Why academic egotism is changing the climate debate for the worse
Unfortunately articles like this are nothing more than academic egotism. As a postgraduate studying various facets of climate change, it is incredibly concerning to see such a contentious area of research receive so much publicity. Because of the compelling implications of the climate-conflict narrative, authors of this field are able to make a name for themselves through a mixture of scaremongering and sensationalising their so-called ‘findings’. The truth of the matter is however, that the proposed climate-conflict relationship cannot be empirically substantiated, and the environment can only be considered as an indirect driver of violence at best.
The problem is these types of studies on climate-induced conflict are framed in an alarmist way, supposedly offering a new insight into the effects of a changing climate on our society. Widely publicised studies such as this have all found an apparent link between violence and temperature/rainfall deviations; with extreme deviations causing civil wars, particularly in Africa. However looking over the vast number of academic responses to this, it is clear that the relationship only holds under very precise and specific statistical models. Once the parameters of the model are altered, including definitions of violence, the inclusion of political, social, and economic variables, as well as differing time periods, the correlation becomes incredibly weak, or in many cases non-existent. Many studies have found that the most important predictors and indicators concerning violence and civil war are related to social, political, and economic variables; for example inequality, lack of political representation, and the end of the Cold War.
This tenuous relationship is argued to have a significant impact on violence. Though reading these studies it is clear there are many intermediate steps before researchers can claim that a changing environment influences conflict; simply put, it is just theoretical wonderings. Many authors suggest how the climate might ultimately impact violence, with common arguments including resource scarcity, mass migration, and poor macroeconomic performance. However there is no proof of these claims, it is always ‘this might happen’ or ‘it could lead to this’, rather than solid evidence that can be empirically tested which is robust over long periods of time with alternative models.
It means that anyone could establish a highly tenuous links between conflict and climate change. For example, as carbon emissions have risen overall conflict has decreased, yet I wouldn’t argue that pumping the atmosphere with carbon will stop violent conflict. We have actually seen in recent years the numbers of violent conflicts decrease quite dramatically, even in regards to a general worsening and acceleration of climate change; i.e. witnessing generally warmer months and more extreme weather events. However my favourite way of illustrating how this research is generally flawed is the use of the ice-cream example.
Take a piece of research done in 2005 showing that during the summer months participants in weight control programs actually put on more weight than during winter months. Now if I link this to climate change and assume that generally there will be significant warming over the coming years and decades, I can imply that deviations in temperature will impact obesity. I could assume people will be less active because of the heat, they might socialise more at pubs and clubs, and generally buy larger amounts of ice-cream. But there is no real proof people will do this, it is just guesswork, much like the link between climate and conflict.
Plus why should we believe that conflict will play a major role in environmental disasters? Are we inherently programmed to become violent when our standard of living is threatened? Possibly, though there is no evidence of this. In fact in recent years we have seen a significant increase in peace accords and general cooperation in the face of environmental stresses and disasters. Water is becoming an increasingly contentious resource with a potential two-thirds of the world’s population suffering water scarcity by 2025. So assuming the climate-conflict relationship holds, many could argue that the risk of war or conflict could increase. However water is a prime example where neighbouring countries have implemented accords to share access and cooperate towards its sustainable use, and not tear each other apart as would be suggested by some.
Admittedly these climate-conflict scenarios do raise various points as to how we are still unprepared for climate disasters and offer a new perspective as a security issue. With the public now so underwhelmed with the constant bombardment of doom and gloom scenarios, work like this does bring a new focus on the challenges we face ahead. Yet the downside is that it oversimplifies the incredibly complex relationships involving both climate change and civil war, and potentially offers a scapegoat for political and structural failures, especially when in relation to extreme violence of this kind. Ultimately this detracts from the overall rhetoric’s of climate change and civil war by changing to a narrative that avoids analysing their most important interactions, namely with society, politics, and economics. Therefore much like my next paper, ‘Climate-induced Obesity’, the climate-conflict relationship should be taken with more than just a pinch of salt, in fact, an entire silo of it.