A recent article in Nature Climate Change has spurred a new chapter in the lively scholarly debate over the potential relationship between climate change and violent conflict. We agree with the article’s authors that there are several forms of sampling bias in this field, including how regions are selected for analysis. But simply addressing this sampling bias will not resolve many of the academic controversies that have raged since the mid-2000s. Our recently published study in International Studies Review examines the mechanisms connecting climate change or its consequences to violent conflict and concludes that to move this research agenda forward, researchers must pay deeper attention to the “nuts and bolts” that shape both climate-related conflicts and our understanding of them.
In “Climate Change and Violent Conflict in East Africa: Integrating Qualitative and Quantitative Research to Probe the Mechanisms,” we reviewed both quantitative and qualitative literature to explore the mechanisms through which climate change may affect the risk of violent conflict or the dynamics of ongoing hostilities. Before this, no one had systematically examined climate-conflict mechanisms in both quantitative and qualitative studies. Qualitative scholarship is systematically excluded from most literature reviews in this field, despite its merits in exploring mechanisms and developing theory. We focused on one of the most studied regions, East Africa, which enabled us to review a comparably large sample of 43 unique, empirically grounded articles. We identified four categories of mechanisms.
We took away three lessons from this review. First, there are key differences between the first two mechanisms, which focus on the causes of conflicts, and the last two mechanisms, which focus on the dynamics of ongoing hostilities. For instance, livestock raiding occurs in regions plagued by worsening livelihood conditions (such as drought and damaged crops)—but also in regions with thick vegetation and recent rainfalls. Scrutinizing the mechanisms at work in these seemingly contradictory findings reveals that the researchers in these studies focused on different aspects of the conflicts: why livestock raiders engage in violence, and when and where they decide to do so. Thus, the findings are not contradictory, but instead focus on different parts of the conflict cycle.
Second, both the temporal and spatial dimensions of climate change are key. Climate change is a long-term process, but most research focuses on short-term changes and overlooks the long-term impacts. These long-term impacts include the gradual consequences of changes in precipitation and temperature, as well as the long-term impacts of sudden-onset and recurring disasters. Spatially, we need to ask, where is climate-related environmental change most likely to affect the risk and dynamics of violent conflict? Research shows that violence does not necessary occur in the location most heavily affected by climate change, but rather in places that have relatively good supplies of natural resources, such as water sources or grazing areas. And, we must not only dig deeper into how violence plays out and moves across geographies, but also rethink how we understand resource scarcity. Often, we consider an individual, group, or area as resource scarce when they have fewer resources than they did before. But it is equally important to think of scarcity as the condition of having fewer resources as compared to other individuals, groups or areas.
Finally, violent conflict does not arise in a political vacuum and climate change does not mechanically determine human behavior. Both qualitative and quantitative research emphasizes the importance of studying the climate-conflict linkage in its political context. Placing climate-conflict research in its appropriate political context allows us to analyze the role of human agency—and thus we can also explore the political options for preventing violence. We need to continue focusing on the cases where the risk of violence is high and where violence occurs. Careful analysis of those instances could deepen our understanding of these unique cases. But we ought to pay equal attention to the cases where climate impacts are severe, but differences are peacefully resolved.
Paying greater attention to the “nuts and bolts” of the link between climate change and violent conflict may not only bring some closure to academic debates based on theoretical misunderstandings. But it can teach us important lessons about the causes and resolution of climate-related violent conflict—and thus help us reduce the adverse effects of climate change.