Climate Change & Conflict

Climate Change & Conflict Photo Credit: Charles Roffey via flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) http://bit.ly/1Pga8y6

Earth’s changing climate may already be playing a role in today’s conflicts.


Climate change and conflict. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Syria’s three-year drought starting in 2007 was the worst in recorded history. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hydroclimatologist Colin Kelley at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reports that climate change has made severe drought in the Middle East two to three times more likely. He says the last drought was a major factor in the unrest that began a year later, as agriculture collapsed and farm families moved en masse into cities.

So this was a tremendous population shock to the urban areas in Syria, and it’s not hard to see how that could ultimately culminate in unrest due to this large demographic shift.

He says climate change will make dry areas drier and wet areas wetter and could fuel future unrest both in the Middle East and elsewhere. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

This Science Update is based on research conducted by Colin Kelley and his colleagues that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March 2015. This research builds on previous research that looks at not only the possible links between changing climate and conflict but also the possible links between other environmental issues, like access to potable water, and conflict.

This particular study is the first of its kind to look at modern conflict. Previous studies have looked at the potential links between climate change and conflict in the past. For example, a 2011 study published in the journal Nature found that since 1950, armed conflict in tropical countries has been higher during unusually warm years than in unusually cool ones. Also, research published in 2013 in the journal Science by Solomon Hsiang et al at the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed data from 60 earlier studies and found that warmer temperatures and extremes in rainfall could substantially increase the risk of many types of conflict. Dr. Hsiang and his colleagues looked at data sets that stretched back to 10,000 BCE.

Dr. Kelley and his team focused on the Syrian conflict because it was preceded by a well-documented series of events: the drought caused agriculture to collapse in the country’s northeastern "breadbasket" region, displacing about 1.5 million people to urban areas that were already stressed by rapid population growth and an influx of refugees from Iraq. It documents a century-long trend of increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall in the region. Dr. Kelley doesn't think that climate change is the only factor at play in the conflict. However, he says, “there’s strong evidence for global warming having an impact on this region, and that this most recent drought is due in part to this long-term trend.” In fact, shifts in climate could change the availability of important resources like water or crops, leading to failing economies, weaker governments, and more incentives to fight or rebel.

Not all scientists, however, have been in agreement over the importance of climate change on human conflict. After all, there are many other religious, political, economic, and cultural factors involved. It seems, though, after Dr. Kelley’s study, that climate change should be added to that list.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is the basic finding of this study?
  2. What makes this study different from previous studies that looked at climate change and conflict?
  3. Why did Dr. Kelley and his team focus on the Syrian conflict?
  4. Is climate change the only factor contributing to the conflict? What other factors are involved?
  5. Do you think that climate change can cause conflict and violence between people?

In the Science Update Early Climate Change, learn how humans may have affected the Earth's climate even thousands of years ago.

The 12-minute video Communicating and Learning about Climate Change features a number of experts on global climate change talking about its impacts on our planet.

Going Further

For Educators

In Abrupt Climate Change, you can extend the concepts in this lesson by helping your students look at a current issue in science in order to understand the process by which scientific knowledge is developed and refined.

You and your students also could listen to Earth Simulator to learn how scientists are using a device, the most powerful supercomputer on the planet, to model Earth's climate.

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Going Green: An Earth Day Bibliography
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