Climate Change, Economic Growth, and Conflict

What are the linkages between climate change, economic growth and conflict?

Project Summary

The relationship between climate change and conflict is the subject of voluminous recent research. With a few exceptions, this literature has not been able to establish the existence of a robust, systematic, causal relationship. This may reflect the absence of such a relationship in the real world. Or, this is simply a consequence of the theoretical and methodological limitations of existing works. This project revisited this issue along two dimensions.

First, it carefully specified the mechanism through which climate may affect the incidence of conflict. In particular, by focusing on the chain linking climatic conditions, economic welfare, and conflict, the study emphasized how the latter part of this link depends critically on the institutional features of the political system. Second, at a methodological level the research team’s measures of key climatic conditions (temperature and precipitation) included exogenous figures of both economic conditions and conflict. Thereby, it solved the simultaneity problem that had plagued the literature in the past. The results provided a more reliable basis for testing the theoretical predictions of the project team and for evaluating policy.

Academic Output

Executive Summary

This project contributes to the existing literature on the climate change–conflict nexus along the following lines: First, at the theoretical level, while most of the existing literature empirically tests the climate–conflict hypothesis in the form of a direct relationship, we submit that climatic changes are likely to affect the potential for violent conflict primarily via a) their negative effects on economic growth; and b) their interaction with the relative power of the relevant actors. In addition, we examine whether environmental degradation affects migration. Second, at the methodological level, we employ more appropriate econometric procedures to test our causal arguments. We also deal with the endogeneity/simultaneity problem in the climate – civil conflict relationship by introducing a new measure of climate that is exogenous to conflict and also takes into account the potential for adaptation of production to persistent climatic changes. Finally, we use hydrological data to compute the effects of climate change on interstate conflict potential. Our results show that climate change does not affect violent conflict through economic growth or climate induced dissatisfaction and that different types of environmental problems –notably, natural hazards vs. gradual environmental degradation- create different incentives for people to migrate or stay

Working Paper

Climate Change, Conflict and Peace in International River Basins – A Theoretical Perspective

Recent research shows that one of the most significant risk for societal development pertains to water availability and that the greatest risks for unrest stemming from economic deprivation and the erosion of livelihoods is found in international river basins in poor and politically unstable parts of the world. While until now, historic linkages between water scarcity and conflict were weak at best, there is growing fear that environmental change will increasingly lead to an entanglement of conflict and resources dynamics in the future. Where resources are not jointly managed in a cooperative way and resources sharing mechanisms not legislated by sound international institutions and were significant impacts from environmental change are expected, these developments give rise to concern. To study environmental change and conflict interlinkages, we develop a formal hydro-climatological model for transboundary freshwater resources and theoretically investigate how climate change translates into potential for conflict and peace contingent on configurations of power between riparians. The model accounts for how upstream countries exercise power by using water whereas downstream countries use power to obtain water. We show that equilibrium water allocation outcomes are biased towards the more powerful riparian, and that absolute upstream or downstream river basin dominance are limiting cases of our general model. Our model suggests that the basin-wide conflict potential is always more sensitive to changes in relative power between riparian states than to impacts from climatic changes.

Working Paper

Climate Change, Power Transition Theory, and Civil Conflict

If Power Transition Theory applies to the international level, does it also explain the outbreak of violence at a domestic setting? Power Transition states that interstate conflict arises when actors have an opportunity (power parity between contenders) and a motive (the contenders are dissatisfied with the status quo). The authors extend this logic in a twofold way. First, they argue that the risk of civil conflict should increase when (potential) rebels’ power approximates the power of the incumbent(s), and the rebels are dissatisfied with the status quo. Second, they introduce climatic changes therein as potential measures for rebels’ motives because climatic changes can directly affect individuals’ welfare. For testing the argument, the paper analyzes data on civil war onset for 1980-2004. While the empirical results provide some support for the validity of the opportunity component of power transition theory at a domestic level, they do not reveal evidence that climate induced dissatisfaction does affect civil conflict. This research establishes a more general application of power transition dynamics, which may have strong implications for the literature on climate change-civil conflict nexus.

