A recent study conducted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University tells a startling story. Climate change data gathered from 1950 to 2004 on the naturally occurring patterns of El Niño shows there is a high correlation between the weather system and conflict (Hsiang, Meng, & Cane, 2011). In particular, during El Niño, when temperatures tend to rise and rainfall declines, the chance of civil war breaking out doubled compared to La Niña, when temperatures are cooler and rain is abundant. Furthermore, countries not influenced by El Niño’s climate and weather cycles did not experience changes in conflict. The correlation seems to indicate that El Niño may have played a substantial role in 21% of the civil wars since 1950 (Hsiang, Meng, & Cane, 2011).
Our global society is ever increasing in complexity and interconnectedness. This means that we need to look beyond typical sources of conflict (politics, territory, sovereignty, etc.) and see how social, economic, and ecological systems are intimately linked. Unprecedented energy consumption by humankind has exacerbated climate change and its consequences are felt by societies and economics around the world. Similarly, growing markets and accumulating debt places extraordinary pressures on the very resources our system needs to continue to feed and sustain itself.
Today, complexity science, a branch of applied mathematics, is providing new ideas and tools for better understanding how societal and economic forces act as major contributing factors of sustained conflict (Homer-Dixon, 2010). By studying such phenomena as attractor patterns of conflict related to climate, complex networks of causation, and the emergence of large-scale conflicts from small changes in temperatures, we can begin to better comprehend how changes in the links between climate, economics and conflict lead to unexpected outcomes related to war and peace.
Homer-Dixon, T. (2010). Complexity science and public policy. Manion Lecture, National Arts Centre. Ottaawa, Ontario.
Hsiang, S. M., Meng, K. C., Cane, M. A. (2011). Civil Conflicts are associated with the global climate. Nature, 476, 438-441.
Originally printed by the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution.
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