>Climate shifts ‘not to blame’ for African civil wars (BBC)

By Mark Kinver
Science and environment reporter, BBC News
6 September 2010

The Darfur conflict in Sudan was linked to climate shifts. Members of the Sudanese Liberation Army (Getty Images)

Climate change is not responsible for civil wars in Africa, a study suggests.

It challenges previous assumptions that environmental disasters, such as drought and prolonged heat waves, had played a part in triggering unrest.

Instead, it says, traditional factors – such as poverty and social tensions – were often the main factors behind the outbreak of conflicts.

The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the United States.

“Climate variability in Africa does not seem to have a significant impact on the risk of civil war,” said author Halvard Buhaug, senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo’s (Prio) Centre for the Study of Civil War.

“If you apply a number of different definitions of conflict and various different ways to measure climate variability, most of these measurements will turn out not to be associated with each other.

He added that it was not too hard to find examples of where politicians were publicly making the link between the projected impact of climate change and the associated security risks.

Margaret Beckett, when she held the post of British Foreign Secretary, tabled a debate on climate change at the UN Security Council in 2007.

Ahead of the gathering, the British delegation circulated a document that warned of “major changes to the world’s physical landmass during this century”, which would trigger border and maritime disputes.

In his paper, Dr Buhaug questioned the findings of research that appeared in PNAS in November last year.

The 2009 paper suggested that climate had been a major driver of armed conflict in Africa, and that future warming was likely to increase the number of deaths from war.

US researchers found that across the continent, conflict was about 50% more likely in unusually warm years.

‘Lack of research’

Dr Buhaug said it was too early to make such assertions.

Politicians and policymakers have often linked the threat of climate change to security. UN Security Council (Image: AP)

“It is not a misunderstanding as such, more a case of the research still being in its infancy – we still don’t know enough yet,” he told BBC News.

“My article points to the fact that there has been too much emphasis on single definitions of conflict and single definitions of climate.

“Even if you found that conflict, defined in a particular way, appeared to be associated with climate, if you applied a number of complementary measures – which you should do in order to determine the robustness of the apparent connection – then you would find, in almost all cases, the two were actually unrelated.”

Dr Buhaug explained that there were a variety of ways to define what constituted a civil war.

One methods requires the conflict to claim 1,000 lives overall. Another method says unrest can only be categorised as a civil war if it results in 1,000 deaths each year.

Other definitions have much lower thresholds, ranging between one casualty and 25 casualties per year.

“I tried quite a few different and complementary definitions of conflict,” said Dr Buhaug.

He found that that there was a strong correlation between civil wars and traditional factors, such as economic disparity, ethnic tensions, and historic political and economic instability.

“These factors seemed to matter, not so when it came to climate variability,” he observed.

He says that it will take a while yet, even taking into account his own paper, for academic research to converge on an agreed position.

‘Action still needed’

When it came to politicians and policymakers, many of the adopted positions were “speculative”, he added.

“It is partly a result of a lack of solid evidence in the first place,” the researcher explained.

“If you do not have any solid scientific evidence to base your assumptions, then you are going to have to speculate.”

He also said that the end of the Cold War also seemed to have had a impact on civil unrest in African nations.

“You did see a shift in the focus of quite a few conflicts during the 1990s, when the ending of the supply of arms saw some groups lay down their arms, while others sought alternative forms of funding, such as diamonds.”

However, he concluded, the uncertainty about the link between conflict and climate did not mean that global climate mitigation and adaptation measures did not matter.

“Targeted climate adaptation initiatives, such as those outlined in various UN (strategies), can have significant positive implications for social well-being and human security.

“But these initiatives should not be considered a replacement for traditional peace-building strategies.

“The challenges imposed by future global warming are too daunting to let the debate… be sidetracked by atypical, non-robust scientific findings and actors with vested interests.”

BBC News has approached a number of co-authors on the PNAS November 2009 paper, but we have yet to receive a response.

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Climate ‘is a major cause’ of conflict in Africa

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Climate has been cited as a factor behind civil conflict in Darfur

Climate has been a major driver of armed conflict in Africa, research shows – and future warming is likely to increase the number of deaths from war.

US researchers found that across the continent, conflict was about 50% more likely in unusually warm years.

Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they suggest strife arises when the food supply is scarce in warm conditions.

Climatic factors have been cited as a reason for several recent conflicts.

One is the fighting in Darfur in Sudan that according to UN figures has killed 200,000 people and forced two million more from their homes.

“We need to do something around climate change, but more fundamentally we need to resolve the conflicts in the first place”. Professor Nana Poku, Bradford University

Previous research has shown an association between lack of rain and conflict, but this is thought to be the first clear evidence of a temperature link.

The researchers used databases of temperatures across sub-Saharan Africa for the period between 1981 and 2002, and looked for correlations between above average warmth and civil conflict in the same country that left at least 1,000 people dead.

Warm years increased the likelihood of conflict by about 50% – and food seems to be the reason why.

“Studies show that crop yields in the region are really sensitive to small shifts in temperature, even of half a degree (Celsius) or so,” research leader Marshall Burke, from the University of California at Berkeley, told BBC News.

“If the sub-Saharan climate continues to warm and little is done to help its countries better adapt to high temperatures, the human costs are likely to be staggering.”

Conflicting outcomes

If temperatures rise across the continent as computer models project, future conflicts are likely to become more common, researchers suggest.

Northwestern Kenya’s drought has brought conflict between pastoralists.

Their study shows an increase of about 50% over the next 20 years.

When projections of social trends such as population increase and economic development were included in their model of a future Africa, temperature rise still emerged as a likely major cause of increasing armed conflict.

“We were very surprised to find that when you put things like economic growth and better governance into the mix, the temperature effect remains strong,” said Dr Burke.

At next month’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen, governments are due to debate how much money to put into helping African countries prepare for and adapt to impacts of climate change.

“Our findings provide strong impetus to ramp up investments in African adaptation to climate change by such steps as developing crop varieties less sensitive to extreme heat and promoting insurance plans to help protect farmers from adverse effects of the hotter climate,” said Dr Burke.

Nana Poku, Professor of African Studies at the UK’s Bradford University, suggested that it also pointed up the need to improve mechanisms for avoiding and resolving conflict in the continent.

“I think it strengthens the argument for ensuring we compensate the developing world for climate change, especially Africa, and to begin looking at how we link environmental issues to governance,” he said.

“If the argument is that the trend towards rising temperatures will increase conflict, then yes we need to do something around climate change, but more fundamentally we need to resolve the conflicts in the first place.”