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

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.

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

Research Team

Vally Koubi
University of Berne
Gabriele Spilker
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich
Anna Kalbhenn
Associated Member
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Wolfgang Kinzelbach
Associated Member
Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne






Host Institution