Climate disasters increase risk of armed conflict

Genocide in Rwanda 1994. Credit: U.S. Army Africa historical image archive

A new study from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows that about 25% of conflicts in ethnically divided countries coincide with natural disasters, not counting climate change impacts. The study focuses on the economic damage from natural disasters to link climatic factors to social impacts. 

About 9% of all (21) global armed-conflict outbreaks significantly coincide with a climatological disaster, drought or heat wave, in the same country. Looking at the period 1980-2010 researchers were surprised to find that ethnical division were a better predictor for armed conflict after natural disasters than other factors such as history, poverty or inequality. "Ethnic divides may serve as a predetermined conflict line when additional stressors like natural disasters kick in" says co-author Jonathan Donges.

Event coincidence analysis results based on the occurrence of disasters that coincide with an armed-conflict outbreak within the same month. Filled segments indicate coincidence rates that are significant at the 95% level.

A relatively stable climate in the Holocene could thus have promoted more peaceful times. Intuitively this makes sense, since a stable climate allows for surpluses to be gathered/harvested. When resources are scarce people are more likely to turn back to tribal behavior of in-and-out groupings. And ethnic division is one way of grouping. 

We know from studies of warfare in chimpanzees that lethal aggression can be evolutionarily beneficial, rewarding winners with food, mates and opportunity to pass along their genes. And among chimps, just like humans, males are responsible for a overwhelming majority of attacks.

Several of the world's most conflict-prone regions such as North and Central Africa and Central Asia are both vulnerable to climate change enhanced natural disasters and have strong ethnic divisions. The instability we have caused in Earth's climate system could thus lead to an increase in armed conflict in these regions. But no region will go unharmed, some are just more prone to armed conflict when natural disasters strike than others.

Armed Conflict Map 2014. Source: Uppsala University


Out of the ashes into the fire

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