In an approximate 5 year cycle the warming of the surface water in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean during the El Niño-Southern Oscillation causes changes in weather including shifts in rainfall and temperatures. For 90 affected tropical countries these climate changes cause societal stress that up the risk of civil war.
In the first study of its kind, researchers have linked a natural global climate cycle to periodic increases in warfare. The arrival of El Niño, which every three to seven years boosts temperatures and cuts rainfall, doubles the risk of civil wars across 90 affected tropical countries, and may help account for a fifth of worldwide conflicts during the past half-century, say the authors. The paper, written by an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University's Earth Institute, appears in the current issue of the leading scientific journal Nature.
These authors worry that anthropogenic global warming will cause in a more sustained fashion the same food shortages and higher prices that trigger civil wars during El Nino. My guess is global warming won't be needed for that outcome.
In recent years, historians and climatologists have built evidence that past societies suffered and fell due in connection with heat or droughts that damaged agriculture and shook governments. This is the first study to make the case for such destabilization in the present day, using statistics to link global weather observations and well-documented outbreaks of violence. The study does not blame specific wars on El Niño, nor does it directly address the issue of long-term climate change. However, it raises potent questions, as many scientists think natural weather cycles will become more extreme with warming climate, and some suggest ongoing chaos in places like Somalia are already being stoked by warming climate.
In a less globalized world with less transportation food shortages were a more local phenomenon. Today with a global food market that's changed.
"The most important thing is that this looks at modern times, and it's done on a global scale," said Solomon M. Hsiang, the study's lead author, a graduate of the Earth Institute's Ph.D. in sustainable development. "We can speculate that a long-ago Egyptian dynasty was overthrown during a drought. That's a specific time and place, that may be very different from today, so people might say, 'OK, we're immune to that now.' This study shows a systematic pattern of global climate affecting conflict, and shows it right now."
Climate changes cause changes in food supplies, and therefore in food prices. Higher food prices are probably the biggest mechanism by which civil war risks are stoked. But I do not yet think that global warming as caused by carbon dioxide emissions is a major factor driving civil wars. High food prices have other causes.
Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand and Yaneer Bar-Yam of New England Complex Systems Institute have published a paper showing the 2007-2008 food price spike and the 2010-2011 food price spike both are highly correlated with civil unrest and food riots. See the graph on the 3rd page (or here and here). Arab Spring a result of social networking web sites bringing down big meanie dictators? Nope. It is about people suddenly pressured to get money for their next meal. The authors predict a shift toward higher long term food prices with prices staying above the threshold for unrest by 2012 or 2013. So we could be at the beginning of a long term uptick in the frequency of of wars and revolutions.
A persistence of global food prices above this food price threshold should lead to persistent and increasing global unrest. Given the sharp peaks of food prices we might expect the prices of food to decline shortly. However, underlying the peaks in Fig. 1, we see a more gradual, but still rapid, increase of the food prices during the period starting in 2004. It is reasonable to hypothesize that when this underlying trend exceeds the threshold, the security of vulnerable populations will be broadly and persistently compromised.
If we really are heading into an era of sustained higher food prices then future food price spikes will start from higher base prices and the spikes will cause even greater political upheavals.
The price spikes and long term trend of rising food prices are driven by Asian economic development, rising energy and fertilizer costs, and population growth. Population growth lower the ratio of land to people. Bigger populations use more water and leave less for agriculture. The people of the poorer countries might find themselves unable to compete for food with large industrialized populations. The recent spikes in civil wars and uprisings might be more than a temporary blip.
Writing for the New York Times John Tierney draws attention to a worldwide trend toward a reduction in wars.
You would never guess it from the news, but we're living in a peculiarly tranquil world. The new edition of "Peace and Conflict," a biennial global survey being published next week by the University of Maryland, shows that the number and intensity of wars and armed conflicts have fallen once again, continuing a steady 15-year decline that has halved the amount of organized violence around the world.
Before his death Julian Simon predicted to Tierney that the incidence of war would decline.
"I predict that the incidence of war will decline," he told me in 1996, two years before his death. He based his prediction on the principle that there is less and less to be gained economically from war. As people get richer and smarter, their lives and their knowledge become far more valuable than the land, minerals and natural resources they used to fight over.
