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Study ties conflict risk in sub-Saharan Africa to climate change, socioeconomics, geography

African securityStudy ties conflict risk in sub-Saharan Africa to climate change, socioeconomics, geography

Published 12 November 2014

A massive new study indicates there is a statistical link between hotter temperatures generated by climate change and the risk of armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. A research team assessed more than 78,000 armed conflicts between 1980 and 2012 in the Sahel region of Africa — a semi-arid belt just south of the Saharan Desert that spans about 3,000 miles and more than a dozen countries from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans. The team was looking for links between armed conflicts and temperature and rainfall anomalies, as well as assessing other causes of violence in the Sahel.

A massive new University of Colorado Boulder study indicates there is a statistical link between hotter temperatures generated by climate change and the risk of armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.

CU-Boulder Professor John O’Loughlin led a research team that assessed more than 78,000 armed conflicts between 1980 and 2012 in the Sahel region of Africa — a semi-arid belt just south of the Saharan Desert that spans about 3,000 miles and more than a dozen countries from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans.

The team was looking for links between armed conflicts and temperature and rainfall anomalies, as well as assessing other causes of violence in the Sahel. “We found a clear signal that higher temperatures in the Sahel over time does increase the risk of conflict,” O’Loughlin said.

While there are growing academic and public policy debates on the effect global climate change may be having on armed conflict in Africa, the link between climate and conflict in the Sahel does not hold true for the entire continent, said O’Loughlin, a professor of distinction in CU-Boulder’s geography department. Even in the Sahel, political, economic and geographic factors were more of an influence on conflict than climate.

A U Colorado Boulder release reports that a paper on the subject appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The study was co-authored by CU-Boulder postdoctoral researcher Andrew Linke and University of Alaska Anchorage Assistant Professor Frank Witmer, a former CU-Boulder graduate student who received his doctorate under O’Loughlin. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the study.

The study also showed areas in the Sahel that were wetter or dryer than long-term averages were neither more nor less likely to experience violent conflict, he said. “This is an important finding because global climate change often results in environmental changes outside the realm of temperature increases,” O’Loughlin said.

“Increasing frequency or greater severity of warmer temperatures could be problematic for the security of populations in regions where the link is statistically significant,” said Linke. “But it’s important to remember that our study shows that a number of other social forces have strong influences on political violence and conflict.”

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