Air Force General Counsel Blog The chief legal officer and chief ethics official of the Department of the Air Force


Global Warming and Increased Wars

The latest issue of Science magazine, entitled “Natural Systems in Changing Climates,” features a series of articles about possible impacts of climate change, ranging from its effects on global food security to biological changes in species and the drowning of coastal regions. But, in addition to these “natural” consequences, could climate change also cause humans to act differently – to become more violent toward one another? In other words, could another effect of climate change be an increase in war?

According to a report published last week on Science magazine’s website, the answer is yes; one key consequence of climate change could be an increase in violence and armed conflict across the globe. The report, authored by scientists at Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley and, “find[s] strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world.” As summarized by Smithsonian Magazine.

Recently, studies and journalistic investigations have focused on one particularly chilling potential social consequence of climate change: an increased frequency of armed conflicts around the world. By studying the link between various climactic factors and rates of historical violence, researchers have speculated that the climate trends we’ll experience over the next century—hotter overall temperatures, more erratic rainfall patterns and a rising sea level—could make conflict and war more common in the future.

Now, in the most comprehensive analysis of the work on climate change and armed conflict to date, a team from UC Berkeley and elsewhere has found that these climate trends are indeed likely to significantly increase the incidence of armed conflict overall. Their paper, published today in Science, examined 60 studies to aggregate sets of data on events spanning 8000 B.C.E. to the present that examined climate variables and incidences of violence in all major regions of the globe. For example, one of the source papers focused on temperature changes and violent crime in the U.S. from 1952 to 2009, while another looked at the number of conflicts in Europe per decade from 1400 to 1999 as a function of precipitation.

Cross-comparing these studies with the same statistical methods revealed patterns that, when projected into future, suggest that by 2050 we could see 50 percent more instances of mass conflict due to the effects of climate change.

The report can be found here. However, the report cannot be accessed without a subscription to Science magazine. For more on the report and the issue of climate change and armed conflict, see this recent post at Opinio Juris.

Richard B. Eisenberg,
Office of the General Counsel
United States Air Force