The Climate War Meme

In a column published today, a scholar challenges the legitimacy of the climate security frame and suggests it is distracting from the real climate concerns that need to be addressed.

But before I get to that, some quick background. In recent months, a flurry of highly publicized papers have explicitly linked climate change to war and civil turmoil. If you’ve been keeping score, you know that this research is controversial and seemingly contradictory. And that the associated climate link derives from natural weather cycles and temperature swings, not man-made global warming. Let’s briefly recap.

In August, a study published in Nature found that

Tropical countries face double the risk of armed conflict and civil war breaking out during warm, dry El Niño years than during the cooler La Niña phase of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO)…

The abstract of the paper declared:

This result, which indicates that ENSO may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts since 1950, is the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies relates strongly to the global climate.

A result like that garnered much media attention (see here and here, for example), but the study was also heavily criticized by some scholars.  At the same time, the news prompted constructive assessments of the state of the research on the climate/war linkage. Unsurprisingly, a study connecting civil conflict to warmer weather led some to infer:

That could be bad news as the global climate is changing in a generally warmer direction thanks to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere.

Some major related news came several days ago, with the publication of this PNAS paper, which concludes

that climate change was the ultimate cause of human crisis in pre-industrial societies.

But in this case, the culprit is colder weather. Specifically, the researchers assert:

Results show that cooling from A.D. 1560″“1660 caused successive agro-ecological, socioeconomic, and demographic catastrophes, leading to the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century.

Unsurprisingly, some who like to point out every blizzard or cold snap as a supposed refutation of global warming have seized on this study.

Now there is a new lens to view all this research on climate change and war. It’s known as climate security, and I’ve written about it previously on numerous occasions. I think it’s fair to say that environmental scholars are ambiguous about the emergence of climate security as a call to action. For example, here’s some cautionary advice that one such expert offered in 2009.

Today, another scholar jumps into the climate change = conflict debate with some fresh concerns. Corinne Schoch, a researcher with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, writes in this piece:

Over the past five years, climate change has moved from being a purely environment and development issue to being a matter of national and international security.

For years we have understood that civil wars generally break out as a result of political instability, a poor national economy, weakened infrastructures and, in the case of African states, the collapse of the Cold War. Now it seems that environmental shocks can be added to that list “” journalists, academics, policymakers, security institutions and heads of states repeatedly tell us that the impacts of climate change pose a grave security threat.

As a result, the idea that prolonged heat waves, rising sea levels, more variable climates and more frequent disasters such as cyclones or droughts will result in more civil conflicts has taken firm root in the public’s imagination. The popular belief that climate change will soon spark “˜water wars’ between water-scarce regions and countries is just one example.

But while the notion that climate change could lead to conflict is widespread, it is based on very little evidence and questionable sources. The debate tends to be characterised by conjecture, extrapolations and a limited set of facts that make assumptions about how the climate will change in years to come, and how people will respond “” for example, that increased climate variability automatically causes inter- and intrastate migration, or that a drop in rainfall led to the Darfur crisis. The links between what causes conflict have been simplified.

The truth is that there are, as yet, no concrete examples of violent conflicts induced by climate change, and a limited understanding of what the future holds.

This is a shot across the bow to proponents of the climate security frame. And it comes not from a political partisan or climate skeptic, but from a scholar whose expertise is the climate change/security nexus. In her piece, Schoch argues that the climate security rationale

risks sidelining or missing out completely issues such as adaptation, mitigation, development, economic growth, equity, justice and resilience, which do not figure as priorities on the security agenda but which are integral to addressing climate change.

In today’s world “” filled with talk about “˜human-induced climate change’, “˜compensation’, “˜responsibility’ and “˜global justice’ “” it is also important to ask ourselves to what extent the reframed climate-security debate is tackling the real drivers of climate change.

I look forward to hearing the answers she gets from the community of scholars and advocates who have helped put the issue of climate security front and center in the climate debate.

24 Responses to “The Climate War Meme”

  1. Jarmo says:

    Somehow I am convinced that none of this has come from the experts in the field, namely military historians and scholars.

    The idea that 16th and 17th century European wars were caused by climate is a bit far-fetched. Remember that many of these wars had a religious motive (Protestants vs. Catholics), that reliable firearms were introduced in that time, allowing kings to break up the feudal system and power of local warlords by creating standing armies…. it was a messy business.

    Cool climate exacerbated the effects of the upheaval but it was not the cause of conflict.

