Climate of conflict: is global warming really not related to conflict?

by Dr David Hall

Last month I wrote New Zealand Listener column on the possibility that the Syrian conflict and climate change were, in some sense, related. Regrettably, a few days later, the same hypothesis was reasserted, less delicately, by Prince Charles. It felt too close for comfort.

At least one local commentary was so breathlessly hysterical that I felt no need to dispute it: I wouldn’t know where to start the hacking. But a co-authored piece by Mike Hulme and Jan Selby in the Guardian demanded to be taken seriously. I’ve long admired Hulme’s insights into the human dimension of climate change. I’ve also now read Selby’s superb “Positivist Climate Conflict Research: A Critique”, which gels with my own wariness of scientism in social science.

But I find myself on their wrong side by speculating that it’s more than just coincidence that Syria’s recent troubles were preceded by an abnormally harsh drought from 2007–2010. The research I referred to in my column, particularly a journal article by Seager et al. from March 2015, was dismissed by Selby and Hulme as “dubious evidence” of climate change’s impact on conflict. Of such research, they conclude: “Prince Charles and others should steer well clear.”

So I best explain myself, if not to save Prince Charles, then at least to save myself from the ignominy of association.

Brute force

Selby and Hulme argue that “there is good reason to doubt the veracity of [the claim]” that the Syrian civil war was “partly caused” by climate change.

In fact, Prince Charles’s claim was perhaps even stronger than this. Asked if he said the two phenomena were “linked”, he said, “Absolutely.” He continued: “Some of us were saying 20-something years ago that if we didn’t tackle these issues, you would see ever greater conflict over scarce resources and ever greater difficulties over drought… We never deal with the underlying root cause which regrettably is what we’re doing to our natural environment.”

Here, Charles vastly overstates the case. You only need to ask yourself this: Is it possible to imagine the Syrian conflict occurring even if climate change was not a real thing?

Very easily, I would say. Bashar al Assad is clearly an unconscionable brute who responded to street protest in a way that most other people couldn’t imagine. His tyranny, his sheer evil, can’t be pinned on climate change.

Similarly, there’s all sorts of explanations for why people join ISIS — the will to powerpolitical grievancereligious ideologya desire for camaraderiea sense of purposelessness in lifesocial disadvantagea lack of economic opportunityfamily dysfunction — without needing to look to long, faint links with global warming.

For environmental stress to evolve into political chaos, other things have to be in place (or not in place, as the case may be). Amartya Sen famously argued that famine doesn’t occur in well-functioning democracies, because democratic leaders must be responsive to the needs of their electorate to stay in power. This suggests that it wasn’t merely the presence of Assad that enabled the crisis, but the absence of democratic institutions.

Of course, Sen’s thesis has its critics — but these criticisms largely hang on whether one thinks that Sen is proposing a causal law of political economy, or whether he’s simply noting an interesting correlation. Personally, I think it would be silly to suggest that democracy causes the avoidance of famine, just as it would be silly to suggest that climate change caused the Syrian conflict, or indeed that climate change caused a particular drought. The story required is both more subtle and more complex than this (more on that below). I gather this is Selby and Hulme’s position — and, incidentally, I think it’s Sen’s position too.

In this light, there’s one obvious reason for why Prince Charles would lean so heavily on the language of cause-and-effect: because it’s in his interests to deflect attention away from the culpability of institutions that he will soon be nominally head of. Whatever the role that climate change has (or could have) in the Middle East, this pales in comparison to the decisive history of recent foreign interference — from the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to the arms being detonated and sold in the region today. In all this, Britain’s involvement is inextricable.

A theory of civil conflict

So much for Prince Charles. But is the article by Seager et al. equally simplistic?

Not really. They base their argument on computer modelling which suggest that severe droughts — like the 2007–2010 drought — are made two to three times more likely by climate change. Yet they clearly note in their final paragraph that “civil unrest can never be said to have a simple or unique cause.” Accordingly, they cite other political factors which include the agricultural policies of Assad and his father, recent economic liberalisation, and the influx of Iraqi refugees throughout the mid-2000s.

