Will Cooler Heads Prevail? The Future of Climate Related Violence

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By Rob Hickey, Guest Blogger

Source: Getty Images

Finding relationships between phenomena is human. This attribute of the human mind has had strong survival value in nature and we therefore carry it strongly with us today. In one of its many modern incarnations, it has allowed us to develop hypotheses regarding what might make good (and bad) public policy.

Despite the benefits of this evolutionary gift, an active mind without the application of logical rigor can sometimes lead mentally healthy and logical human beings astray. Over the past 100 years, well-intentioned U.S. policy-makers have developed and implemented policies that have expended immense amounts of public money while simultaneously failing to achieve their aims. Others have resulted in unsettling unintended effects.

The ability to survive in hostile and chaotic environments has bestowed us with the side-effect of occasionally seeing patterns that are not there, and to often simplistically assume that an effect results from a single cause. We attempt to overcome the incorrect and bizarre paths down which this leads us by methodologically analyzing data (i.e. the glory of science) which may link phenomena (or disprove these linkages) and which isolate the object of analysis from the surrounding chaos by controlling or explaining away extraneous information.

Identifying the Linkage

In their paper, Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict, published in the journal Science on August 1st, Solomon Hsiang of Princeton University, and Marshall Burke and Edward Miguel from the University of California, Berkley, aim to do just that. They present a body of evidence which they claim implies a causal relationship between rising temperature and increased interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

Their paper concludes that “for each 1 standard deviation (1σ) change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, median estimates indicate that the frequency of interpersonal violence rises 4% and the frequency of intergroup conflict rises 14%.” They find that, since inhabited areas are expected to warm by 2-4σ by 2050, anthropogenic climate change could have a critical impact on human conflict. They define this impact as “important” if the authors of the 60 studies that they analyzed state that the “effect is substantive” or if the change in conflict risk is greater than 10% for each standard deviation change in climate variation.

The Signal and the Noise

The paper has its detractors, such as Dr. Halvard Buhaug from the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway who has criticized the study and pointed out that not one case of real-world conflict was identified that would not have occurred without climate change. This criticism is important and does illustrate the complexity and care which must be taken in attributing one particular cause to a particular effect, especially in a system as complex and seemingly un-dissectible as human society. In the interests of full disclosure, it is relevant to note that Dr. Buhaug’s previous academic work refutes linkages between climate variability and armed conflict.

But, this is also is something of a straw man line of reasoning, as it implies that the authors of the study are claiming that climate change alone can cause conflict, rather than exacerbate existing tensions. The authors never make this claim, but they do anticipate this potential interpretation of their work by writing:

We do not conclude that climate is the sole – or even primary – driving force in conflict, but we do find that when large climate variations occur, they can have substantial effects on the incidence of conflict across a variety of contexts.”

One of the main points of contention around the web seems to be that the study does not properly control for other societal variables which affect violence.

The authors attempt to address this difficulty by saying that a:

problem occurs when researchers control for variables that are themselves affected by climate variation, causing either (i) the signal in the climate variable of interest to be inappropriately absorbed by the “control” variable, or (ii) the estimate to be biased because populations differ in unobserved ways that become artificially correlated with climate when the “control” variable is included.”

So, the study intentionally does not include control variables, as they may themselves be proxies for climate change and may erase some (or all) of the relationship between temperature and violence if included. Instead of trying to account for societal differences, the studies that were examined are only those which compare one society to itself during different intervals of time. While some differences may exist, this approach endeavors to minimize most of them.

Is this solution good enough to separate the temperature signal from the socioeconomic noise?

Is Violence Increasing?

The findings of the study make intuitive sense given the notion that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It seems clear that the earth is warming and violence around the world is on the rise.


When it comes to violence being on the rise – not really. In addition to the fact that we are terrible at assessing risk and macro-trends given our propensity to rely on anecdotal evidence, we also have the ability to accurately understand and interpret data.

This includes Harvard Psychologist Stephen Pinker, who in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, makes the case that violence is actually decreasing around the world.

To make use of one particular case from the U.S., it appears that gun violence and homicides dropped sharply between 1993 and 2011, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data. During this same period, 17 out of 19 years showed higher than average temperatures (from 1901-2012) in the contiguous 48 U.S. states:

rob 3CREDIT: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

What is going on here?

Frankly, this one case from the U.S. does not necessarily run contrary to the finding of causal linkages between warming and violence. Beyond it being a sample size of one, a number of important contravening factors could be at play here that may result in a decline.

