Probing temperature's effect on civil conflict

June 30, 2010, 10:53 a.m.

In this methodological note, researchers defend an earlier paper finding a robust statistical relationship between temperature and large-scale civil conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. At first glance, their findings support "deprivation" theories of conflict, but the case is far from closed.

Finally, because economic welfare is the single factor most consistently associated with conflict incidence in both crosscountry and within-country studies (1, 2, 14–16), it appears likely that the variation in agricultural performance is the central mechanism linking warming to conflict in Africa. Yet because our study cannot definitively rule out other plausible contributing factors—for instance, violent crime, which has been found to increase with higher temperatures (22), and nonfarm labor productivity, which can decline with higher temperatures (23)—further elucidating the relative contributions of these factors remains a critical area for future research.

Nevertheless, the robustness of the reduced-form relationship between temperature and conflict across many alternative model specifications argues for a large direct role of temperature in shaping conflict risk. When combined with the unanimous projections of near-term warming across climate models and climate scenarios, this temperature effect provides a coherent and alarming picture of increases in conflict risk under climate change over the next 2 decades in Africa.

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