environment


I’m getting a bit better at updating my website…probably because I have more to update. Specifically, I’ve put up some new work on the publications page. There, you will find:

On the preprints page, I have two new pieces up:

Also be sure to check out the HURDL website. We’ve got new pubs up, and the last member of the lab (Bob Greeley) finally has a bio up!

Over at HURDLblog, Daniel Abrahams has a provocative post on the persistent failure of environmental conservation efforts in the policy world – especially efforts to address climate change and its impacts. He wonders aloud how we can build proactive conservation policies when politics are most easily mobilized around the visible symptoms of failing conservation, such as an environmental disaster or new infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline, but do not seem to mobilize around addressing the underlying causes of those symptoms. As he says,

a ‘win’ in Keystone is almost like a carbon-based slight of hand – misdirection from the unrelenting yet hard-to-define social, economic, and political factors that steadily drive environmental degradation.

Brutal, but probably accurate. The whole post is here.

Andy Sumner was kind enough to invite me to provide a blog entry/chapter for his forthcoming e-book The Donors’ Dilemma: Emergence, Convergence and the Future of Aid. I decided to use the platform as an opportunity to expand on some of my thoughts on the future of food aid and food security in the context of a changing climate.

My central point:

By failing to understand existing agricultural practices as time-tested parts of complex structures of risk management that include concerns for climate variability, we overestimate the current vulnerability of many agricultural systems to the impacts of climate change, and underestimate the risks we create when we wipe these systems away in favor of “more efficient”, more productive systems meant to address this looming global food crisis.

Why does this matter?

In ignoring existing systems and their logic in the name of addressing a crisis that has not yet arrived, development aid runs a significant risk of undermining the nascent turn toward addressing vulnerability, and building resilience, in the policy and implementation world by unnecessarily increasing the vulnerability of the poorest populations.

The whole post is here, along with a number of other really interesting posts on the future of aid here. Head over and offer your thoughts…

I just finished reading Geoff Dabelko’s “The Periphery isn’t Peripheral” on Ensia. In this piece, Geoff diagnoses the problems that beset efforts to address linked environmental and development problems, and offers some thoughts on how to address them. I love his typology of tyrannies that beset efforts to build and implement good, integrative (i.e. cross-sectoral) programs. I agreed with his suggestions on how to make integrative work more acceptable/mainstream in development. And by the end, I was worried about how to make his suggestions reality within the donors and implementers that really need to take on this message.

Geoff’s four tyrannies (Tyranny of the Inbox; Tyranny of Immediate Results; Tyranny of the Single Sector; Tyranny of the Unidimensional Measurement of Success) that he sees crippling environment-and-development programming are dead on. Those of us working in climate change are especially sensitive to tyranny #2, the Tyranny of Immediate Results. How the hell are we supposed to demonstrate results on an adaptation program that is meant to address challenges that are not just happening now, but will intensify over a 30 year horizon? Does our inability to see the future mean that this programming is inherently useless or inefficient? No. But because it is impossible to measure future impact now, adaptation programs are easy to attack…

As a geographer, I love Geoff’s “Tyranny of the Single Sector” – geographers generally cannot help but start integrating things across sectors (that’s what our discipline does, really). In my experiences in the classroom and the donor world, integrative thinking eludes a lot more people than I ever thought possible. Our absurd system of performance measurement in public education is not helping – trust me. But even when you find an integrative thinker, they may not be doing much integrative work. Sometimes people simply can’t see outside their own training and expertise. Sometimes they are victims of tyranny #1 (Tyranny of the Inbox), where they are too busy dealing with immediate challenges within their sector to think across sectors – lord knows, that defined the last 6 months of my life at USAID.

And Geoff’s fourth tyranny speaks right to my post from the other day – the Tyranny of the Unidimensional Measurement of Success. Read Geoff, and then read my post, and you will see why he and I get along so well.

Now, Geoff does not stop with a diagnosis – he suggests that integrative thinking in development will require some changes to how we do our jobs, and provides some illustrations of integrative projects that have produced better results to bolster his argument. While I like all of his suggestions, what concerns me is that these suggestions are easier said than done. For example, Geoff is dead right when he says that:

We must reward, rather than punish, cross-disciplinary or cross-sectoral approaches; define success in a way that encourages, rather than discourages, positive outcomes in multiple arenas; and foster monitoring and evaluation plans that embrace, rather than ignore, different timescales and multiple indicators.”

