Conflict Deaths and Global Warming

It has been claimed for more than a decade that global warming will contribute to increased conflict, primarily due to competition for scarce resources.

Global warming has been blamed for the Arab Spring, the current conflicts in Syria and Sudan, etc. They haven’t said anything about what’s going on in the Ukraine yet. A paper published in PNAS in 2009 bluntly declared that “Warming Increases The Risk of Civil War in Africa.”

The problem is that the conflicts that are cited as examples of the phenomenon are located in areas known for both frequent conflict prior to the current warming period and for historical patterns of extreme climates similar to those seen today. Attribution is everything. If places with frequent droughts have frequent conflicts, you might be able to make the case that more (and stronger) droughts will lead to more conflict. But you would have to be very careful with the numbers.

When Egypt experienced its short-lived version of the Arab Spring, people attributed it in part to climate change causing food shortages. A bit of closer examination showed that their agricultural output had increased during the years before the conflict–that perhaps population growth was a more effective explanation.

Similarly, looking at climate change as a primary contributor in Sudan, given the civil unrest, religious differences in regions, competition over large oil resources, etc., seems a bit unwise. It also would be a bit foolish not to look at the historical periodicity and intensity of drought in the region–the same being true in Syria and other places.

Some of those who have written on the subject have been suitably cautious, saying that global warming may have been a contributor along with many other factors.

However, others have been more simplistic–perhaps far too simplistic. In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region as the world’s first climate change conflict. He was not alone. Rebecca Solnit’s article in the Guardian is headlined, “Call Climate Change What It Is: Violence.”  Tom Friedman wrote about climate change as one of the causes of conflict in the Middle East, but apparently didn’t read one of the experts he quoted in the article. “Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, the executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London, writing in The Beirut Daily Star in February, pointed out that 12 of the world’s 15 most water-scarce countries — Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel and Palestine — are in the Middle East, and after three decades of explosive population growth these countries are “set to dramatically worsen their predicament.”

One of the problems is that both conflict and weather extremes are rare, so looking at regional patterns can’t provide adequate numbers to justify authoritative pronouncements.

So let’s look globally. The current warming period had a strong period of temperature climbs from 1976 through the present, with many claiming that 2014 was the warmest year on record. And it does seem clear that 14 of the warmest 15 years in the past 500 occurred since 2000.

What has happened to conflict during this period? Here is a chart that shows conflict from 1946 to 2013.

Conflict trends


Here is what happened to temperatures:

temperature anomalies

It is difficult for me to spot a positive correlation between rising temperatures and armed conflict.

What about deaths in conflict? This chart shows trends:


Again, deaths begin to decline around 1987.

How about extreme weather occurrences? Here is the chart Joe Romm uses:


Here,the number of ‘disasters’ started to rise in 1990, just as the number of conflicts started their dramatic fall.

It would appear to me that those believing that climate change is a contributor to conflict may be intuitively making sense, but they do not appear to have numbers on their side.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a very interesting paper, Global Trends In Armed Conflict, published by the Center For The Study Of Civil War:   “Promoting economic growth and diversification is the best long-term strategy for reducing the risk of conflict. Natural resource-based growth requires very good resource revenue management to have positive political effects. “

21 responses to “Conflict Deaths and Global Warming

  1. Pingback: Week in review | Climate Etc.

  2. If you take out the effects of the US/Viet Nam and Iran/Iraq wars, how closely do your 1st and 3rd charts correlate with the course of the Cold War? Reagan elected 1980, the Wall falls in 1989, suppose there’s a 5-10 year decay time for state-sponsored guerrilla activity of the sort favored by the Soviet Union and especially East Germany?

  3. We have a limited amount of resources. The question to ask is how to spend them to best minimize human suffering. What will give us the biggest bang for the buck? And what what has the greatest certainty of success.
    Lowering co2 is very expensive and the cost to benefit is very uncertain.
    My guess is that most of these problems are best addressed by solving the local problems locally. Local agricultural practices are probably much more to blame for changes in local climate in the undeveloped word.than anything else.

  4. Tom,
    Buying into the latest efforts to disappear the pause only makes the rest of your essay dubious.
    Calling whatever has happened to weather/global temps since 1976 “dramatic” seems to be a misuse of the word “dramatic”.
    Marty hits nail on head:
    Lowering CO2 to help peace breakout or to manage the weather is at best questionable. The increasing popularity of calling any problem at all “climate changed induced” when nothing special is happening seems more like a faith based exercise, a mantra as it were.

