Climate-Security Connections: An Empirical Approach to Risk Assessment

March 06, 2007 // 11:00am1:00pm

Research on the links between environmental scarcity and conflict has undergone a shift in recent years: the theory that resource scarcity leads to interstate conflict (conflict between nations) has taken a backseat to theories based on data suggesting that environmental stressors may lead to intra-group conflicts (conflicts within nations). At a meeting sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program on March 6, 2007, Columbia University's Marc Levy and University of New Hampshire's Charles Vörösmarty discussed the preliminary results of their team's effort to overlay geospatial information with demographic and conflict data to assess the connections between environmental factors—particularly shocks to water supply—and conflict. The researchers hypothesize that the links connecting environmental scarcity and conflict are found between groups at the local—not the state—level, and that changes in availability and distribution of local resources, and the context in which scarcity occurs, are the true indicators of increased risk of environmental conflict.

The event's discussant, Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Center for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), noted that the Levy and Vörösmarty's findings and other similar research departs from the pessimistic view that population growth will outpace available resources and lead to conflict: "We are finding very limited support for these neo-Malthusian concerns about resource scarcity and civil war when we look at the country level." For example, recent research shows that many factors previously believed to spur conflict actually do not play a significant role:

  • High population density does not generally increase the risk of conflict;
  • High water scarcity does not generally increase the risk of conflict; and
  • Some resources are more hazardous when they are abundant (e.g., diamonds, but not water).

Looking at the local level, Levy and Vörösmarty's team discovered that changes in rainfall patterns can contribute to conflict indirectly through economic shocks. Increased scientific understanding of the water cycle and more accurate models now allow researchers to compare the amount of surface water available for human consumption with actual consumption data to identify potential sources of conflict. Additionally, overlaying demographic data with other datasets—such as water extraction, climate variance, and land cover change—allows researchers to identify particularly vulnerable regions.

Using data-overlay maps, Vörösmarty pointed to potential "hospots" where conflict could occur, such as regions that are severely overdrawing their water resources to produce and export food, and those where climate change may increase rainfall variability. Such maps, which reveal the relationships between vulnerable societies and water (or other resources), may provide information that can be applied to management and policy decisions, he noted: "We take these kinds of maps and our estimates of local water supply and we combine them and make a series of calculations that now are beginning to embed the human perspective. So instead of just talking about the excess water…we can talk about how much of that runoff supports how many people and how many times those people use and reuse that water supply and impart pollution signatures into the mix."

Levy explained that new geo-referenced conflict data sets from PRIO are robust and detailed enough to be combined with sub-national rainfall data to test hypotheses that connect the volume of surface water with the outbreak of civil conflict. However, he hastened to note that the potential effects of climate change are myriad, and that climate models rarely include outside stressors like the impact of water shocks on vulnerable populations. Data overlays may provide a new way for climatologists to look at their models, he said: "It's at least possible that a climate-change world is going to have increased stress of the sort that we have shown historically elevates the risk of civil war… These things are largely not discussed in the climate impact community. By putting the civil war and conflict data in a spatial framework which the climate modelers are accustomed to, you can at least begin having a discussion about what those interactions are likely to be."

Being able to predict when and where civil conflicts may occur will be immensely valuable to those working with conflict early-warning systems, Levy said. But he noted that planners should learn how to look spatially at regional vulnerabilities and potential problems. For example, given the strong connection between water shocks and outbreaks of civil violence, conflict prevention and preparedness workers should be aware of rainfall patterns. As geospatial data becomes more prevalent, he noted that planners should use it to understand other environmental vulnerabilities, and hopefully stave off conflict or other problems: "There are multiple hazards people can be exposed to: landslides, pests, disease, and so on. If you can see these on a map you can see where they're contiguous and you can understand risk in a different way… Being able to overlay these things spatially lets you uncover risks in new ways that you can't understand if you don't have the information spatially."

Drafted by Karin Bencala.

Event Speakers List: 
  • Deputy Director, Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Earth Institute, Columbia University
  • Professor, Water Systems Analysis Group, University of New Hampshire
  • Center for the Study of Civil War, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo; Editor, Journal of Peace Research
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