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Finding Consensus on Climate-Conflict Links

Climate-conflict expert elicitation

Experts enjoying a bit of levity in the midst of expert elicitation. Photo Credit: Woods Institute for the Environment.

By Cullen Hendrix

Today’s issue of Nature reports the results of an attempt to mine the scholarly debate over climate-conflict links for consensus using “expert elicitation.” The process, led by Katharine Mach of Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, brought together experts from economics, geography and political science to identify sources of agreement and disagreement in the now large body of evidence linking climate change to conflict – in this case, domestic armed conflict, like the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

Writing in the Washington Post, John O’Loughlin and I discussed the findings of the study, which affirmed a relatively modest contribution of climate to armed conflict in the past but strong agreement that climate would be an increasing risk factor for armed conflict – a five-fold increase under the “business-as-usual” 4-degree warming scenario.

Reflecting consensus, we noted that attributing any particular armed conflict to climate change is incredibly difficult, and that climate change will likely affect conflict as a “threat multiplier”:

“The factors behind any conflict are a mix of political, economic, social and environmental elements that intersect in locally sensitive ways. This suggests it’s a mistake to designate any individual conflict, such as the Syrian civil war, as a climate war. Journalists and policymakers are often keen to link complex outcomes like civil wars to straightforward causes – like drought. But the story is almost always much more complex.

Instead, the idea the climate change has a “threat multiplier” effect, adding to already-stressed societies, is gaining traction. It’s difficult to parse out the individual effect of any one factor on violence since its influence will vary from country to country. But cumulatively, we can speak of probabilities: think of climate change as “loading the dice”, making conflict more likely to occur in subtle ways across a host of different country contexts.”

For more on the process of expert elicitation – an underutilized way of finding consensus in hotly contested areas of research – read Carolien Kraan’s – who oversaw the elicitation process with Mach – reflection on the process.


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