El Nino doubles chance of civil unrest, researchers find | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 26.08.2011
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El Nino doubles chance of civil unrest, researchers find

New research indicates that global weather patterns are connected to the risk for civil conflicts. Meanwhile, the EU is still developing its policy for dealing with the link between climate change and unrest.

hands over parched earth

Does hot weather cause war? Research seems to say yes

Researchers at Colombia and Princeton universities in the US found that the risk of civil conflicts during El Nino weather patterns was 6 percent, double the 3 percent risk during La Nina periods.

The El Nino phase occurs every three to seven years and results in hotter, dryer weather in the tropics. It alternates with its global weather counterpart La Nina, which causes cooler, wetter weather.

Analysis of 90 tropical countries from 1950 to 2004 showed that conflict spiked during the El Niño phase.

Based on hypothetical modeling, the research found that one in every five conflicts in the tropics was influenced by the hotter, dryer weather.

The poverty connection

Solomon Hsiang, the report's lead author, said the team's research also found a link between the development status of a country and its vulnerability to the climate-conflict connection.

"Within the tropics, the countries most sensitive were low-income countries," Hsiang told Deutsche Welle.

Hsiang said that in tropical countries such as Indonesia, Sudan, Haiti and Oman, the data showed that civil conflicts there were timed with El Niño years.

man holding Sudanese flag

Sudan, emerging from a bitter civil war, is among the countries where climate has been linked with conflict

Wealthier countries that have regions within the tropics, such as Australia and Brazil, didn't demonstrate the increased risk, Hsiang said.

European Union policy on climate change also acknowledges the connection between development status and climate-conflict problems.

"There's little room for doubt; climate change acts as a multiplier effect," said Isaac Valero Ladron, a spokesperson with the European Commission's Climate Action Directorate.

Valero Ladron pointed to civil unrest in Tunisia and water problems on the Horn of Africa as examples.

Hsiang emphasized that "human-induced global warming is different than El Nino," although he also pointed out that many climatologists think global warming will make the earth hotter and dryer.

Why higher conflict?

Research into the reasons why climate affects conflict is ongoing.

"When climate shifts, agricultural production declines sharply," Hsiang said.

farmer ploughs through hardened soil

Indonesian farmers had it tough when drought hit there

Such economic downturns, he said, can weaken governments, presenting an opportunity for rebel groups.

Economic contractions could also work through the labor market, for example making it easier "for rebels to entice people into joining armies," Hsiang said.

Civil unrest could also relate to the unequal distribution of resources, which can be exacerbated during crises and lead to resentment.

Hsiang also pointed to studies showing that people become more aggressive during hot weather, which leads to an increase in violent crimes.

Jacob Rhyner, director of the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, said the Princeton-Columbia team's method was well grounded.

"There is a nice scientific idea behind it, actually," Rhyner said, adding, however, that "it's not enough to base policy decisions on."

He described the paper as a useful step in analyzing the complex, multidimensional cause-and-effect relationships behind climate and conflict, adding that he thinks the next step should include field studies into specific conflict regions to unravel the various factors.

EU policy shift

An EU report from 2008 examining security and foreign policy looked at various dimensions of unrest brought about by climate change, including destabilization of governments in key regions, conflicts over resource shortages and environmentally induced immigration.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy representative at the time, recommended that the European Council develop action plans to address the unrest, including intensifying monitoring capacity and building up civil and military crisis management capabilities.

Valero Ladron said that over the past few years, emphasis has been placed more on international aid for countries to mitigate and adapt to climate impacts.

high-level delegates at Copenhagen talks

The Copenhagen Accord established a fund for climate aid

"The EU is helping the most vulnerable countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change," he said.

Last year, it delivered 2.34 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to developing countries to help them deal with climate change, with that amount split about evenly between mitigation and adaptation.

In addition to international aid, "we're engaging constructively with all international partners to encourage them to be more ambitious on their carbon emissions pledges," Valero Ladron said - in particular, the US and China.

Preventing humanitarian crises

Although Hsiang said he welcomes "any investment made in climate adaptation and mitigation," he thinks that maybe not enough attention is being paid to getting developing countries to the point where they are able to deal with the current climate situation.

"We really hope the results are used to avert humanitarian crises, which can be prevented," Hsiang said.

Rhyner also said the focus should be more on prevention than intervention.

But Rhyner said he largely agreed with Solano's 2008 conclusions, including its emphasis on risk assessment.

"When we see how risk is composed, we also see how we can implement prevention."

Author: Sonya Angelica Diehn
Editor: Holly Fox

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