But how, exactly, are we to do this? What HR levers exist that we can use to make this happen? How much leeway do appointees and other executive-level donor staff have with regard to changing rewards and evaluations? And are the right people in charge to make such changes possible? A lot of people rise through donor organizations by being very good at sectoral work. Why would they reward people for doing things differently?

Similarly, I wonder how we can actually get more long-term thinking built into the practice and implementation of development. How do we really overcome the Tyranny of the Inbox, and the Tyranny of Immediate Results? This is not merely a mindset problem, this is a problem of budget justifications to an often-hostile congress that wants to know what you have done for them lately. Where are our congressional champions to make this sort of change possible?

Asking Geoff to fix all our problems in a single bit of writing is completely unfair. That is the Tyranny of What do We do Now? In the best tradition of academic/policy writing, his piece got me thinking (constructively) about what needs to happen if we are to do a better job of achieving something that looks like sustainable development going forward. For that reason alone it is well worth your time. Go read.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of development programs that claim to work on issues of environmental governance. Most donor-funded environmental governance work stems from concerns about issues like sustainability and climate change at the national to global scale. These are legitimate challenges that require attention. However, such programs often strike me as instances of thinking globally, but implementing locally (and ideally someplace else). You see, there are things that we in the wealthiest countries should be doing to mitigate climate change and make the world a more sustainable place. But they are inconvenient. They might cost us a bit of money. They might make us do a few things differently. So we complain about them, and they get implemented slowly, if ever.

Yet somehow we fail to see how this works in exactly the same manner when we implement programs that are, for example, aimed at the mitigation of climate change in the Global South. These programs tend to take away particular livelihoods activities and resources (such as cutting trees, burning charcoal, or fishing and hunting particular species), which is inconvenient, tends to reduce household access to food and income, and forces changes upon people – all of which they don’t really like. So it is sort of boggling to me that we are surprised when populations resist these programs and projects.

I’m on this topic because, while conducting preliminary fieldwork in Zambia’s Kazungula District last week, I had yet another experience of this problem. In the course of a broad conversation on livelihoods, vulnerabilities, and opportunities in his community, a senior man raised charcoal production as an alternative livelihood in the area (especially in the dry season, when there is little water for gardening/farming and no nearby source of fishing). Noting that charcoal production was strictly limited for purposes of limiting the impacts of climate change*, a rationale whose legitimacy he did not challenge, he complained that addressing the issue of charcoal production is not well understood or accepted by the local population. He argued that much of the governance associated with this effort consisted of agents of the state telling people “it’s an offense” and demanding they stop cutting trees and burning charcoal without explaining why it is an offense. He then pointed to one of his sons and said “how can you tell him ‘don’t cut this tree’? And his fields are flooding [thus destroying his crops, a key source of food and income].” But the quote that pulled it all together…

“Don’t make people be rude or be criminals. Give them a policy that will open them.”

The text is clear here: if you are going to take away a portion of our livelihoods for the sake of the environment, please give us an alternative so we can comply. This is obvious – and yet to this point I think the identification and implementation of alternative livelihoods in the context of environmental governance programs is, at best, uneven.

But the subtext might be more important: If you don’t give us an alternative, you make us into criminals because we will be forced to keep practicing these now-banned activities. And when that happens, we will never view the regulations or those that enforce them as legitimate. In other words, the way we tend to implement environmental governance programming undermines the legitimacy of the governance structures we are trying to put in place.

Oops.

The sad part is that there have been innumerable cases of just the phenomena I encountered last week at other times and in other places. They’ve been documented in reports and refereed publications. Hell, I’ve heard narratives like this in the course of my work in Ghana and Malawi. But environmental governance efforts continue to inadequately explain their rationales to the populations most affected by their implementation. They continue to take away livelihoods activities from those that need them most in the name of a greater good for which others pay no tangible price. And they continue to be surprised when people ignore the tenets of the program, and begin to question the legitimacy of any governance structure that would bring such rules into effect. Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a “think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)” mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.

 

 

* Yes, he really said that, as did a lot of other people. The uniformity of that answer strikes me as the product of some sort of sensitization campaign that, to be honest, is pretty misplaced. There are good local environmental reasons for controlling deforestation, but the contribution of charcoal production to the global emissions budget is hilariously small.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with Mary Thompson (one of my now-former students – well done, Dr. Thompson) on a report for USAID that explores how the Agency, and indeed development more broadly, approaches the issue of gender and adaptation in agrarian settings. The report was an idea that was hatched back when I was still at USAID. Basically, I noticed that most gender assessments seemed to start with a general “there are men, and there are women, and they are different, so we should assess that” approach. This binary approach is really problematic for several reasons.

