Fighting for Food? | Power & Policy

Fighting for Food?

By Halvard Buhaug, Helge Holtermann, and Ole Magnus Theisen

The globe keeps warming and a global food crisis is looming, but evidence suggests that, contrary to the opinion of many observers, tensions over scarce food and water will not increase the risk of civil war.

The number of undernourished people on our planet may never have been higher. Soaring food prices and a global financial crisis have increased the ranks of the world’s food insecure to more than a billion people according to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2011, increasing food prices have stirred protests and riots in more than 60 countries in recent years. Some experts also attribute the ongoing wave of revolutionary uprisings across the Arab world partly to unstable food supply, suggesting a causal connection between weather-induced crop failure and armed conflict.

The question is: Are public expressions of social grievances more likely to escalate to civil war during times of environmental hardship? The simple answer is no.

Claims linking climate to conflict have gained considerable momentum in recent years as scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming is mounting. “The facts are clear,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon informed the UN Security Council last July, “climate change […] not only exacerbates threats to international peace and security; it is a threat to international peace and security.” The Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the mayhem in Darfur in the early 2000s are just two of the many violent events that have been attributed at least in part to adverse climatic conditions. In both cases, periods of rain deficit and declining agricultural production preceded the hostilities.

Somalis flee drought and hunger in Dobley, Somalia, in July 2011 as they wait to cross into Kenya. (AP Photo)

Climate change is often framed as a threat multiplier, adding stress to already disadvantaged societies. A drought that may have little impact on the developed world could prove disastrous for vulnerable societies that lack the ability to cope with a dwindling resource base. In some cases, local resource competition may turn violent. In other cases, it may lead to large-scale displacement, only to instigate host-newcomer tension in the receiving area. Declining agricultural production in the countryside could also generate food insecurity in cities. Each of these scenarios, one would think, has the potential to trigger a full-blown civil war.

Civil war is traditionally understood as a product of intrinsic material and political inequalities as well as inept regimes that fail to monopolize the use of violence. With the sweeping climate change discourse, attempts to understand contemporary and future conflicts are increasingly looking to climate anomalies and local environmental conditions for insight. A quick search on the Internet reveals a plethora of policy reports and statements warning against the dire consequences of drought and crop failure.

There is one problem with the climate-breeds-conflict thesis, however: the glaring absence of robust empirical backing. During the past decades, the globe has warmed at an unprecedented rate and natural disaster statistics reveal a corresponding upward trend. At the same time, we have seen a dramatic decline in the frequency and severity of armed conflict, as outlined in Steven Pinker’s brilliant new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Recent reports of food riots notwithstanding, most scientific articles that investigate the correlation between climate variability and civil war conclude that the two exhibit a trivial connection, if any at all.

In 2007, Thomas Homer-Dixon, a leading scholar on environmental security, wrote in the New York Times: “Evidence is fast accumulating that, within our children’s lifetimes, severe droughts, storms and heat waves caused by climate change could rip apart societies from one side of the planet to the other.” Four years on, such evidence is still pending.

Let us be clear: climate change constitutes a substantial challenge, especially to the developing world, and for this reason alone, sound mitigation and adaptation efforts should be encouraged. Yet, there is little evidence to date that civil wars will become more frequent or more severe in response to altered rainfall patterns and the increasing prevalence of severe heat waves. Civil wars are political events, not environmental, and their origins—and solutions—can be found in the nature and conduct of national politics, not in nature itself.

Halvard Buhaug, Helge Holtermann and Ole Magnus Theisen are affiliated with the Peace Research Institute Oslo. They are the authors of “Climate Wars? Assessing the Claim That Drought Breeds Conflict” in the Winter 2011/12 issue of the quarterly journal International Security, at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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