Former Vice President Al Gore seems to think many major global events are linked to man-made warming. The failed presidential candidate has blamed everything from the Syrian civil war to Brexit on the climate.
Gore isn’t alone. Former Secretary of State John Kerry often warned about the connections between global warming and violent conflict. More recently, some researchers linked unrest across Iran last year to global warming, pointing to a multi-year drought.
However, a new paper offers a blistering critique of research linking global warming to violent conflicts. The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found such research suffers from “a streetlight effect.”
“We demonstrate that research on climate change and violent conflict suffers from a streetlight effect,” reads the study. The “streetlight effect” is when researchers search for answers where it’s easiest, instead of where the right answer might be.
“Further, studies which focus on a small number of cases in particular are strongly informed by cases where there has been conflict, do not sample on the independent variables (climate impact or risk), and hence tend to find some association between these two variables,” reads the study.
Linking global warming to violent conflict became in vogue after Syria erupted in violence in 2011. Researchers quickly began suggesting the drought that wreaked havoc on rural Syria served as a spark for civil war.
The Obama administration considered global warming a national security threat, and top officials often repeated the claim that violence in Syria, and the rise of ISIS, stemmed from climate factors.
Gore has been a major proponent of this theory, stretching it even further to claim the wave of refugees in the wake of Syria’s civil war, which he says was climate-caused, eventually led to the U.K.’s “Brexit” vote.
“It has unleashed this incredible flow of refugees into Europe, which is creating political instability in Europe, which contributed in some ways to the desire of some in the UK to say ‘whoa, we’re not sure we want to be part of that anymore,’’” Gore said in 2017.
But the Nature study found research that purports to support the climate-conflict theory are flawed, and they often can’t explain why environmental problems often lead to cooperation, not conflict.
“These biases mean that research on climate change and conflict primarily focuses on a few accessible regions, overstates the links between both phenomena and cannot explain peaceful outcomes from climate change,” reads the study. “This could result in maladaptive responses in those places that are stigmatized as being inherently more prone to climate-induced violence.”
These aren’t the first researchers to go after the climate-conflict narrative. Clionadh Raleigh, a political geography professor at the University of Sussex, gave a talk at Oxford University last year where she debunked a lot of the theory.
“Cooperation is far more likely in difficult conditions, those that have been exacerbated by climate changes and those that are highly vulnerable to climate change,” Raleigh said in her talk.
“But cooperation doesn’t make headline news,” Raleigh said, “so we rarely hear about it and instead wars, such as those in Syria, are connected to climatic changes that have been going on for decades within those areas.”
“And very key reasons for why those wars broke out — forty years of oppression and autocracy — are often ignored because the people doing the studies want to forward a climate argument, and they will do so regardless of the other very obvious reasons for a conflict to emerge,” Raleigh said.
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