Climate Change Makes People Meaner and More Prone to Violence

By Brent Fewell

Another study this week links climate change with increased violence and global conflict.  Abstract for the study, just published in Science:

A rapidly growing body of research examines whether human conflict can be affected by climatic changes. Drawing from archaeology, criminology, economics, geography, history, political science, and psychology, we assemble and analyze the 60 most rigorous quantitative studies and document, for the first time, a remarkable convergence of results. We find strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world. The magnitude of climate’s influence is substantial: for each 1 standard deviation (1σ) change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, median estimates indicate that the frequency of interpersonal violence rises 4% and the frequency of intergroup conflict rises 14%. Because locations throughout the inhabited world are expected to warm 2 to 4σ by 2050, amplified rates of human conflict could represent a large and critical impact of anthropogenic climate change.

Although it is impossible to attribute any single event to climate specifically, as one of the authors has cautioned, the linkage should come as no surprise to anyone.  Many of these studies have focused on regional conflicts in Africa, where the primary driver has been rightly identified as poor economic conditions.  It goes without saying that if warmer weather produces drought and lower agricultural yields in an already water stressed and starving region, conflict over food and water to sustain life is inevitable.  Some, however, have gone even further, trying to link more gun and inner-city violence with climate change, based on the theory that warmer weather makes people grumpier and more people, i.e., victims and criminals, are milling about, and not indoors, during nice weather.  Perhaps there is a link, albeit attenuated, but to suggest that climate change contributes to more gang banging and crime, let alone is the primary cause, is ludicrous and dubious at best.  It would be like me saying – news flash – more smokers will die from climate change, because they’re more prone to lightning strikes while standing outside puffing on their cancer sticks.

As I read these studies and headlines, I’m less interested in the linkages than I am in the motivation of those conducting the research, writing the headlines, and those who would use these studies to forward a political agenda involving carbon.  Sure, I can accept the fact that climate change and warmer weather may create conditions that give rise to grumpier, hungrier, and thirstier people, and ergo more conflict, but to argue or suggest that we are powerless to anticipate, mitigate, and control for these outcomes, unless we eliminate fossil fuels, is beyond absurdity.

Studies like these, even if frought with uncertainty, are appropriate.  So is developing the necessary capacity, e.g., infrastructure, financial aid, and institutional support, to alleviate water stressed conditions in already conflict-ridden regions.  However, keep in mind folks, 3.4 million are already dying each year due to lack of adequate water and sanitation and tens of millions due to starvation.  Even if you don’t believe in climate change and the scary things that could happen, providing support and humanitarian aid to these regions is worthy to alleviate the human suffering that is occurring now.  As for street violence, for cities such as Chicago, laying claim to over 200 murders already this year, to worry about the possibility of two or three more murders a hundred years from now due to a few more warm days is, quite frankly, stupifying when violence has already reached crisis levels.  Just saying.