It is true, as Selby/Hulme note, that Seager et al. don’t say enough about how the drought spawned the revolt, offering scant evidence for the speculation that sudden urban migration from drought-stricken regions heightened tensions and instability. But this only means that their hypothesis is unsupported, not that it can’t be supported by further investigation.

Moreover, Seager et al. readily — if a little flippantly — concede that “data-driven methods” like theirs might not offer “the causal narrative needed to anoint a ‘theory’ of civil conflict”. This is a stark admission that demonstrating a link between climate change and drought is not equivalent to demonstrating a link between climate change and civil conflict. It’s also an admission that quantitative methods like theirs might not be enough, that there is space for more humanistic inquiry.

That said, to anticipate a “causal narrative” is already to see the situation in a certain light. When they say that they’ve “pointed to a connected path running from human interference with climate to severe drought to agricultural collapse and mass human migration”, they conjure up an image of billiard balls striking one another: a classic metaphor of causation. This is, I think, Selby and Hulme’s ultimate gripe: that the study of war is being treated like an offshoot of science — physics at worst, epidemiology at less worse.

But there are other ways to describe (potential) correlations of climate change and social disruption. In my Listener column, I pointed to a phrase I heard at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference in Paris in July, the major scientific meeting before COP21:

Scientists frequently described climate change not as a “cause” in the classical sense, but as a “risk multiplier”, an event that increases the likelihood of other events.

These scientists were talking, in the mode of prediction, about events that might accompany global warming, like rising sea levels, increased storm incidence, and “positive feedbacks” like reduced ice cover and methane released from permafrost. They were also talking about the stratospheric economic costs that would accompany such events — which is a polite way to quantify the unthinkable levels of disruption, destruction, and harm.

Most importantly, though, these contingencies weren’t discussed in terms of chains of necessary events, like billiard balls striking one another. They were discussed in terms of the interactions between highly complex, highly networked systems, such that change in one system (say, the climate system) correlates with change in another (say, an ecological system, or an economic system, or a political system). It’s in this vein I wrote in my column: “These problems [like climate change and terrorism] require us to acknowledge the interconnectivity of everything.”

In thinking about such systems and networks, “caused” is out of place — too simplistic, too mechanical. This is why we writers often reach for other verbs: climate change is “implicated”, “connected”, or “linked” to events such as cyclones, droughts, or conflicts. We might suspect that writers are simply insinuating “cause” — that is, leaning on a causal logic without uttering its name. But other writers, I think, really are appealing to relations that are looser and more general than a cold, hard “cause”.

I presume this is the case for Selby. In a parting remark in his “Critique”, he advises us to take a historical perspective: “to attend to the ways in which anthropogenic climate change might intersect with deepening global social processes of commodification, financialisation, urbanisation, and so on… to generate historically novel forms and axes of conflict [emphases added].”

Given Selby’s views, I don’t think he’s using “intersect” and “generate” as placeholders for causation — but it does beg the question of how these words differ, how they’re doing the work they’re supposed to do.

Presumably, what he’s gesturing toward is some notion of vastly complex interaction, where an accumulation of myriad happenings tilts the course of history one way or the other. Or of densely networked ripples of events — both “natural” and intentional, involving natural laws and human reasons respectively — that require an interdisciplinary explanation, perhaps told in a historian’s voice.

This is speculation on my part, perhaps reflecting my own hopes for more holistic explanations of the “wicked problems” that we face today. But it raises the possibility that what’s at issue for Selby is not so much whether wecan tell sensible stories about climate change and conflict, but what kind of stories we should tell.

The risk multiplier

Would the concept of “risk multiplier” pass his sniff test? I can’t speak for Selby. Speaking for myself, though, I don’t find the concept intrinsically troubling, even though I share many of Selby’s other views. It isn’t making flat-footed claims about causal laws or necessary consequences. It isn’t saying anything definitive about how risk spreads from one occurrence to another. It’s merely saying that one event (say, climate change) makes another event more likely (say, conflict).