Working Paper

Environmental Degradation and Migration

The argument that environmental degradation is an important driving force of migration has experienced a strong revival in the climate change context. While various studies predict large environmental migration flows due to climate change and other environmental stressors, the ex post empirical evidence for such migration is very patchy at best. We contribute to the emerging empirical literature in this field by focusing on the micro-level. We examine how and why different types of environmental conditions may lead to internal migration. The analysis relies on survey data for both migrants and non-migrants in 16 countries. The results suggest that both sudden-onset and long term environmental events, such as floods and droughts, have no significant effect on internal migration. In contrast, individual perceptions of negative environmental conditions can motivate people to move. We also find that people tend to respond to long-term environmental problems with adaptation, rather than migration. These findings indicate that different types of environmental problems – notably, natural hazards vs. gradual environmental degradation – can create different incentives for people to migrate or stay.

Working Paper

Environmental changes and violent conflict

This paper reviews the scientific literature on whether and how environmental changes affect the risk of violent conflict. The available evidence from qualitative case studies indicates that environmental stress can contribute to violent conflict in some specific cases. Results from quantitative large-N studies, however, strongly suggest that we should be careful in drawing general conclusions. Those large-N studies that we regard as the most sophisticated ones obtain results that are not robust to alternative model specifications and, thus, have been debated. This suggests that environmental changes may, under specific circumstances, increase the risk of violent conflict, but not necessarily in a systematic way and unconditionally. Hence there is, to date, no scientific consensus on the impact of environmental changes on violent conflict. This review also highlights the most important challenges for further research on the subject. One of the key issues is that the effect of environmental changes on violent conflict is likely to be contingent on a set of economic and political conditions that determine adaptation capacity. In the authors’ view, the most important indirect effects are likely to lead from environmental changes via economic performance and migration to violent conflict.

Working Paper

Climate Change and International Water Conflict in Central Asia

We engage in a critical assessment of the neo-malthusian claim that climatic changes can be an important source of international tensions, in the extreme even militarized interstate disputes. The most likely scenario is conflict over water allocation in international catchments shared by poorer, less democratic, and politically less stable countries, governed by weak international water management institutions, and exposed to severe climatic changes. The Syr Darya corresponds quite well to all these characteristics. If the neo-malthusian spectre of conflict over water is empirically relevant, we should see signs of this in the Syr Darya. The riparian countries of the Aral Sea basin have experienced international disputes over water allocation ever since the USSR collapsed and, with it, existing water management institutions and funding. The worst such dispute concerns the Syr Darya, one of the two largest rivers in Central Asia. Based on hydrological data and other information we find that the only existing international water management institution in the Syr Darya has failed. Based on a coupled climate, land-ice and rainfall-runoff model for the Syr Darya we then examine whether, in the absence of an effective international water allocation mechanism, climate change is likely to make existing international tensions over water allocation worse. We find that climate change induced shifts in river runoff, to which the Uzbek part of the Syr Darya catchment is particularly vulnerable, and which could contribute to a deterioration of already strained Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations, are likely to set in only in the medium to long term. This leaves some time for the riparian countries to set up an effective international framework for water allocation and prevention of climate-induced geohazards. By implication, our findings suggest that a climate change induced militarized interstate dispute over water resources in Central Asia is unlikely.

Working Paper

Climate variability, economic growth, and civil conflict

Despite many claims by high-ranking policy-makers and some scientists that climate change breeds violent conflict, the existing empirical literature has so far not been able to identify a systematic, causal relationship of this kind. This may either reflect de facto absence of such a relationship, or it may be the consequence of theoretical and methodological limitations of existing work. In this article we revisit the climate– conflict hypothesis along two lines. First, we concentrate on indirect effects of climatic conditions on conflict, whereas most of the existing literature focuses on direct effects. Specifically, we examine the causal pathway linking climatic conditions to economic growth and to armed conflict, and argue that the growth–conflict part of this pathway is contingent on the political system. Second, we employ a measure of climatic variability that has advantages over those used in the existing literature because it can presumably take into account the adaptation of production to persistent climatic changes. For the empirical analysis we use a global data set for 1980-2004 and design the testing strategy tightly in line with our theory. Our empirical analysis does not produce evidence for the claim that climate variability affects economic growth. However, we find some, albeit weak support for the hypothesis that non- democratic countries are more likely to experience civil conflict when economic conditions deteriorate.

Research Team

Vally Koubi
University of Berne
Gabriele Spilker
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich
Anna Kalbhenn
Associated Member
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich
Tobias Siegfried
Associated Member
Columbia University in the City of New York

Wolfgang Kinzelbach
Associated Member
Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne





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