A Warmer Planet Is a More Peaceful Planet

Published August 29, 2011

A new report published August 24 by Nature magazine claims “global climate is a major factor in organized patterns of violence” around the world. The report’s author, Solomon Hsiang of Columbia University, writes that his work “represents the first major evidence” that warming temperatures foster the conditions for civil unrest and war.

One problem: The study is 180 degrees away from reality. Even Nature felt it necessary to publish a dissenting view in the same edition of the magazine, giving Halvard Buhaug at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo space to write he remains “skeptical about any potential causal connection” between warmer global temperatures and war.

Naturally, the mainstream media took the alarmist report at face value, creating headlines such as “Study Proves Climate a Trigger for Conflict” (ABC News), “El Ni o a Factor in Some Country Conflicts, Study Finds” (MSNBC), and “Study: Climate is Major Violence Trigger” (Washington Post).

These reporters, however, like Hsiang, would do well to read Climate Change Reconsidered: 2011 Interim Report, released Monday by The Heartland Institute, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, and Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP). It just so happens to have a subsection titled “War and Social Unrest,” which I wrote, that points to peer-reviewed papers showing that global cooling, not warming, tends to bring about social unrest and human misery.

China is a good test case for the relationship between global warming and social stability because it has been a well-populated, primarily agricultural country for millennia, and it has a relatively well-recorded history over this period. Accordingly, several scientists have conducted analyses of factors influencing social stability in China.

Z. B. Zhang and others cited in Heartland’s report compared proxy climate records with historical data on wars, social unrest, and dynastic transitions in China from the late Tang to Qing Dynasties (mid-ninth century to early twentieth century). Their 2005 research revealed that war frequencies, peak war clusters, nationwide periods of social unrest, and dynastic transitions were all significantly associated with cold, not warm, phases of China’s oscillating climate.

Specifically, all three distinctive peak war clusters (defined as more than 50 wars in a ten-year period) occurred during cold climate phases, as did all seven periods of nationwide social unrest and nearly 90 percent of all dynastic changes that decimated this largely agrarian society. The researchers conclude climate change was “one of the most important factors in determining the dynastic cycle and alternation of war and peace in ancient China,” with warmer climates having been immensely more effective than cooler ones in terms of helping “keep the peace.”

A similar study from last year, also cited in Heartland’s report, examined data on Chinese history, including temperature, wars and rebellions, epidemics, famines, and population for the past millennium. Over the study interval of 911 years, it was found that nomad migrations, rebellions, wars, epidemics, floods, and droughts were all higher during cold periods. The Chinese researchers write, “Recent studies have demonstrated that wars and social unrests in the past often were associated with cold climate phases” and “climate cooling may have increased locust plagues through temperature-driven droughts or floods in ancient China.”

Following in the footsteps of Zhang and others, in 2010 Richard S. J. Tol of the University of Amsterdam and Sebastian Wagner of the Institute for Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany essentially did for Europe what the Chinese researchers did earlier for China. In introducing their study, the authors state that in “gloomier scenarios of climate change, violent conflict plays a key part,” noting in such visions of the future, “war would break out over declining water resources, and millions of refugees would cause mayhem.”

Tol and Wagner note “the Nobel Peace Prize of 2007 was partly awarded to the IPCC and Al Gore for their contribution to slowing climate change and thus preventing war.” However, they observe, “scenarios of climate-change-induced violence can be painted with abandon,” because there is “little research to either support or refute such claims.”

Consequently, and partly to fill this research void, Tol and Wagner conducted an analysis of the subject for Europe. As with the scientists who studied China, their results indicate that “periods with lower temperatures in the pre-industrial era are accompanied by violent conflicts.” However, they determined, “this effect is much weaker in the modern world than it was in pre-industrial times.” All of this suggests, in their words, “that future global warming is not likely to lead to [civil] war between [within] European countries.”

Therefore, they conclude, “should anyone ever seriously have believed that, this paper does put that idea to rest.”

Or, at least it should—if the media could get interested in studies that find the truth but don’t make for such sensationalist headlines.

Craig D. Idso, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute and coauthor of Climate Change Reconsidered: 2011 Interim Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change.