The Pew Research Data presents some of these, including the collapse of the crack cocaine market in the early 1990’s and increasing economic growth, which created employment for those who might otherwise have turned to lives of violent crime.

It appears then, that examining a single geographic location over time does not always control for other societal drivers or dampeners of violence enough to draw such conclusions, especially over relatively short time scales. Even within countries, various sub-national geographical divisions may exhibit wildly different conditions that may allow for the development of violence.

This may, for example, be particularly true between different jurisdictions in highly federalized countries such as Germany or the United States where legislation and socio-economic health may differ substantially. In this context, the location of the violence within the country becomes highly relevant. The more geographcally consistent the time-series data is, the better it will be. Unfortunately, for some of the data used, violence statistics are aggregated at the national level and in some cases, the national studies have periods as short as 20 years.

But maybe a large enough sample size (60 studies were used) and time duration (in one case this span was 12,000 years – from 10050 BCE–1950) might be able to overcome differences in economic health, legislation and other factors which change the dynamics a particular areas over time – that the noise is self-cancelling. This is an assumption that this study’s authors make.

Pinker’s book on the decline in violence provides some clues on how, in a world that is scientifically proven to be warming from human activity, and where rising temperature appears to result in rising violence, that overall bloodshed might decrease. These include the rise of the nation-state (which holds a monopoly on force and punishment), increasing commerce, an increased respect for women’s rights, increasing exposure to other cultures and viewpoints, and the increasing use of reason being applied to potentially explosive situations. These ‘calming’ influences are all given as potential pathways that may allow for the expression of our nobler virtues.

What Might The Link Look Like?

Arguments against a linear relationship between temperature and assault have been made, based on a finding that at high temperatures, assault actually decreases. Without taking into consideration the time of day when assault occurs, it appears that in Minneapolis (where the data on which this study is based is from), assaults decline at temperatures above 74˚F:

rob 1Credit: Bushman et. al. (2005)

If true, this brings the connection between anthropogenic climate change and increasing assaults at higher temperatures, into question. Other studies however, such as Bushman et. al. (2005) found that the time of day is also highly relevant for the incidence of assault and shows linearity in the data when taking this into consideration. This appears to refute the claim that extremely high temperatures actually discourage assaults. When controlling for the time of day, the temperature/aggravated assaults curve appears quite different from the above:

Rob 4Credit: Bushman et. al. (2005)

According to the Bushman paper, one postulation as to why aggravated assaults dropped during the hottest part of the day, when there is a proven relationship between temperature and violence, is because “there are strong inhibitions against committing aggressive acts at work, church, or school” despite the heat. The potential role that institutions might play (the effects of sunlight or circadian rhythms could also be considered here) in mitigating violence also appear to resonate with Pinker’s work.

Over the Precipice of Civility

Getting back to the original study, the Hsiang et. al. (2013) paper on violence and climate suggests possible mechanisms under which climate change might increase the incidence of violence. Interestingly, these overlap significantly with Pinker’s pacifying forces in that rising temperature and climate change may erode them.

These include the relative allure of conflict over economic activity, when productivity declines, or crumbling state power resulting from falls in tax revenue and law enforcement capabilities. Warming may also exacerbate social inequalities and violent attempts by the poor to redistribute wealth (a potentially ironic comic-tragedy of free-market ideologies which ignore the environment). It is also likely to increase food-related price shocks and the violence that they cause.

Increased violence may also be attributable to the migratory pressures of climate change on refugee populations and a lack of the bare necessities to sustain them. Finally, as anyone who has sat in traffic in a hot car might attest to, there appears be a mechanism whereby hot weather increases aggressive tendencies and reduces rational thinking. Whether it is a change in heat that triggers this, or higher constant heat is somewhat irrelevant, as temperature is tending upwards and will exacerbate both.

So, while violence may decrease overall in keeping with recent trends, warming may decrease the rate at which it has been dropping and could remain somewhat ‘hidden’ from policy debates. One of the unnerving aspects of this is that warming can potentially reverse the stabilizing effects of the institutions of the nation-state and the economic opportunity that a stable climate provides. Countering the degradation of the forces which promote this downward trend in conflict may be an insurmountable task for individual nations to address.



Swing Voters, Mr President? UK has the Answer

On the day of the US presidential elections, Simpol founder and global trustee John Bunzl has had an article published on Huffpost. It sets out why and how Simpol offers a way forward for the US (and the rest of the world too!). It uses the subject of climate change – and it’s disappointing but unsurprising absence from the presidential debates – to show the necessity of simultaneous policy.

