Climate Change/Variability and Armed Conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa

A Collaborative Project of the Environment, Society and the Economy (ESE) Initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF)

    Grant number 0964687

Article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is available online. Click here for the abstract and link to the article.


Climate Regions & Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa

Project Description

The number of armed conflicts has declined after the end of the Cold War and there is a long-term trend towards less severe armed conflicts, as measured in battle deaths. Recent statements by scholars and politicians have suggested that climate change threatens to reverse this favorable trend. However, in its Fourth Assessment Report (2007), the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) adopted a somewhat cautious attitude, reflecting the lack of any solid evidence connecting climate change to armed conflict. The conflict scenarios in the existing climate change literature rely on several mechanisms. Rising temperatures are likely to cause drought and increase natural hazards (including floods and hurricanes). These may cause increased strife over dwindling resources in the areas directly affected, but also migration and in turn, conflict with host communities. A common theme of these scenarios is that climate change will lead to local scarcities, which will increase the risk of conflict. It is also likely that such scenarios of climate change will weaken already unstable regimes in low-development countries, in turn strengthening the hand of insurgent movements challenging the government. While existing studies indicate that this link is plausible, statistical studies provide little support for a general link in the absence of other factors that make armed conflict more likely. Science has gathered a great deal of evidence regarding the physical effects of climate change. Conflict researchers in recent years have accumulated a great deal of knowledge about what factors stimulate armed conflict, but the mechanisms linking these bodies of knowledge remain largely unexplored.

Intellectual Merit: This research connects the two bodies of knowledge through a partnership of conflict researchers and climate researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) with Norwegian partners at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO). The PIs plan to disaggregate the climate change issue and look at specific physical phenomena (droughts and natural hazards) whose social and economic effects will then traced and, in turn, estimate the probable implications for conflict. The projected impacts of climate change will not result in elevated conflict risk in all societies but depends on country-specific and contextual factors. The investigation will take place at two scales, the regional and the local, for the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Using a predictive model of the coupled natural (climate) and social (violence) systems, with feedback loops and mediating socio-political-economic variables, the PIs plan to measure the impact of adverse climate change and/or changes in climate variability on the rate of armed conflict, determine which mediating factors influence the rate of this impact, and based on the predicted model, project the violence outcomes on the basis of different climate change/variability scenarios from the IPCC reports. Local studies in selected contexts in East Africa (where the PIs have extensive research experience and local research support networks) complement the statistical study by exploring the locally-varying processes linking climate/environmental change to violent events. The collections of the substantial climate, satellite imaged environmental (land-use), socio-economic and violence data will be integrated in a geographic information system, with the primary scale of analysis that of 1 degree (approximately 100 kilometers).

Broader Impacts: Efforts to assess the security implications of climate change have foundered on the paucity of empirical evidence and the lack of publication in the scientific literature of the extent of the possible relationship. A recent statement by the National Intelligence Council proposing climate change/variability as a “threat multiplier” to existing problems (poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions) that might threaten domestic stability in some states supports the need for empirical research on the climate-violence nexus. Possible impacts of climate change/variability are mediated by contextual conditions, especially governmental policies, socio-economic resources, and existing fractures along regional and ethnic lines. Sub-Saharan Africa has been identified as the most vulnerable region, including the potential for significant intra-regional migration/emigration to escape a worsening quality of life and a range of violence (from none to extreme); thus, this continent constitutes the focus of the proposed study. The project’s statistical models will allow the estimation of socio-economic and violence levels for different climate change/variability scenarios. The project will contribute to policy debates within the US and internationally under the aegis of the IPCC which, to date, has skirted the issue due to unreliable conflict measures, information on local differences, and the lack of contact between the natural/climate science and conflict studies communities.