Slettebak, R.T. 2012. Don't blame the weather! Climate-related natural disasters and civil conflict. Journal of Peace Research 49: 163-176.
The author writes that "academic, policy, and popular discussions that surround the issue of climate change predict changing weather patterns to increase natural disasters," and he states that many of the discussants "expect these disasters to increase the risk of violent conflict, which would create double burdens to states and societies trying to cope and adjust to climate change."
What was done
Focusing on how climate-related natural disasters such as storms, floods, droughts, extreme temperatures, wildfires and landslides - based on data from the EM-DAT database (CRED, 2007) - "have affected the risk of civil war in the past," and using multivariate methods that employ "a global sample covering 1950 to the present," Slettebak tests whether adding climate-related natural disasters to a well-specified model on civil conflict - that of Fearon and Laitin (2003) - "can increase its explanatory power."
What was learned
With respect to the question of "whether natural disasters can add explanatory power to an established model of civil conflict," the Norwegian researcher reports that his study results "indicate that they can, but that their effect on conflict is the opposite of popular perception." That is to say, he indicates that "to the extent that climate-related natural disasters affect the risk of conflict, they contribute to reducing it." And he finds that this result holds "for a measure of climate-related natural disasters in general, as well as drought in particular," adding that his findings are "consistent with a large amount of research ... on the relation between disasters and the risk of anti-social behavior," stretching all the way back to the work of Fritz (1961), which was not made public until some 35 years later (Fritz, 1996).
What it means
Slettebak says his primary result "underscores the importance of being cautious about assuming that adversity will automatically translate into increased levels of conflict - a perception that appears frequent among a number of vocal actors in the debate around the political consequences of climate change." And thus it is that he emphasizes that "one worrying facet of the claims that environmental factors cause conflict is that they may contribute to directing attention away from more important conflict-promoting factors, such as poor governance and poverty," noting that "there is a serious risk of misguided polity to prevent civil conflict if the assumption that disasters have a significant effect on war is allowed to overshadow more important causes."
Fearon, J.D. and Laitin, D.D. 2003. Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war. American Political Science Review 97: 75-90.
Fritz, C.E. 1961. Disaster. In: Merton, R.K. and Nisbet, R.A. (Eds.). Contemporary Social Problems: An Introduction to the Sociology of Deviant Behavior and Social Disorganization. Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, New York, USA, pp. 651-694.
Fritz, C.E. 1996. Disasters and mental health: Therapeutic principles drawn from disaster studies. Historical and Comparative Disaster Series 10. University of Delaware Disaster Research Center (http://dspace.udel.edu:8080/dspace/handle/19716/1325).Reviewed 11 July 2012