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Confusing Causality with Correlation in the Climate and Security Discourse

Since climate change began to be discussed as a security issue, there has been a consistent and unfortunate oversimplification of the climate and security discourse. This mischaracterization centers on an argument which either unwittingly or deliberately confuses causality, correlation, and probability. The assertion often starts with: “There is no evidence that climate change causes conflict” or “There is no evidence that climate change causes migration.”

Following from this, the accusation is that purveyors of the climate and security frame have declared climate change a primary, or exclusive, cause of conflict (and other traditional security threats), that this will lead to other possible causes being sidelined or ignored (such as political and institutional factors), and that this causal link will lead to military-heavy solutions.  Some go so far as to suggest the removal of climate change from defense and security planning altogether for lack of a direct causal link. While it is important to avoid hyperbole, the problem with this argument is that it is a misleading view of the actual state of the discussion and a misinterpretation of the available data.

A closer look at the climate and security framework shows that one of the most common characterizations of climate change from the point of view of the security world is as a “threat multiplier.” This means that climate change can exacerbate certain social, economic and ecological vulnerabilities, and that the worsening of such vulnerabilities can heighten the likelihood of insecurity. In other words, climate change may enhance, or multiply, the possibility of insecurity by exacerbating the social and environmental variables that are of greatest concern to the developing world. There is no direct, or exclusive, causality implied in such an analysis – only correlation (sometimes strong) and multiplication. Climate change is an atmospheric variable that impacts environmental variables that impact social and economic variables that contribute to insecurity.

Marc Levy, in a piece on the New Security Beat  outlines these links, based on the information available, in the following way:

1) Economic deprivation almost certainly heightens the risk of internal war.
2) Economic shocks, as a form of deprivation, almost certainly heighten the risk of internal war.
3) Sharp declines in rainfall, compared to average, almost certainly generate economic shocks and deprivation.
4) Therefore, we are almost certain that sharp declines in rainfall raise the risk of internal war.

If climate change is found to impact variable three above – and enhances the likelihood of ‘sharp declines in rainfall’ in a particular region- then it is perfectly fair to say that climate change may enhance the likelihood of, in this example, “internal war.” Climate change, depending on how it impacts year-to-year climate variability, may enhance the probability of conflict occurring. It does not necessarily cause conflict (and is certainly not a proximate cause), and there are few with data behind them saying it does. Yet, the mischaracterization persists.

As Levy states in the same piece, “The stakes are high.” This is not hair-splitting. There are powerful voices in the public sphere that have sown confusion, and spread misinformation, about the claims of climate scientists and policy-makers in regard to the causes and impacts of climate change. This unfortunate situation will only be made worse if those genuinely concerned about climate change multiply that confusion among themselves. What is needed is more research in the climate and security field, not a retreat from it.


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