. The climate research
community is modeling on a century time scale, trying to forecast the impact of
climate change in 2100, not 2020, whereas the conflict community is focused on
a 6 month to 2 year time scale. A way forward, Levy suggested, could be to
focus on a decadal time scale, modeling climate and conflict scenarios to ten
years, which may contribute to some of the longer term policy planning
processes. Even then, though, some of the research may still be too long term
for policymakers looking for answers today, at least from my perspective.
Anticipating some of these questions in advance by sustaining a dialogue between
the research and policy communities will be important in order to produce
policy relevant analysis. Regardless, though, I think the decadal time scale would
be an important step in bridging the gap between these research communities.

Solomon Hsiang of Princeton University presented the
findings of a study published in the August 2011 issue of Nature, Civil
Conflicts Are Associated with the Global Climate
.” The research team, Hsiang said, used the El Nino Southern
Oscillation cycle as a annual and global measurement to make observations about
the risk of conflict during warmer, dryer (El Nino) years, and cooler, wetter
(La Nina) years. According to the study, the El Nino Southern Oscillation cycle
is a belt that mostly affects states near the equator (what the researchers dub
the “teleconnected” countries – the red
colored countries in this figure
). The study found that conflict risk was
greater between La Nina and El Nino cycles (3 percent versus 7 percent,

Although the application of the research has its limits,
Hsiang noted, it is the first study to make the link between climate shifts and
conflict. More research needs to be done about what causes contribute to the
greater risk of conflict. As Hsiang noted, this is like the first study the
found a link between smoking and a greater risk of lung cancer. Now we need more
studies with greater fidelity to find out precisely what it is about climate
shifts (smoking) that is contributing to a greater risk of conflict (lung
cancer). For policymakers looking to apply the study’s findings in the near
term, however, Hsiang suggested that the study does support policy
recommendations that promote readiness for humanitarian situations (predicting
a greater need for assistance in warm, dry, El Nino years, perhaps).

The event also featured presentations by Josh Busby of the
University of Texas, Austin, where he leads the Climate Change and African
Political Stability project, a program funded by the Department of Defense’s
Minerva initiative, and by Joseph Hewitt, from the U.S. Agency for
International Development. Look for a more detailed summary of the proceedings
from the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat soon.