The Iraq war is sometimes described, by both foes and supporters, as a pragmatic venture to keep oil flowing, but not even the most ruthless accountant can justify the expense. Even before the war, America's military costs in the Persian Gulf were much greater than the value of all the oil it was getting from the region, and now it's spending at least four times what the oil's worth.
Knowledge about how to create new resouces avoids the need to come to blows over existing useful resources. Technological societies can reduce their need to get entangled relationships with more backward but resource-rich societies by making technological advances which eliminate the need for the natural resources.
Tierney's argument about costs illustrates why an increase in government energy research funding makes so much sense. Even before the war were US military costs in the Persian Gulf high enough to justify much more government funding of research aimed at obsolescing oil.
The cost of the Iraq war is growing with no end in sight. Even official cost estimates understate the total cost of the Iraq war because the soldiers who die will make no future economic contributions to the US economy (or to the raising of their children) and survivor benefits will cost the public purse. Plus, the maimed will need care for decades to come with some requiring institutionalizatoin. Some of the injured survivors will be unable to work again while others will be able to work only at diminished levels. Due to advances in medical treatments the permanently damaged outnumber the killed.
In February, President George W. Bush’s Administration requested approximately $3.5 billion for fiscal 2006 for the Science Office—a 3.8% cut from 2005.
More than two-thirds of U.S. senators have signed a letter recommending an increase of 3.2% in the FY 2006 DOE Office of Science budget. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) were joined by 66 of their colleagues in signing a letter to Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) and the subcommittee's Ranking Member Harry Reid (D-NV) advocating a $3.715 billion budget for the Office of Science.
This strong demonstration of bipartisan support for the Office of Science comes at a key time. Appropriators will wrap up their hearings in the next few weeks and will then start drafting their FY 2006 budget bills. Setting the stage for this year's budget cycle was a Bush Administration request of a 3.8% reduction in the Office of Science's budget to $3.463 billion for the fiscal year that begins on October 1. This amount is less than the FY 2004 budget (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/016.html.)
The $421 billion US Defense Department baseline budget plus at least $85 billion in supplementary appropriations - mostly for Iraq but also for Afghanistan - include only part of the total cost of defense. Once other security related items are added in US defense costs add up to over $667 billion.
If other security items are added in - homeland security ($40.4 billion), foreign policy and international stability ($31.7 billion), and Veterans Affairs ($68.3 billion) - the grand total reaches $667.2 billion. That exceeds any annual sum the US has ever paid for security in any war at any time, Mr. Wheeler notes. It even exceeds annual security spending today by all other nations on Earth.
US federal energy research spending therefore equals about a half of a percentage point of US defense costs. Yet technological advances could obsolesce oil, reduce money available for terrorism, reduce money available to spread Wahhabi Islam, and greatly decrease US interests in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East as a whole.
When faced with arguments for war or projections of future conflicts over resources we should always stop and ask ourselves whether armed conflict could be avoided by accelerated advances in science and technology.
Will the trend toward less armed conflict continue indefinitely? Here are some reasons why that may not be the case:
We can not avoid all violent conflict. But scientific and technological advances could eliminate the motives and means behind some conflicts.
Update: Some factors weigh in favor of reduced conflict in the future. Most obviously, the populations of the Western countries, Japan, and China are all rapidly aging. War is a young man's game. As young men become proportionally smaller portions of various populations the mainstream of each population will oppose war. Also, small family sizes make mothers especially more reluctant to risk losing a single son at war.
The effects of future rejuvenation therapies will cut in both directions. By making populations physically younger and boosting testosterone levels rejuvenation will make populations more physically able to engage in war. But the knowledge that one's own death in war would cost one thousands of years of foregone life might make people very risk averse. Some rejuvenation enthusiasts make that argument. But I'm not totally sold on it because human minds are flawed and humans do not always properly calculate risks and benefits. Look at gambling addicts or people who engage in dangerous sports for the thrill of it. Rejuvenation by itself will not make people perfectly rational calculators. For a substantial fraction of the world's population urges for immediate gratification of desires for revenge, pleasure, and dominance might override fears of death or desire for longer term satisfaction.