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.



Governments and the 5 stages of grief

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created and introduced a model of grieving, a hypothesis commonly known as the five stages of grief. These were 5 emotional responses shown by those suffering grief. This model has, of course, been greatly contested over the years when it comes to its application in individuals.

However, I actually think it is worth considering in the context of the plight faced by current national governments. As a consequence of destructive international competition, governments are severely restricted in the policies they can put forward and implement. Accordingly, we now have governments which are effectively powerless in the face of global markets and globalised money.

The end result is that government, as it currently exists, is dying. In this context, there is perhaps much that the Kübler-Ross model can tell us.

So here it is:

The stages, popularly known by the acronym DABDA, include:[2]

  1. Denial — “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”
    Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind after death. Denial can be conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, or the reality of the situation. Denial is a defense mechanism and some people can become locked in this stage.
  2. Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”
    Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Anger can manifest itself in different ways. People can be angry with themselves, or with others, and especially those who are close to them. It is important to remain detached and nonjudgmental when dealing with a person experiencing anger from grief.
  3. Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…”
    The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just do something to buy more time…” People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?..” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it’s a matter of life or death.
  4. Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
    During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed. Depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the ‘aftermath’. It is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. It’s natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage. Feeling those emotions shows that the person has begun to accept the situation.
  5. Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
    In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. This stage varies according to the person’s situation. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief.

See what I mean? This model actually gives me some hope. It seems likely, by this reckoning, to get much worse in the short term. But if we can move through to the final stage, to acceptance that the current system cannot persist, we can have have hope for the future – for something better.

Interestingly, there is a related model called the Satir change model, which is clearly based on the same principles, only describing it in a group setting.  Here’s a diagram of that model:


The failure of this model, for me, in the context of the present governmental situation, is that is present the trigger as a ‘foreign element’. In our context, which is the entirety of global civilisation and governance, no foreign element is possible! Instead, the trigger is a quality inherent to the system as a whole.

Nevertheless, I think by combining elements of both models, we can create a synthesis that shows how events may progress as we go along. The compatibility of the models can be neatly seen here.


Equally, my hope from earlier is not diminished, but rather strengthened by this synthesis. I can see that, though times may be hard and getting ever harder, through Simpol, we can look to a better future.

Mark Horler – Simpol-UK

Calling all supporters – we need your help!

Got a request for all our supporters:

The Global+5 award for which Simpol was recently shortlisted (but didn’t win) is now open to voting from the public. It would be great if you could register your 5-star support for Simpol as it may st

ill get it some recognition and additional publicity. So please spread the word on our facebook pages too!

Here’s what needs to be done:

1. Go to http://theglobaljournal.net/ and click on ‘Sign Up’ in the top right corner to create a user account.

2. Log in using your account and click on the ‘Global+5’ tab near the centre of the top navigation bar.

3. Under the main photo you’ll see a scroll of smaller photos. Click the simpol pic:

You’ll then come to Simpol’s page. Click on the 5 stars to vote and rate us. Bit of a fuss, I know, but would be great for all our supporters to get us up there in the rankings.

Thanks! 🙂

Systemic change – the dividing line of our times

There is a tendency to always see a dividing line. To always see us and them. This can be at any level from the local to the global. It can also be in any area and is certainly not limited to politics. Humans are, at heart, something of a tribal species and it is therefore only to easy for them to fall into this view point.

Most of the time, of course, this is a gross simplification of the reality of the situation. But there are certain times when a genuine dividing line springs up. A decent example of this would be in the case of neo-nazism vs everyone with a brain. In fact, though I perhaps risk invoking Godwin’s law, the Nazis themselves would constitute a larger example still, where every nation in the world had to decide which side of the line it was on.

Throughout History, these dividing lines have appeared. So what is the dividing line for our times. My argument is that it is this: Systemic Change.

Put simply there are those who believe we can carry on as now – even if they advocate some tinkering within that system – whom I shall call remainders. and there are those who can see that this is simply not possible, who we can call changers.

As an example of where this dividing line falls, we might look at the use of the concept of sustainability.