Here’s a quote from that article:

The real question, then, is how do we make it in every nation’s interests to cooperate in responding to climate change? And how can ordinary citizens who care about the issue get it firmly back on the political agenda? That, precisely, is what a global UK-driven citizens campaign called the Simultaneous Policy (Simpol) is starting to do in a number of countries around the world. And the way it’s doing it could be of considerable relevance to the U.S.

Simpol calls for virtually all nations to act simultaneously on climate change and on many other global issues, because if all nations act simultaneously across multiple issues, no nation need lose out. Not only would nations that might lose on one issue gain on another, simultaneous action would break the vicious circle of fear and inaction all nations are presently caught in, so opening the way to cooperative action that’s in everybody’s interests.


For more, see the article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/john-bunzl/swing-voters-mr-president_b_2064072.html

Rio+20 – the verdict

So shockingly enough, as I (and many others) predicted, the much vaunted Rio+20 conference has resulted in… not much. What is interesting though, is the statements being made by some of the leaders of the big NGOs.

Here’s a couple of quotes from the article in the Guardian:

“sophisticated UN diplomacy has given us nothing more than more poverty, more conflict and more environmental destruction” – Lasse Gustavsson, executive director for conservation at WWF

“Sustainable development will have to happen without the blessing of world leaders. Governments will need to play catch-up” – Lasse Gustavsson, executive director for conservation at WWF

“Civil society has to take action. They must do what they do.” – Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam GB

“…the important thing is to see Rio as a catalyst for people around the world. Now it’s our turn to take the energy of people and convert that into action.” – Peter Lehner, executive director of the National Resources Defence Council

The idea that it should be civil society – the people, essentially – that have to do this, is one that we at Simpol have been doing our best to spread for ages now. Could it be that the big NGOs are finally starting to pick up on this?

Will they translate that realisation into the kind of action necessary – into simultaneous policy?

Watch this space I guess!

The Durban Deal

So, a deal has been done in Durban. There are of course a multitude of views and opinions being expressed on this. As ever, there are those who point out that these deals don’t go far enough to achieve meaningful results.

What I found interesting and even a little heartening though, was a comment made by Chris Huhne, the UK Energy and Environment Secretary. He said:

“It shows that when the European Union is united, we can play an absolutely critical role in protecting our national interests. This is a very good example of how the European Union actually can act very crucially in the British national interest, in a way we could not possibly achieve on our own.”

This may not seem like much, but it does represent a very important point and maybe, just maybe, a change in the way this problem is being thought about in the places of political power.

It shows that, finally, it is being recognised, that acting cooperatively can be in the interest of all.

It’s a small step to be sure and, in truth, each nation will still be looking to its own national competitive interest above all else. It will take something much greater than this to change that mindset once and for all – it will take People Power to do that. Until then we will still be stuck with deals that don’t do the job.

But it is a shred of hope nonetheless. It is also proof that all the campaigning is worthwhile; that the message is, ever so slowly, getting through.


Desperate Times… the politics of oil addicition

By Mark Horler, Simpol supporter, blogger and networking officer.

BP is in the news again today, with its plan to drill for oil off the Shetland coast. A well is to be drilled at a depth of 1,290m some 80 miles NW of Shetland. To describe this area as being ecologically and environmentally sensitive would be a fairly serious understatement. Indeed the above article notes that:

BP documents referring to the North Uist project themselves list more than 20 vulnerable Shetland nature sites, including eight Special Protection Areas, two Special Conservation Areas and 12 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which involve the breeding grounds of otters and rare birds such as the great skua, the red-throated diver and Leach’s petrel.

It’s extremely tempting, in fact hard not to think that they are doing this out of some increasingly perverse kind of destructive glee. BP’s very own assessment paints a picture of just how badly it could go wrong:

…the worst-case scenario for a spill from its North Uist exploratory well, to be sunk next year, would involve a leak of 75,000 barrels a day for 140 days – a total of 10.5 million barrels of oil… This would be more than double the amount of oil spilled from its Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico last year, which had a maximum leak rate of 62,000 barrels a day in an incident lasting 88 days – and triggered a social, economic and environmental catastrophe in the US which brought the giant multinational to the brink of collapse.

Granted this is the worse possible case and so it would be unlikely to be quite that bad. But in combination with the sensitivity of the area and the difficulties associated with stopping any leak, the well is nothing short of an act of madness!

It has been said that if a transnational corporation were a person, it would be a psychopath. But with oil companies it is pretty clear to me that, were they a person, they would be an addict. Think of the heroin addict who will steal anything from anyone just to get the next fix. Addicts who no matter the risk to themselves, their health and to those around them will carry on injecting regardless.

