Why the current controversy on climate change and conflict is missing the point

For several years researchers have been analysing the links between climate change and violent conflict. The dominant form of analysis is a quantitative approach, which correlates temperature and precipitation data with conflict records. Yet the ambiguous findings of several studies have led to an intense controversy within the research community.

Recent articles and comments in prominent academic journals, including Science, Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show a deep divide, particularly between Solomon Hsiang and Marshall Burke from the University of California, Berkeley and Halvard Buhaug from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

In 2009 Burke and his colleagues found that higher temperatures significantly increase the likelihood of war in Africa. Based on this link, the authors projected a "54% increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030". However, using the same data as Burke but extending the considered time period, Buhaug showed that the correlation between warming and conflict disappears, concluding that "climate [is] not to blame for African civil wars".

Recently the controversy was reignited with a study by Hsiang and his colleagues, which found a strong link between climate events and human conflict "across the world, throughout history, and at all scales of social organization". The study has received significant media attention and resulted in a storm of criticism by scholars from different disciplines. Among the strongest criticism was the lumping together of very different types of conflict, ranging from domestic violence in India to murder in the US, excessive police power in the Netherlands to political instability and civil wars in Africa.

Yet, while the controversy about statistical correlations between climate and conflict variables may be an intellectually rewarding exercise for the participating scholars, it is missing the point, as correlations tell us nothing about why there is a relationship between climate and conflict. From a peacebuilding perspective, the quantitative approach is therefore of limited use. It offers no diagnostics or potential entry points for interventions which could influence or disrupt potential links between climate change and conflict.

What is needed instead is qualitative research which takes the local complexities into account. After all, climatic and environmental changes may indeed contribute to conflict, but they will never do so by themselves, but rather in concert with other socio-economic and political conflict drivers.

Find out about our work on environment and climate change here.