When climate change and history spark violent conflict

New research linking climate and conflict might actually tell us more about colonialism

Alex Randall

Alex is programme manager at the Climate and Migration Coalition

New research points to a powerful link between climate change and armed conflict. It also finds that countries that are ethnically mixed are more likely to experience this kind of conflict. But their results may actually tell us more about the consequences of colonialism than ethnic diversity.

This new research joins a raft of existing research on climate change and conflict – often reaching competing conclusions.

What is the link between climate change and conflict?

This isn’t an issue that can be solved with one study. There are in fact hundreds of studies looking at this issue. And they don’t all reach the same conclusion. Some studies do show that climate impacts lead to increased violence. But some studies find that there was actually no connection at all. Being hit by a disaster or climate change impacts didn’t make any difference to levels of violence. Some studies even found the opposite. Climate change impacts actually reduced some kinds of violence.

So what happens when we look at all this research as a whole? Yes, some of the studies point in different directions. But what about when we consider all the research together? Does it point to powerful climate – conflict connection, or not?

It still isn’t clear.

In 2013 a group of researchers attempted to look at all the research as a whole. They concluded that when viewed together, the research pointed to a strong link. A hotter climate would lead to more conflict and violence.

A group of rival researchers disagreed. They looked through all the studies and argued that some of them should never have been in the mix. There were also some studies missing. The rival researchers found a group of studies on climate and conflict that should have been included, but weren’t.

What did the picture look like now? With the irrelevant studies gone, and the new studies included, it all looked different. The rival researchers found no significant link. When looked at as a whole, the research did not point to a significant connection between climate change and armed conflict.

So the studies that say climate does increase conflict are wrong?

No, that’s not true either. Much of the research looks at specific kinds of violence, in specific locations. It often also looks at only one specific kind of climate impact. For example here is a study that finds a strong link between rainfall changes and conflict over land in Brazil. As rainfall patterns alter, conflict over land ownership increases.

But here is a study that finds the opposite in Kenya. Years with scarce rainfall tend to be followed by more peaceful periods. The two studies don’t cancel each other out. Brazil and Kenya are different places. They have different economies, governments and geographies. They respond to climate impacts differently. It’s perfectly possible that both studies are correct.

So what about this new research?

Context is important. The new research adds to a body of literature that points to an important link between climate impacts and conflict. But there is also a body of literature that says the climate-conflict link is not that significant. And researchers still disagree about what conclusions can be drawn from the whole lot.

As more research is carried out this could change. It’s possible that as more studies are completed the weight of evidence will shift. It’s possible that more and more studies will point to a powerful link. Then, when looked at together the research will point to a more significant connection.

Why is ethnicity included in the study, what does it mean?

The researchers found that countries that are more ethnically mixed are more at risk. Countries with greater ethnic ‘fractionalisation’ are more likely to suffer conflict after natural disasters. Less ethnically mixed countries are less likely to experience conflict.

Work on ethnic fractionalisation was developed to explore why some economies grow faster than others. The research found that countries with high levels of fractionalisation have weaker economies. And also that their governments tend to be less stable. The early fractionalisation researchers propose a compelling reason for this. Colonialism.

During the 19th and 20th centuries European countries placed arbitrary borders across huge parts of Africa and the Middle East. The perfectly straight borders of many countries are the lasting evidence of this. These borders often split people apart from their linguistic, religious and ethnic communities. The borders placed people from different religions and linguistic groups in newly created administrative areas. As the age of empire ended, these areas became independent nations. This left many ethnic and linguistic minorities seeking independence from the newly independent state they were part. Or re-unification with people they were split from by arbitrary border-drawing of the colonial era.

In many cases these struggles for independence or reunification lead to armed conflict. And this ongoing violence is one of the reasons for slower growth and instability. Centuries of European meddling also placed these new nations in a vulnerable position. Mass human rights violations, forced labor and then violent exits by colonial powers left many countries in poverty, with weak institutions and primed for their own internal conflicts.

What we are seeing in this new research is not necessarily that climate change and ethnic diversity are a problem. But rather that climate change and colonial history are a toxic combination.

This is important because there are ways in which the new research can be mis-read. This risk is that the results could be deliberately or accidentally given another meaning. They could be seen as an argument against ethnic diversity. Or as a reason to halt immigration. Or more broadly to keep people of different ethnicities apart from each other.

It is more accurate to see these new results as more fallout from Europe’s colonial project.

In the future the most useful and usable studies on climate change and conflict will be ones that enable us to act and avoid future conflicts. This research is likely to very specifically examining particular types of climate impacts, in very specific locations. This is the kind of research that would help inform peacebuilding and conflict prevention where and when it might be needed most as the climate changes.

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