This is the mentality that now underpins the actions of the giant oil companies. It doesn’t matter that beautiful ecosystems will be utterly destroyed. It doesn’t matter if lives are lost – even human lives. There is only oil and the pursuit of the next fix, the drills sinking into the earth like hypodermic needle into flesh, looking for the vein.

And they make junkies of us all. We do our best, we buy more fuel efficient cars, we insulate our homes better, we try always to reduce our consumption via the methadone program of ‘green living’. But we too, in the end, are addicted to oil. We cannot help it. Our society – our entire civilisation – is hooked and we can’t seem to stop it.

So we seek help. We ask our government to put an end to this madness, to declare war on this fatal drug. But they are more addicted even than us! If the oil corps (cartel anyone?) are the dealers pushing the drugs into our society then individual governments are, at present, the hapless runners doing their dirty work. So how are we to seek help from them?!


The truth of course is that no one government can hope to help us. Yes, they may be craven apologists for the oil industry right now, but in truth even the most environmentally resolute government could do nothing alone. To do so would make their country uncompetitive – it’s not hard to imagine the threat being made of lost jobs and investment as operations move elsewhere. No government will risk this and so all capitulate entirely.

The only answer, in the long term, is simultaneous policy. When all, or sufficient governments act together simultaneously there will be nowhere left for the oil companies to run to.

Don’t get me wrong, we should certainly combat insane projects such as this right now – Greenpeace are already on the case. No doubt others are too.

But this situation will keep on occurring again and again until we take action simultaneously at the global level.

Actions now are the needle exchange and the safe injection sites – reducing harm right now and helping the addict to live a little longer. Simpol is proper rehab, helping us all quit the addiction once and for all.

Mainstream Dreaming – The Nightmare and the Dream part 2

We’ve established that we need to articulate The Nightmare and then The Dream. Once we’ve done that we can answer the most crucial question – how do we move the dream into the mainstream?

So, without further ado, let’s get to it:

The Nightmare:

This one is easy and complex at the same time. The simple answer is that The Nightmare is now. We need only watch the news and study the available information to see it all around us. It’s climate change and environmental degradation, it’s poverty, it’s injustice, it’s war, it’s the failing of democracy, it’s unbridled competition and corporatocracy, it’s inequality… I could go on.

But all of these things are not The Nightmare to us personally. For the most part, living as we do in a well off western democracy, these concerns are (or seem) remote to us. In the face of the day-to-day business of just getting on with life, we might struggle to see the bigger picture.

Nightmares are not impersonal – we don’t generally have nightmares about a debt based banking system, about the loss of bluefin tuna or about whether our vote really counts at the elections. Perhaps we should, but we don’t. In fact our nightmares are intensely personal and usually about us. So we need to be able to see or feel the effect on us personally of these problems. Perhaps that might seem selfish to some, but it is a feature of human existence and, for reasons I will go into in a moment, it is about empathy which is inherently unselfish.

We might well be able to see some effects immediately in this personal sense. We can all well imagine losing our jobs and, subsequently, our homes due to the ongoing recession/financial crisis. We should not have to try to hard to imagine being unable to find food to feed our families.

But some are more remote and for these we must use our empathy and imagination. We have all seen the news footage of flooding in Bangladesh and the horrors it brings, but this is, for most of us, remote. But is it too much of a stretch to imagine a news report showing the flooding of London, of New York, of New Orleans come to that? Can we imagine the newsreader saying that the flooding is due to rising sea levels brought about by climate change? I think we can and we can feel much more keenly that sorrow and that horror as a result.

Likewise we have all seen the news reels of brutal tyrants and the wars both that they cause and that are fought against them. Again these are most likely remote to us. But is it so hard to see that our democracy is failing? When we see our cherished public institutions and commons being sold to the highest bidder? More pressingly still, can we imagine what it would be like to see our own children sent off to war? For some people, this is not something that requires imagination at all.

Even if we can feel it and see it though which, in truth, most people can, what can we possibly do about it? The sheer amount of sadness, horror, brutality and greed in the world introduces, for many people a kind of paralysis.

It is this paralysis that is truly The Nightmare. Indeed many people will have had the personal nightmare where they are trying to run from something but their legs won’t move or they get stuck. It has been said that these chase dreams reflect our fear of certain situations and, in the case of getting stuck, an inability to escape the situation or the consequences of our actions.

