Research Press Release

Biased evidence for links to violent conflict

Nature Climate Change

February 13, 2018

Literature on climate change and violent conflict may overstate the links between the two phenomena as researchers tend to study both places already experiencing violent conflict and where it is more convenient to conduct research, suggests a paper published online this week in Nature Climate Change.

Tobias Ide and colleagues conducted an analysis of the peer-reviewed research on climate-conflict links. They found that countries most often mentioned in the literature tend to be those with more battle-related deaths. In contrast, the countries most exposed to or most at risk from climate change do not feature prominently or have not been studied at all in this context. Furthermore, research on climate-conflict links tends to occur in former British colonies, which are more accessible and where English is the official language.

Climate change has been invoked to explain in part recent violent conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria. However, this study shows that even if climate change could be definitively identified as a cause of conflict in individual cases, sampling biases in the literature mean that both the generalizability of this phenomenon and its underlying drivers are unknown, limiting the usefulness of existing research for informing policy interventions designed to decouple violence from climatic and environmental conditions.

In an accompanying News & Views, Cullen Hendrix writes: “These findings have two powerful implications for our ability to understand the socioeconomic and political conditions in which climate-related conflict is likely to emerge and for informing policy interventions designed to mitigate climate-conflict risk. First, sampling on conflict prevalence, rather than physical exposure, means researchers can say less than we might like about the specific social, economic, and political contexts in which climate change may lead to violence… Second, if climate-conflict links are being studied primarily in atypical contexts - easy-to-access former British colonies - it limits our ability to infer what the research means for climate- conflict links more generally.”


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