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Africa Heats Up

Scientists have long warned that warming global temperatures and the resource scarcities that result will bring more violent conflicts. The U.S. government even directed its intelligence community to study the potential national security implications of climate change. But the evidence showing that rising temperatures cause armed conflict has been sketchy at best — until now. ...

Scientists have long warned that warming global temperatures and the resource scarcities that result will bring more violent conflicts. The U.S. government even directed its intelligence community to study the potential national security implications of climate change. But the evidence showing that rising temperatures cause armed conflict has been sketchy at best -- until now.

In a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of economists compared variations in temperature with the incidence of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa between 1981 and 2002 and found startling results: Just a 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature resulted in a 49 percent increase in the incidence of civil war. The situation looks even bleaker in coming decades. Given projected increases in global temperatures, the authors see a 54 percent increase in civil conflict across the region. If these conflicts are as deadly as the wars during the study period, Africa could suffer an additional 393,000 battle deaths by 2030.

The main reason for the projected violence is global warming's impact on agriculture, but there could be other factors as well. For instance, violent crime tends to increase when temperatures are high, while economic productivity decreases. In an especially depressing aside, the authors note that even under the "optimistic scenario" for economic growth and political reform in the coming decades, "neither is able to overcome the large effects of temperature increase on civil war incidence."

Scientists have long warned that warming global temperatures and the resource scarcities that result will bring more violent conflicts. The U.S. government even directed its intelligence community to study the potential national security implications of climate change. But the evidence showing that rising temperatures cause armed conflict has been sketchy at best — until now.

In a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of economists compared variations in temperature with the incidence of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa between 1981 and 2002 and found startling results: Just a 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature resulted in a 49 percent increase in the incidence of civil war. The situation looks even bleaker in coming decades. Given projected increases in global temperatures, the authors see a 54 percent increase in civil conflict across the region. If these conflicts are as deadly as the wars during the study period, Africa could suffer an additional 393,000 battle deaths by 2030.

The main reason for the projected violence is global warming’s impact on agriculture, but there could be other factors as well. For instance, violent crime tends to increase when temperatures are high, while economic productivity decreases. In an especially depressing aside, the authors note that even under the "optimistic scenario" for economic growth and political reform in the coming decades, "neither is able to overcome the large effects of temperature increase on civil war incidence."

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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