On the global scale it is the very same nightmare. The sheer extent of the problems and our inability to respond to them (and this is where the failing of democracy is critical) leaves us trying to run from the problems but being stuck in paralysis. As the world we’ve built comes crashing down around us we discover that we have nowhere left to run or hide and so we – intellectually and politically – curl up in a ball and hope for the best. (It may, incidentally, not be a coincidence in light of this that so many disaster movies – think 2012 – have found their way into the Hollywood mainstream; or indeed that conspiracy theories seem ever more numerous).

So if paralysis is The Nightmare, what is The Dream? Well, again, the answer is as simple and as complex as The Nightmare.

The Dream:

The Dream is the opposite of The Nightmare. It is the world that could be, that should be instead of the world that is.

It’s harmony with nature instead of climate change and environmental degradation, It’s prosperity instead of poverty, it’s justice instead of injustice, it’s peace instead of war, it’s the revitalisation of democracy, it’s cooperation and the will of the people instead of unbridled competition and corporatocracy, it’s equality instead of inequality. There are many more answers to what the dream might be and what it might lead to, some of which you can check out here and here  and at simpol.org.uk amongst many other places.

But at the personal level, as set out above, it is the opposite of paralysis – and the opposite of paralysis is action. In turn, action is a product of choice.

This then, is the answer both to what The Dream is and how to bring it into the mainstream. We must choose to see it and to feel it and to act upon it. Each and every one of us must, to extend the metaphor, get up and walk into a better future. Each of us must take global responsibility and cooperate together to implement our desire and our will for a better world for us all and for the generations that follow us.

Simpol offers each and every person the opportunity (at no cost) to be this global citizen and to make these changes. Come and join us today and let’s bring the dream into the mainstream for everyone.

The Nightmare and the Dream – part 1

I had an interesting comment in response to my recent post ‘the logical extension of lobbying’. In it I was referred to the work of Robert Brulle. So off I went to the all-seeing google of the north and, sure enough, a quick search threw up (if you’ll excuse the phrase) a mass of information on Brulle.  I read though a list of his works available online and tried to pick one that sounded most relevant to Simpol – not an easy task as much of his work seems to bear on what we do!

Nevertheless, in the end I selected Fixing the Bungled U.S. Environmental Movement (co-written with J. Craig Jenkins) and began to read through it. I found some very interesting reading, to say the least.  There isn’t space here to go through it all in detail, but perhaps a few quotes might be in order:

First they talk about some worrying facts regarding the (US) environment:

“…34 years after the Clean Water Act passed more than half of US waters remain significantly degraded… Also according to the EPA, more than 146 million  residents live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution”

But the greater part of the piece is given over to a pretty scathing critique of the environmental movement as a whole (in the US):

“Today’s environmental movement seems to have become complacent and overly bureaucratic, a movement dominated by ‘protest businesses’ that substitute professional advocacy for citizen action….member are check writers, not activists…the majority of grassroots members simply come along for the ride.”

“…today one of the paramount problems of the movement is the perception among potential supporters that their individual contributions won’t make a difference.”

“…without a paradigm shift from the top down approach where members of environmental organizations are treated as budget funders to a grassroots focus that will engage citizens to take specific actions that stem the tide of environmental degradation, our environmental movement won’t have the right approach…”

Now firstly, this was clearly written as a critique specifically (and only) of the US environmental movement. I don’t think these criticisms apply nearly so strongly in the UK, although I do think there are some elements of truth there. Indeed part of the point of the ‘logical extension’ piece I wrote was to say that Simpol would allow NGOs –  and thus the environmental movement amongst many others – to have precisely the paradigm shift set out by Brulle.

Secondly it appears to have been written in 2008. It’s pretty clear to me that things have changed pretty rapidly and substantially since 2008 in more ways than it is possible to list. Certainly I think the progressive movement as a whole is more grass roots focused than perhaps ever before and different areas – environmental, democratic, poverty, social justice and so on – are linking up much more than before.

This is critical because it allows people to engage with the issues that affect them in a variety of ways. In doing so they join in a creatively osmotic process that connects them to other people and their hopes, fears, problems and solutions.

I haven’t found – yet! –  any specific quotes from Brulle on ‘the dream and the nightmare’ but it is this process of sharing and learning that must lead to this view. When we share our fears and problems we describe (and recoil from) The Nightmare. When we share our hopes and our solutions we are creating The Dream.

It’s a dream of a better future for us all. This dream, I think resides deep inside us all. But I think perhaps it gets downtrodden by the march of ‘progress’ and is hidden by the ever present threat of unbridled competition.

We need to find a way to bring this Dreaming into the mainstream so that together we can decide what the dream is and how to bring it to reality.

But more of that in part 2 – coming soon!