Profiles of Norwegian science: The climate change-conflict connection

Photo: Ilan Kelman Dr. Halvard Buhaug presents at the University of Agder.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Dr. Halvard Buhaug presents at the University of Agder.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Will climate change cause or end wars? The answer is that, irrespective of media rhetoric about weather wars and climate conflict, we do not know.

Analyzing China over the past two millennia shows that the method for comparing data can influence the conclusion on climate-conflict relationships. For sub-Saharan Africa, a series of competing papers claims alternately that climate change leads to more civil war and that the evidence does not support this conclusion.

For the latter, some of the world’s leaders of this research are based at PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo), investigating diverse aspects of environment-conflict links and lack thereof. Research Professor Halvard Buhaug has been at the forefront of debates swirling around climate change and conflict.

With collaborators around Norway and Sweden, Buhaug and PRIO have amassed world-unique datasets on armed conflicts. The data cover internal and cross-border violent conflicts since 1946. It is updated annually in the Journal of Peace Research, published by PRIO.

Entries on armed conflicts include start date, end date, location, and deaths. Battle deaths refer to fatalities in direct combat while war deaths cover everyone affected.

Much of the challenge in understanding and using the data is sorting out who is involved. Who is a legitimate government, who is a rebel or guerilla, and who is a terrorist? These categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some armed conflicts are one-sided, with a government or a single group committing the violence.

Database management is a huge task. PRIO and their colleagues continue to refine, update, and cross-check the numbers.

Then, these data need to be correlated with environmental data. Climate is defined as average weather. A 30-year time period is usually selected, although it could be shorter or longer.

Weather is usually characterized by air temperature and precipitation, typically rain and snow combined. Many other metrics could be considered, such as humidity (which affects how hot it feels), wind speed (which affects how cold it feels), and wind direction. They are rarely included in the calculations.

These variables can be highly localized, with heat islands and wind tunnels in cities affecting the measurements. Decisions must be made on the area over which to average weather and climate variables. Extremes such as storms—including hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, and thunderstorms—add further complications, because people react differently to extremes than to averages.

Some psychology research suggests increased violence during heat waves. Wider disaster diplomacy science so far concludes that disasters can catalyze, but not create, new peace and conflict initiatives. Both have detractors disputing these conclusions.

The main overall challenge to overcome remains as data quality across all databases, even when the analysis methods are robust and accepted. For recent weather, climate, and conflicts, the data are remarkably verifiable and reliable.

For looking back into history, it depends. The Chinese datasets are impressive in their accuracy and precision for conflict and climate. For Europe, ships’ logs are proving to be an invaluable source of weather data back through the centuries.

Naturally, the information is then patchy. Location shifts with the ship moving. Different people record the numbers from different instruments for different ships.

The work completed is impressive, but must have gaps. It nonetheless adds to and helps to confirm the wealth of robust historical weather data available already, from land-based instruments, newspapers, and people’s diaries to proxies such as tree rings, seeds, and sediment layers.

So historical analyses of climate and conflict are important, even though they cannot give a full picture for some locations. Overall, the conclusions about the relationship between climate and conflict is not clear-cut, meaning that investigations must continue.

Qualitative analyses contribute. Researching people’s motivations and behavior provides insights, as gleaned from historical records, archives, observations, and (for current analyses) interviews.

Studies in Africa examine how lack of rainfall could lead to more livestock raiding. Real-time data are accessible for local and regional food prices, rainfall, and riots that can be connected directly to what people are blogging, tweeting, and saying to journalists.

We continue to piece together this jigsaw puzzle. So far, we cannot say for certain that climate change does, will, or must lead to war or peace. Many factors affect armed conflict in different ways. Climate is one influence amongst them all.

Complexity remains the biggest barrier. Not just of the climate, but most notably of the people who, ultimately, are responsible for peace and war.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.