Climate and Conflict

What role might climate and climate change play in generating or aggravating conflicts in the past, present, and potentially the future?

While this field of research has advanced in recent years, there remain disagreements about central facets of theory and research methodology. Recent studies have argued, for example, that there has been an excessive focus on the causal role of climate in the Global South – especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa – without adequate acknowledgement of the critical influence of non-environmental factors, such as the historical legacies of European colonialism in both regions. Even the notion that climate is itself a primary cause of conflicts has been questioned by some scholars, who rightly point out that all too often climate is viewed as the independent variable in conflict causality when in fact these events are caused not by a single, “ultimate” cause but rather by the interaction of many factors, including climate variations.

Our researchers are engaged in a long-term effort to investigate if and how climatic extremes or climate changes have accompanied and interacted with other important causal factors of historical conflicts over the past two millennia.

To control for non-climate variables, our researchers are focusing on a specific conflict type, which they term “asymmetric internal conflicts” – that is, conflicts in which one or more segments of a society outside of its ruling elite seek to affect social, economic, political, and/or religious change within their society through direct (and often violent) confrontation with the authorities. Both for reasons of practicality and to avoid excessive focus on climate-conflict relationships in the Global South, this pilot study exclusively examines cases from the temperate eastern part of the northern hemisphere.

The pilot study, which examines 40-50 historical and modern conflicts from across the study region, is still in progress. However, the analysis has already revealed potential but hitherto unknown climatic causal influences on several historical conflicts.

Researcher: Adam Schneider