Admittedly, there’s a worry here that “risk multiplier” doesn’t make enough of the distinction between natural and social explanation. After all, the risk of war isn’t uncertain in the way that, say, the status of Schrödinger’s cat is uncertain. That is random. But war is uncertain in the human sense that people are guided by reasons and perversities and loosely binding habits that don’t produce perfectly predictable behaviour. The uncertainness of randomness and of humanness are two very different things. Still, I don’t see why the concept of “risk multiplier” must preclude this more humanistic understanding. We simply need to be clear about what’s creating the risk: the exercise of chance or of choice.

This points to what seems most important for Selby: that there’s little inevitable about our future in the Anthropocene. He is sceptical about the capacity for prediction in the human realm, including predictions of climate-induced conflict, because he rejects the deterministic conception of reality that underlies such predictions. Selby wants to remind us that, even if climate change does exacerbate the stressors that heighten the risk of conflict, humanity could respond differently — by establishing better institutions or irenic alliances that “defy the odds” of existing climate-conflict research. We need not drift inevitably into violence, nor even to resign ourselves to a fate of resilience and adaptation in the face of “unstoppable” climate change. In this, I hope he’s right.

Politics, not science

Which brings me to Selby/Hulme’s final point: “most of the public and policy discourse on the conflict implications of climate change is driven by politics, not science.”

This would be a problem if Selby and Hulme were chastising scientists. Yet the figures they finger as culprits are almost entirely political actors: President Obama, Al Gore, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, the US Pentagon, the NGO International Alert, Prince Charles…

Yet what are politicians expected to be driven by other than politics?

Certainly, we might hope that politicians don’t hold beliefs that science has falsified — but Selby/Hulme have only argued that links between climate and conflict are unproven, unverified, uncorroborated. It could still happen that such links are adequately made, if not now then in some future decade when — to use Selby’s phrasing — the “intersection” of certain economic and political systems has “generated” new axes of conflict. If so, it would be a dereliction of political duty to ignore these possibilities by limiting decision-making only to what science has verified.

Politicians are bound by different constraints than scientists. Scientists constrain themselves by the scientific method, which has proven useful in their pursuit of truth. But, at a bare Hobbesian minimum, we hold our political leaders accountable for keeping us secure from arbitrary violence. It is highly implausible that the scientific method alone would always serve that end.

That is not to say, as cynics do, that truth always falls under the tyres of power. Sincerity and integrity aren’t always unsuccessful political strategies. But it is to say that political judgments are rarely like scientific judgments. To put the point more wordily, politics often involves making decisions with enormous ramifications in fluid circumstances where knowledge is imperfect and there is no opportunity for additional information gathering.

Admittedly, scientists are increasingly involved in decisions like these, as wicked problems like climate change fall under their purview. But this hardly compares to the momentous decisions that, say, Angela Merkel has had to make in the space of this year. The fact that Merkel, a trained physicist, has a grasp on the scientific method could be useful for making certain decisions. But many kinds of decision, such as how to respond to the refugee crisis, don’t really involve science at all.

If politicians want to force action on climate change — and many do — they will need to draw on the skills of politics, not science. And if that means appealing to what could be true, rather than what scientists have proven to be true, then history will be the judge of success. Selby and Hulme have my utmost appreciation for shedding light on the limits of science, for showing why science cannot always provide the certainty that it purports to provide. But if science’s vision of the future is less clear than it sometimes seems, that doesn’t absolve politicians from needing to make decisions about that murky, uncertain future, nor from taking the steps required to do what they think is right.

Perhaps, if human civilisation survives the next few centuries, future historians will find that we chose to lower greenhouse gas emissions because of our fears for security, not only because of our sense of moral obligation to future generations, or our recognition of nature’s value, or other cuddlier reasons. They will find that prudential concerns hid behind our moral rhetoric (and vice-versa). They will find that we advanced on a controversial mixture of knowledge, knowledge gaps, misunderstandings, and unfulfilled predictions. If so, our low-carbon economy will be built in much the same way as many other laudable political projects are built.

So be it.


David Hall is an Auckland-based freelance writer and researcher who recently completed a doctorate in political theory at the University of Oxford. He has contributed features and columns to the New Zealand Listener since 2008.

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