Do Negative Climate Impacts on Food Production Lead to Violence?

Introducing their important work, Buhaug et al. (2015) note that earlier research suggests there is “a correlational pattern between climate anomalies and violent conflict” due to “drought-induced agricultural shocks and adverse economic spillover effects as a key causal mechanism linking the two phenomena.” But is this really so?

Seeking an answer to this question, the four Norwegian researchers compared half a century of statistics on climate variability, food production and political violence across Sub-Saharan Africa, which effort, in their words, “offers the most precise and theoretically consistent empirical assessment to date of the purported indirect relationship.” And what did they thereby find?

Buhaug et al. report that their analysis “reveals a robust link between weather patterns and food production where more rainfall generally is associated with higher yields.” However, they also report that “the second step in the causal model is not supported,” noting that “agricultural output and violent conflict are only weakly and inconsistently connected, even in the specific contexts where production shocks are believed to have particularly devastating social consequences,” which fact leads them to suggest that “the wider socioeconomic and political context is much more important than drought and crop failures in explaining violent conflict in contemporary Africa.”

“Instead,” as they continue, “social protest and rebellion during times of food price spikes may be better understood as reactions to poor and unjust government policies, corruption, repression and market failure,” citing the studies of Bush (2010), Buhaug and Urdal (2013), Sneyd et al. (2013) and Chenoweth and Ulfelder (2015). In fact, they state that even the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report concludes “it is likely that socioeconomic and technological trends, including changes in institutions and policies, will remain a relatively stronger driver of food security over the next few decades than climate change,” citing Porter et al. (2014).”

And so we learn that alarmist claims of future climate-change-induced reductions in agricultural production that lead to social unrest and violent conflicts simply are not supported by real-world observations.

 

References

Buhaug, H., Benjaminsen, T.A., Sjaastad, E. and Theisen, O.M. 2015. Climate variability, food production shocks, and violent conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa. Environmental Research Letters 10: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/125015.

Buhaug, H. and Urdal, H. 2013. An urbanization bomb? Population growth and social disorder in cities. Global Environmental Change 23: 1-10.

Bush, R. 2010. Food riots: poverty, power and protest. Journal of Agrarian Change 10: 119-129.

Chenoweth, E. and Ulfelder, J. 2015. Can structural conditions explain the onset of nonviolent uprisings? Journal of Conflict Resolution 10.1177/0022002715576574.

Porter, J.R. et al. 2014. Food security and food production systems. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ed. C.B. Field et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) pp. 485-533.

Sneyd, I.Q., Legwegoh, A. and Fraser, E.D.G. 2013. Food riots: media perspectives on the causes of food protest in Africa. Food Security 5: 485-497.