  • First, not all women (or men) are the same – a wealthy woman is likely have different experiences and opportunities than a poor woman, for example. Lumping all women together obscures these important differences.
  • Second, different aspects of one’s identity matter more or less, depending on the situation. To understand the decisions I make in my daily life, you would have to account for the fact that sometimes my decisions are shaped by the fact I am professor (such as when I am in the classroom), and other times where what I do is influenced by my role as a father. In both cases, I am still a man – but I occupy two different identity spaces, where my gender might not be as important as my profession or my status as a (somewhat) responsible adult in the house.
  • Third, this approach assumes that there are gendered differences in the context of adaptation to climate change and variability in all situations. While there are often important gendered differences in exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity in relation to the impacts of climate change and variability, this is not always the case.

My colleagues in both the Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GENDEV) and the Office of Global Climate Change agreed that these issues were problematic. They enthusiastically supported an effort to assess the current state of knowledge on gender and adaptation, and to illustrate the importance of doing gender differently through case studies.

Mary and I reviewed the existing literature on gender and adaptation in agrarian settings, exploring how the issue has been addressed in the past. We also focused on a small emerging literature in adaptation that takes a more productive approach to gender that acknowledges and wrestles with the fact that gender roles really take much of their meaning, responsibilities, and expectations from the intersection of gender and other social categories (especially age, ethnicity, and livelihood/class). You can find a first version of this review in the annex of the report. However, Mary and I substantially revised and expanded this literature review for an article now in press at Geography Compass. A preprint version is available on the preprints page of my website.

The bulk of the report – and the part probably of greatest interest to most of my readers – are three case studies that empirically illustrate how taking a binary approach to gender makes it very difficult to identify some of the most vulnerable people in a given place or community, and therefore very different to understand their particular challenges and opportunities. These cases are drawn from my research in Ghana and Mali, and Mary’s dissertation work in Malawi. They make a powerful case for doing gender assessments differently.

This report is not the end of the story – my lab and I are still working with GENDEV and the Office of Global Climate Change at USAID, now identifying missions with adaptation projects that will allow us to implement parallel gender assessments taking a more complex approach to the issue. We hope to demonstrate to these missions the amount of important information generated by this more complex approach, show that greater complexity does not have to result in huge delays in project design or implementation, and ideally influence their project design and implementation such that these projects result in better outcomes.

More to come…

First up on my week up update posts is a re-introduction to my reworked livelihoods approach. As some of you might remember, the formal academic publication laying out the theoretical basis for this approach came out in early 2013. This approach presented in the article is the conceptual foundation for much of the work we are doing in my lab. This pub is now up on my home page, via the link above or through a link on the publications page.

The premise behind this approach, and why I developed it in the first place, is simple. Most livelihoods approaches implicitly assume that the primary motivation for livelihoods decisions is the maximization of some sort of material return on that activity. Unfortunately, in almost all cases this is a massive oversimplification of livelihoods decision-making processes, and in many cases is fundamentally incorrect. Think about the number of livelihoods studies where there are many decisions or behaviors that seem illogical when held up to the logic of material maximization (which would be any good livelihoods study, really). We spend a lot of time trying to explain these decisions away (idiosyncrasy, incomplete information, etc.). But this makes no sense – if you are living on $1.25 a day, and you are illogical or otherwise making decisions against interest, you are likely dead. So there must be a logic behind these decisions, one that we must engage if we are to understand why people do what they do, and if we are to design and implement development interventions that are relevant to the needs of the global poor. My livelihoods approach provides a means of engaging with and explaining these behaviors built on explicit, testable framings of decision-making, locally-appropriate divisions of the population into relevant groupings (i.e. gender, age, class), and the consideration of factors from the local to the global scale.

The article is a straight-ahead academic piece – to be frank, the first half of the article is not that accessible to those without backgrounds in social theory and livelihoods studies. However, the second half of the article is a case study that lays out what the approach allows the user to see and explain, which should be of interest to most everyone who works with livelihoods approaches.

For those who would like a short primer on the approach and what it means in relatively plain English, I’ve put up a “top-line messages” document on the preprints page of my website.