    You can equally well argue that MWP led to Viking raids, colonization of Normandy and England and ultimately, the battle of Hastings. Population growth in Scandinavia created population pressure that led to raiding. Or was it just greed and realization that European coastlines were undefended?


  2. thingsbreak says:

    This has always been one of the gripes that people like myself have had with those demanding a “new narrative” that tries to sidestep the main scientific issue in favor of tangential issues that are supposed to appeal to a wider audience (e.g. public health, energy independence, security).
    The further one moves away from the core science, the more equivocal supporting evidence can get. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to explore the topic of security implications WRT climate (quite the opposite), but I do think it’s inappropriate to place the weight of one’s argument for mitigation on it, as some have urged the climate concerned to do (e.g. former CIA head Woolsey if I’m remembering correctly).

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    I see what your saying, but I’m not sure anyone has been recommending it as an overarching narrative. Rather, as others have reasonably argued, there can be multiple rationales–with concerns about security being just one.

    I think the point here is, have people been making more of it than is warranted? 


  4. Gene says:

    Anyone purporting to identify the cause of an historical event (much less the driver of historical trends) is going to find themselves on shaky ground.  Climate-driven crop failures were a cause of the French Revolution, but it would be ludicrous to assert that it would have occurred without the additional political, economic, religious and social factors that all combined to provide the spark.

  5. Jarmo says:

    #3 KK

      climate change was the ultimate cause of human crisis in pre-industrial societies.

     Too bad we can’t ask from Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan or Tamerlane 😉

    Seriously, the argument is way too simplistic. Climate, in the sense that it influences agricultural output, cuts both ways. Favourable conditions usually lead to population increase which may lead to aggression against neighbours. It can also invite attack by the have-nots.

    The PNAS study completely overlooks the significance of Black Death in the 14th century (well before cooling). It changed demographics (loss of 35-50% of populations) and further epidemics contributed to the populations losses in the next 200 years. 

  6. thingsbreak says:

    I think the point here is, have people been making more of it than is warranted?
    Having looked at the two papers mentioned, I think they’re appropriately caveated, tentative, etc.
    In a broader sense, I think yes and no. Yes, I think that there have been occasional overreaches in order to tie climate to conflict by activists- but that’s what activists do pretty much by definition.
    However, no, I don’t think that generally there has been an overreach by the security or scientific communities in tying the two together. That climatic change (of significant enough rate/magnitude in any direction) can act as a “threat multiplier” is a conservative, common sense, concern.
    I’m not really aware of any sort of relevant organized/institutional claims being made that go much beyond that.

  7. Tom Fuller says:

    Climate may have served as an aggravating factor (poor harvests making the grass look greener next door), but this overview of the historical record is pretty obviously a reach that is designed to make current exaggerations of climate’s effects on international relations a bit more plausible.

    It isn’t working. But hey, give the Pentagon a few more billions and they’ll be happy to work it into their threat scenarios.

  8. Sashka says:

    The truth is that there are, as yet, no concrete examples of violent conflicts induced by climate change, and a limited understanding of what the future holds.
    Which is what I was always saying. But it’s much better when it comes from an expert.

  9. Stu says:

    I don’t know… when Australia ends the Australians are going to need somewhere to go. That’s got to put a bit of pressure on. 

    “G’day mate!”


  10. Keith Kloor says:

    Just spotted this related post, which goes into much more detail of the Nature study, including mention of a terrific exchange between one of the author’s and a critic, which for those interested, is very much worth a read.


  11. EdG says:

    When all else fails, try ‘national security.’

    The AGW proponent’s have always been using the methods of the Military-Industrial Complex – give me money or you will die – so this step is entirely predictable.

    That said, to the degree climate changes stress individuals and societies it undoubtedly does contribute to conflict. But since the climate is always changing, that is nothing new – and this effect is not limited to humans.

  12. EdG says:

    Re #10. Thanks for that link Keith. Hope everybody does read it.

    So sad to see what AGW has done to ‘peer review’ and Nature (and Scientific American, owned by the same German corporation which owns Nature).

  13. Thanks Keith for mentioning this and also linking to New Security Beat — hadn’t seen these two latest pieces. Maybe a universal asterisks is in order for every statement about the environment and conflict: “*likely additive, not primary explanation; more research definitely needed to explain how exactly — but still important!”