For the remainders, this means taking the system we have for granted, but trying to tinker with it such that it becomes sustainable. So for example, they might campaign for people to turn off their computers at night. This would save energy and so would be good for the environment. This would then be, for them, more sustainable.

By contrast, the changers can see that, much as energy efficiency efforts are important, they are simply not enough in an energy system that runs on fossil fuels, pollutes the environment and pumps out CO2 (contributing to climate change). The changers see that the whole SYSTEM is unsustainable and needs to be changed.

It is becoming increasingly clear to changers all over the world that much of our current civilisational system is simply unsustainable – fossil fuels/climate change, endless war, the failing of democracy and the influence of money on it, endless economic growth in a finite system. The list goes on and on.

The problem now is that our governance, our governments, our entire politics is stuck on the remainder side of the line. Hence we see endless fiddling while Rome burns.  Fortunately, numerous organisations and groups have sprung up to try to resolve this problem. If you’re reading this, you already likely know who those organisations are. In fact, I find it interesting and useful to think of NGOs and other such groups, to see which side of the dividing line they are on. Right now, sadly, the balance of power is on the remainder side. But that is changing and will continue to do so.

Simpol’s particular contribution to this is on the subject of global governance. There are many other issues of great importance. We invite all changer organisations and individuals to join us in helping drive forward real, lasting systemic change. What’s more, we invite remainder organisations and individuals to come on over. There need be no hard feelings, only realisation, understanding and then progress.

Until such time as we accept and then demand genuine systemic change, our efforts will continue to be fruitless. Only together can we make that change happen.

Simpol and the Power of We

Today is Blog Action Day. Thousands of bloggers from around the world are coming together to tell stories of The Power of We. Here’s a quote from the organisers:

We choose this theme for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the popularity of the your suggestions; Community, Equality, Transparency/Anti-Corruption and Freedom, in our theme poll.

Secondly, The Power of We is a celebration of people working together to make a positive difference in the world, either for their own communities or for people they will never meet half way around he world.

Well, I couldn’t not get engaged with that. Simpol is absolutely all about The Power of We. Democracy is the power of we! Well, it should be. But here is where the problem lies.

Our democracy, our rights, our freedoms, our chances and our choices – all the things that make up the power of the people – have been diminished in recent years.

The power of unrestrained competition (and indeed consumption) has led us all into a ‘race for the bottom’ which erodes and, eventually, washes away all that we should strive most to protect.

We desecrate the natural world in our race for raw materials. We abandon community in the pursuit of economic survival. We dismiss peace and instead commit ourselves to the horror of war. Perhaps most of all, we ignore the fact that we are a cooperative species, because we are focussed on competing.

Our entire world – and everything that really matters in it – are being held hostage by money, markets, competition and corporations. Change is virtually impossible within this system.

Simpol has the power to change this. With Simpol, across the world, we the people come together and create the policies we want – the global policies we so desperately need.

Once we’ve done that, we agree to vote for ANY politician (within reason) who pledges to implement those policies.

WE create the policy and WE then make the politicians compete for our votes by agreeing to those policies.

So, with Simpol, The Power of We is the power to turn the whole system upside down. It is thus the power to bring about true democratic global governance. From that global, people powered governance can come real and lasting change.

The world we dream of seeing – a world of peace, prosperity, justice and sustainability – is not so far away as it seems. WE can get there together!


Simpol-UK Policy Forums are GO!

I don’t normally use this blog for this kind of thing, but this is pretty exciting for us! The Simpol-UK policy forums are now up and running. The simultaneous policies are not decided by us as an organisation. They must be decided by YOU, the people.

This is your chance to decide on the global simultaneous policies you want to see implemented!

This is your chance to create your own policy and put it out there for discussion and to the vote!



To join in, there are just three easy steps:

Step 1 – go to http://uk.simpol.org/index.php?id=86 and register as a supporter (it’s free and takes about 2 minutes).

Step 2 – go to: http://uk.simpol.org/index.php?id=159and register yourself for the forum.

Step 3 – Play your part in helping to decide the policy for real and lasting change!
Please note – this forum is for UK supporters only. If your outside the UK and would like to know more, please leave a comment below. 🙂