Climate change could increase the likelihood of civil war in sub-Saharan Africa by over 50% within the next two decades, according to a new study led by a team of researchers at Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley, New York University and Harvard University. The study is to be published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The study provides the first quantitative evidence linking climate change and the risk of civil conflict. “Despite recent high-level statements suggesting that climate change could worsen the risk of civil conflict, until now we had little quantitative evidence linking the two,” said Marshall Burke, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Stanford’s Program on Food Security and the Environment. “Unfortunately, our study finds that climate change could increase the risk of African civil war by over 50% in 2030 relative to 1990, with huge potential costs to human livelihoods.”
In the study, the researchers first combined historical data on civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa with rainfall and temperature records across the continent. They found that between 1980 and 2002, civil wars were significantly more likely in warmer-than-average years, with a 1-degree Celsius increase in temperature in a given year raising the incidence of conflict across the continent by nearly 50%. If these conflicts prove as destructive as recent ones, the death toll could be near 400,000 people.
To confirm that this projection was not the result of large effects in just a few countries or due to over-reliance on a particular climate model, the researchers recalculated future conflict projections using alternate data. said Lobell: “No matter what we tried – different historical climate data, different climate model projections, different subsets of the conflict data – we still found the same basic result.”
“On average, the models suggest that temperatures over the African continent will increase by a little over 1 degree Celsius by 2030,” Lobell explained. “Given the strong historical relationship between temperature rise and conflict, this expected future rise in temperature is enough to cause big increases in the likelihood of conflict.”
“We were definitely surprised that the linkages between temperature and recent conflict were so strong,” said Edward Miguel, professor of economics at UC-Berkeley and faculty director of UC-Berkeley’s Center of Evaluation for Global Action. “But the result makes sense. The large majority of the poor in most African countries depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and their crops are quite sensitive to small changes in temperature. So when temperatures rise, the livelihoods of many in Africa suffer greatly, and the disadvantaged become more likely to take up arms.”
The researchers say that even in a warmer world there are ways to stem the likelihood of civil conflict. African farmers should be provided with drought-resistant crops, irrigation should be expanded, and farmers should have access to innovative insurance in case of crop failure, according to the study.
“Our findings provide strong impetus to ramp up investments in African adaptation to climate change by such steps as developing crop varieties less sensitive to extreme heat and promoting insurance plans to help protect farmers from adverse effects of the hotter climate,” explains Marshall Burke, the study’s lead author and a graduate student at the UC Berkley’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
Even as the chances of a robust and binding climate agreement from the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen appear to have stalled, the researchers say that their study should influence policy-makers at the summit.
“If the sub-Saharan climate continues to warm and little is done to help its countries better adapt to high temperatures, the human costs are likely to be staggering,” warns Burke.
Civil conflict has ravaged parts of sub-Saharan Africa over the last few decades, including Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to a press release from UC Berkley, the International Rescue Committee estimates that at least 5.4 million people have died from civil war—due to violence, starvation, and disease—in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past decade alone. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. (Stanford University News, Mongabay, Nov. 23)
Similar warnings have recently been raised by the UN Environment Programme and the US National Intelligence Council. Climate change has already been noted as a factor in the recent increase in refugees fleeing the horn of Africa.