Are rising temperatures a national security risk in Africa? Geography professor John O’Loughlin and his research team conduct an unprecedented study to determine if climate change plays a role in the continent’s conflicts.
On July 3, 2004, more than 100 cattle herders armed with knives, spears and clubs stormed into a farming village in northeastern Tanzania’s Arusha district, trampling local crops, reducing 147 huts to ashes and leaving more than 300 residents without homes. According to press reports, the pastoralists had been quietly pressuring local authorities for eight years to evict the farmers and turn the region into a grazing area.
Did vanishing fertile land and rising temperatures ultimately help push them to violence? And if so, will we be seeing more armed conflicts as the planet heats up?
These questions have become increasingly controversial among academics and policymakers — many of whom are framing climate change as a national security issue when determining where and how defense dollars should be spent.
In a 2009 speech at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York, President Barack Obama declared “the security and stability of each nation and all people are in jeopardy” because of more frequent droughts. That same year, a highly publicized study by University of California, Berkeley researchers projected that by 2030, there would be 54 percent more armed conflicts in Africa — translating to an additional 393,000 battle deaths — because of rising temperatures.
“There is a lot of speculation, but it is really not based on hard-core research,” he says. “We wanted to get beyond the hype.”
To do so, O’Loughlin assembled a dozen CU-Boulder undergraduates to painstakingly scour newspaper clippings and radio transcripts from nine countries in East Africa between 1990 and 2009. They searched for key words such as “armed conflict,” “kidnapping,” “abduction” and “war” and pinpointed the precise location down to the village coordinates.
“At first, it was shocking,” says Renee Payne (Geog, Span’12), who worked as a coder on the project for 18 months. “Some of these [violent accounts] were very hard to read, but it gave me a much better sense of what is going on in that area of the world.”
During the course of two years, the team plotted 16,359 violent acts on 100-square-kilometer grids and characterized them along with population, political climate, distance to roads and borders, temperature and rainfall at the location and other factors.
When controlling for other factors, O’Loughlin’s study published in conjunction with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science last fall, found that when temperatures rose two standard deviations higher than the long-term average — roughly two degrees Fahrenheit for a place like Kenya — violence soared by 30 percent.
But as a self-described moderate in a heated debate rife with “hype” from what he calls “climate war alarmists,” O’Loughlin is quick to stress that other factors, such as location, population, and ethnic unrest, play a far greater role in fueling conflict.
“The take-home message so far is that there does seem to be an additional risk of conflict that comes with higher temperatures,” he says. “But compared to social, economic and political factors, climate factors adding to conflict risk are really quite modest.”
Media outlets and some researchers have seized on the finding that an average temperature spike of roughly two degrees can boost the number of violent events in a given region by as much as 30 percent, suggesting it confirms what they have been saying all along — that climate change breeds violence.
“But they are ignoring the next step in the paper,” O’Loughlin stresses. “This is not a simple story.”
When his team used complex statistical analyses to compare each variable and its impact on violence levels, they found climate change ranked seventh in terms of impact.
“If you want to understand African violence, the most important factors to look at are the number of people who live there, whether it is a capital city or not and whether and when violence has occurred among the geographic neighbors,” O’Loughlin says. “Climate is not nearly as important as these other factors.”
For instance, while the post-2003 war in Darfur, Sudan, is often referred to as the quintessential “climate war,” many scholars believe it was actually rooted in complex, long-standing social and economic factors and a corrupt regime. To blame it on climate, they argue, lets the regime off the hook.
While the 2004 attack on farmers in Tanzania cited in the study may have escalated because of climate change, the conflict had been brewing for years for other reasons, O’Loughlin says.
Princeton University researcher Solomon Hsiang, who has done several studies on the climate change/conflict risk, lauds O’Loughlin’s paper for using a high-resolution data set that pinpoints violent incidents to a specific location versus one that quantifies violence more broadly on a national scale, as previous studies have.
“When we did studies on a very large scale, people were very skeptical, saying, ‘You are not looking at the details on the ground.’ They did that, and that is an important contribution,” Hsiang says.
But he criticizes O’Loughlin for “downplaying” the conclusion that rising temperatures can increase violence by 30 percent.
O’Loughlin stands by his interpretation and emphasis of the findings.
“One cannot divorce the temperature or other climate effects from the local contextual effects, which are a mix of complex social and economic conditions,” he says.
Meanwhile, other researchers contend climate change may actually reduce conflict.
“When people face climate dangers or scarcity, they may decide to fight, but they may decide to cooperate,” Dr. Vesselin Popovski, a peace researcher with United Nations University, said in an interview that appeared in The Guardian newspaper. “If we take the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia for example, what it produced was more cooperation among states.”
One thing researchers do seem to agree on is this. As the U.S. government sorts out how to allocate resources to deal with climate change, more research is needed. O’Loughlin is expanding his study to include all of sub-Saharan Africa dating back to 1980. So far 78,000 violent events have been recorded.
“If you begin to look at this as a security issue rather than a basic human needs issue, it changes the dimension of the discussion entirely,” O’Loughlin says.
“Then you are talking about things like putting up drones to monitor human movement (in drought-ridden areas) or putting in military assistance rather than taking a humanitarian approach, which I believe is a better way to go.”