  14. harrywr2 says:

    Keith Kloor Says:

    I think the point here is, have people been making more of it than is warranted? 
    I think the broader question is whether efforts by the ‘climate community’ to tie multiple rationale for policy decisions under a ‘unifying climate umbrella’ harmful to their cause?
    IMHO They have walked off an unsupported plank called ‘everything bad that ever has ever happened and ever will happen was or is caused by climate change’ that just makes them easy fish food.
    I already know I drink more beer in ElNino years then LaNina years.
    Next up…a study claiming ‘climate change’ will cause more alcohol abuse.
    Of course if electricity were cheaper I might buy an air conditioner instead of sitting out on my back deck till midnight drinking beer waiting for the house to cool off.
    The claim that ‘High electricity prices lead to alcohol abuse’ might also be true.

  15. Tom C says:

    A society that is in the throes of an ecological crisis is the last one that will go out and attack it’s neighbors.  They are busy trying to survive and if anything need to cooperate in order to obtain what they need.  Likewise they make a poor target for the strong.  Who would want to conquer and have to deal with the problems that made for weakness to begin with.  Wars are between two strong and prosperous powers that threaten one another.

  16. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom C
    Is that your personal opinion, or do you have specific examples in mind?

    Because I’m familiar with numerous societies that splintered when they were “in the throes of an ecological crisis” (in addition to other problems.) 

    Just to be clear: by “throes” I mean not being able to feed your family. Does that mean everyone in the society up and leaves? No. But plenty do, and when they do, conflict happens where they go.

    Also, you have a one-size fits all definition for war. There’s all kinds of war, on all scales. 

  17. Tom Fuller says:

    There was a long-held belief that wars were pretty much always caused by population pressure. You can spin that to say the obverse–that declining resource base was the ’cause’ and that environmental degradation (exacerbated by climate change) was a major contributor, but that’s letting humans and human nature off the hook a bit…

  18. harrywr2 says:

    No. But plenty do, and when they do, conflict happens where they go.
    They become an inexpensive labor pool available to those affluent enough to finance a conflict. Poor and displaced people are relatively easy to exploit.
    Guns and Ammo cost real money, if one has ready access to a large group of displaced hungry people the soldiers  can be had for the price of a bag of rice and a frozen chicken.
    Societal Conflict always exists. I don’t think I could even count all the issues the American people are sharply divided over.
    Armed conflict is always a calculation as to the relative costs of fighting and the relative costs of accommodation. 
    “Peace” is merely a point at which accommodation is cheaper,faster,better then armed conflict.
    A large pool of inexpensive soldiers lowers the cost of armed conflict.
    Of course the world has gotten smarter, anytime there is a chance of a significant refuge flow the neighboring countries put up tent cities on the border, isolated from the general population and make sure everyone gets a bag of rice and a frozen chicken or something.


  19. Tom Gray says:

    Keith Kloor writes
    Because I’m familiar with numerous societies that splintered when they were “in the throes of an ecological crisis” (in addition to other problems.)   

    Teh standrd reposnes to this is that these societies were not part of a global supply chain. They relied on their local resources. Teh reaosn that the number of famines has decreased in modern times is not because of reduced climate disruption but that our modern society is not dependant on resouces from one local area  



  20. hunter says:

    This latest excursion by the AGW community is no different, really, from the fundamentalists who cling to their biblical interpretations of the ancient prophets to explain today’s events.
    When you are really obsessed with something, you see it everywhere.
    If you love a certain car, you notice it more.
    If you are getting over a deep romance, you might think you see the person of your desire in unexpected places.
    If you are a UFO abduction believer, you think every problem is explained by alien abductions.
    If you are obsessed with climate, you see climate as the cause of everything.

  21. Menth says:


    “Next up”¦a study claiming “˜climate change’ will cause more alcohol abuse.”

    Well this study implies climate change = more disasters = more alcohol abuse:

    Meanwhile alcohol consumption also contributes to climate change:

    So you see, climate change will cause more alcohol consumption which will cause more climate change. This is the kind of dangerous feedback we will need to be very worried about in the decades to come.

  22. kdk33 says:

    They’ll get my beer when they pry open the door to my suburban and peel away my cold dead fingers.

    Presumably, we would all be better off if it got colder, so we need more aerosols.  Another good reason to dismantle the EPA. 😉

  23. Eli Rabett says:

    Anything that gets screws up the food supply and forces people to move in pursuit of same is dangerous.

  24. jeffn says:

    What about trade wars turning into shooting wars? At some point even the climate concerned will have to admit that CO2 from China counts. Hey Eli, I nominate you to tell China they have to stop growing or otherwise there will be an imperceptible increase in strife in reliably strife-torn areas. 
    I don’t think the Chinese will shoot you til they stop laughing, so you’ll have plenty of time to run.

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