    • Hiya Hunter! Well, it’s a pause at the top, right? You know I know it’s a pause. But it’s at the top. Do you think when the pause is over temps will go up or down? Cuz that’s the real question.

      • Tom,
        It would seem a reading of your book on the matter, as well as evidence being accumulated worldwide, shows that the climate hypesters are busy adjusting their way out of the pause. They are doing nothing Wall St., government agencies, Brian Williams and Prof. Gruber have done or do regularly. I think the pause, the run up to the pause, and the historical treatment of the temp record are simply evidence of corrupt practices. The entire tone of the climate obsessed is fundamentally dishonest, just as is any end-of-the-world cult.

  5. It is cold, with its related famine, which causes conflicts. Geoffrey Parker details those effects in the depth of the Little Ice Age, in his Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.

  6. Remove Reagan from the equation if you must, Tom, but a significant decline in Marxist militancy is a major cause in the reduction in conflict.

    Much of the killing was done with this incredibly efficient weapon, which was mass-produced mostly in Marxist countries accounting for 100 million of the 500,000 million small arms around the world:

    I do believe there was a major reduction in the will to fight for and impose Marxism-Leninism and its variants after it’s homeland dissolved.

  7. And let me add that the implication that slight variations in climate trends have more to do with causing climate than politics, religion, economics, and the general lust for power is silly. The food supply around the world has increased dramatically due to technological advances in agriculture, food production and storage. And it might be that the projected warming, which is by no means certain, might improve the ability to produce food in many locations around the world.

    • Hi pottereaton, I was just teasing about Reagan–I voted against him but there’s no question he was a world historical figure. And of course for your second comment, that was the purpose of this post–to reduce the impact of a very shaky factor in calculations.

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  9. Climate has always changed . . . naturally. The last change is that it stopped warming.

    Have you seen the simple proof that CO2 change has no significant effect on climate?

    CO2 has been considered to be a forcing with units Joules/sec. Energy change, which is revealed by temperature change, has units Joules. Average forcing times duration produces energy change. Equivalently, a scale factor times the time-integral of the CO2 level produces the temperature change.

    During previous glaciations and interglacials (as so dramatically displayed in An Inconvenient Truth) CO2 and temperature went up and down nearly together. This is impossible if CO2 is a significant forcing (scale factor not zero) so this actually proves CO2 CHANGE DOES NOT CAUSE SIGNIFICANT AVERAGE GLOBAL TEMPERATURE CHANGE.

    Application of this analysis methodology to CO2 levels for the entire Phanerozoic eon (Berner, 2001) proves that CO2 levels up to at least 6 times the present will have no significant effect on average global temperature.

    See more on this and discover the two factors that do cause climate change (95% correlation since before 1900) at . The two factors which explain the last 300+ years of climate change are also identified in a peer reviewed paper published in Energy and Environment, vol. 25, No. 8, 1455-1471.

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  12. Progress is good. But progress is not automatic. There’s something about eternal vigilance that we ought to keep in mind IIRC. It’s utter laziness and decadence to suggest that trends like this are the result of some automatic process rather than vigorous efforts in detailed contexts. The Syrian catastrophe is not just an outlier in a happy trend. It is also a catastrophe, and it’s one with important environmental stresses that match what we expect from the rapidly drying and expanding subtropical arid zone.

    Your cheerful graph is a big deal, don’t get me wrong, but it represents hundreds of hard-won victories on hundreds of fronts from a responsible, engaged international community that hopefully can continue but won’t do so without engaged and informed commitment. And all that is small consolation for the many thousands of displaced and stateless people form Syria.

    • Which is exactly why I advocate the international community continue pressing on with what has worked, rather than introducing the dubious distraction of human caused climate change as something we need to address to reduce conflict.

      Syria is a catastrophe all right. It’s due to a brutal government dropping barrel bombs on its citizens and creating a power vacuum through much of the land that IS is happy to exploit.

      Syria is no stranger to drought and has had many droughts longer and more severe than the one that preceded this conflict. Is drought a stressor? It always has been and is still today. But surrounding countries got through it without civil war. Had Syria been a different country it would have too.

    • Blaming the Syrian catastrophe on “climate change” instead of the failed policies of this President is precisely why government leaders around the world embrace “climate change” (please define “climate change” in a non-circular fashion, btw). “Climate change” is the universal excuse for bad and negligent policies. Syria is a basket case because a thugocracy is falling apart and the West was too lazy to intervene effectively.
      By the way, the fallacy of claiming that the subtropical zone is drying out rapidly is really entertaining.

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