How and Why Climate Change is Causing Global Social Conflicts

Remember the Heat Miser from The Year Without a Santa Clause? The Heat Miser, an animated character otherwise known as “Mr. Green Christmas”, sports warm colors, has fire for hair (a literal hot head), and upholds an irate scowl while singing his painfully catchy theme song. The Heat Miser lives in the warmest possible climate conditions and isn’t afraid to show his hot-temper. But what was the Heat Miser so worked up about? According to researchers from Princeton University and the University of California – Berkeley, warm temperatures – caused by climate change – may be the cause for increased violence.

Although the researchers admit that climate change is not the sole contributor to the rise in vicious behavior, they found that the influential role of temperature increases is undeniable. Data from the study predict that a single standard deviation change in Earth’s temperature increases the risk of group conflict by nearly 14% and interpersonal violence by 4%. To put this in perspective, a single standard deviation rise in temperature is about 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit for a given month in the United States. Considering that Earth’s temperature is predicted to rise about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, we can reasonably conclude that there will be more than just a few hot-heads surfacing in the decades ahead.

Furthermore, there is more than purely scientific data to validate the researchers’ conclusions. Though this study focuses largely on quantitative geological values, it also includes a meta-analysis of about 60 studies from other fields, ranging from anthropology to criminology, in order to achieve the most comprehensive conclusion.

The study was largely conducted using data from previous studies that analyzed the effects of climate change on society. Data taken from times ranging from 10,000 BCE to present day was gathered from experiments around the world. After the data was collected, the main task was determining a better way to analyze it. According to the lead author of the study, Princeton’s Soloman Hsiang, the acquired results were already fairly consistent. They were not, however, consistently analyzed.

To analyze the data, researchers devised three main categories of violence: personal violence/crime (murder, assault, or rape), intergroup violence/political instability (civil wars and riots), and institutional breakdowns (major changes in governing or even overall societal collapse). The data suggests increased violence in all three categories, regardless of location, century, or national wealth. In short: climate change is impacting more than just sea levels, and everyone needs to take action to hamper its progress.

Still not convinced that climate change increases violence? To further corroborate the conclusions from the research, a 1994 study of policemen in identical situations, but different external temperatures, showed that officers are more likely to use their weapons when they are uncomfortably warm. In essence, this study is just a small-scale version of the research on climate-influenced violence that Princeton University and the University of California – Berkeley researchers have uncovered.

Temperature rise implies more social changes than you might think – higher temperatures can cause rampant drought, resulting in a food shortage, and, ultimately, increased social aggression. Additionally, climate change can increase the risk of heat-induced health problems. Data gathered by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Earth Policy Institute (EPI) show thousands of heat-related deaths during a European heat wave in 2003, demonstrating just how life-changing temperature rise can be. In urban areas, climate change can even result in increased pollution-related respiratory problems. Weather forecasts should be viewed with greater significance than simply a determining factor in what to wear. Climate change is not just something to get used to. Although the road to reducing climate change is long and improvement is, by no means, immediate, an investment in stopping climate change should be viewed as an investment in the future.

Now that we know that Earth’s rising temperature results in a higher frequency of human violence, what can we do? To start, there are hundreds of ways to reduce your carbon footprint, whether by taking one less napkin at lunch, eating fewer red-meat products, or using hand dryers instead of paper towels in the bathrooms. Additionally, the established relationship between temperature and violence can be useful to policymakers who may try to pinpoint impending social dilemmas and intervene before civil violence sets in. Hsiang believes that, by understanding the important implications of climate change, “we can think about designing effective policies or institutions to manage or interrupt the link between climate and conflict.”

About The Author

This is my second year working with Innovation. I am currently an editor of the health section, but my main scientific interests lie in energy and sustainability (environmental engineering whooo). I hope that Innovation succeeds in making science news both interesting and accessible to all students on campus. Besides Innovation, my other interests include: the weather, the ocean, chemistry, food, puns, funny pictures on the internet, snowball fights, and coffee.