Coming soon is an implementation piece that guides the user through the actual use of the approach. I field-tested the approach in Kaffrine, Senegal with one of my graduate students from May-July 2013. I am about to put the approach to work in a project with the Red Cross in the Zambezi Basin in Zambia next month. In short, this is not just a theoretical pipe dream – it is a real approach that works. In fact, the reason we are working with Red Cross is because Pablo Suarez of Boston University and the Red Cross Climate Centre read the academic piece and immediately grasped what it could do, and then reached out to me to bring me into one of their projects. The implementation piece is already fully drafted, but I am circulating it to a few people in the field to get feedback before I submit it for review or post it to the preprints page. I am hoping to have this up by the end of January.  Once that is out the door, I will look into building a toolkit for those who might be interested in using the approach.

I’m really excited by this approach, and the things that are emerging from it in different places (Mali, Zambia, and Senegal, at the moment). I would love feedback on the concept or its use – I’m not a defensive or possessive person when it comes to ideas, as I think debate and critique tend to make things stronger. The reason I am developing a new livelihoods approach is because the ones we have simply don’t explain the things we need to know, and the other tools of development research that dominate the field at the moment (i.e. RCTs) cannot address the complex, integrative questions that drive outcomes at the community level. So consider all of this a first draft, one that you can help bring to final polished form!

There is a lot of hue and cry about the issue of loss and damage at the current Conference of the Parties (COP-19). For those unfamiliar with the topic, in a nutshell the loss and damage discussion is one of attributing particular events and their impacts on poorer countries to climate variability and change that has, to this point, been largely driven by activities in the wealthier countries. At a basic level, this question makes sense and is, in the end, inevitable. Those who have contributed the most (and by the most, I mean nearly all) to the anthropogenic component of climate change are not experiencing the same level of impact from that climate change – either because they see fewer extreme events, more attenuated long-term trends, or simply have substantially greater capacity to manage individual events and adapt to longer-term changes. This is fundamentally unfair. But it is also a development challenge.

The more I work in this field, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the future of development lies in creating the strong, stable foundations upon which individuals can innovate in locally-appropriate ways. These foundations are often tenuous in poorer countries, and the impacts of climate change and variability (mostly variability right now) certainly do not help. Most agrarian livelihoods systems I have worked with in sub-Saharan Africa are massively overbuilt to manage climate extremes (i.e. flood or drought) that, while infrequent, can be catastrophic. The result: in “good” or “normal” years, farmers are hedging away very significant portions of their agricultural production, through such decisions as the siting of farms, the choice of crops, or the choice of varieties. I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this cost of hedging in the communities I’ve worked with in Ghana, and the range is between 6% and 22% of total agricultural production each year. That is, some of these farmers are losing 22% of their total production because they are unnecessarily siting their fields in places that will perform poorly in all but the most extreme (dry or wet) years. When you are living on the local equivalent of $1.25/day, this is a massive hit to one’s income, and without question a huge barrier to transformative local innovations. Finding ways to help minimize the cost of hedging, or the need for hedging, is critical to development in many parts of the Global South.

Therefore, a stream of finance attached to loss and damage could be a really big deal for those in the Global South, something perhaps as important as debt relief was to the MDRI countries. We need to sort out loss and damage. But NOT NOW.

Why not? Simply put, we don’t have the faintest idea what we are negotiating right now. The attribution of particular events to anthropogenic climate change and variability is inordinately difficult (it is somewhat easier for long-term trends, but this has its own problem – it takes decades to establish the trend). However, for loss and damage to work, we need this attribution, as it assigns responsibility for particular events and their costs to those who caused those events and costs. Also, we need means of measuring the actual costs of such events and trends – and we don’t have that locked down yet, either. This is both a technical and a political question: what can we measure, and how should we measure it is a technical question that remains unanswered. But what should we measure is a political question – just as certain economic stimuli have multiplier effects through an economy, disasters and long-term degradation have radiating “multipliers” through economies. Where do we stop counting the losses from an event or trend? We don’t have an answer to that, in part because we don’t yet have attribution, nor do we have the tools to measure costs even if we had attribution.

So, negotiating loss and damage now is a terrible idea. Rich countries could find themselves facing very large bills without the empirical evidence to justify the size of the bills or their responsibility for paying them – which will make such bills political nonstarters in rich countries. In short, this process has to deliver a bill that everyone agrees should be paid, and that the rich countries agree can be paid. At the same time, poorer countries need to be careful here – because we don’t have strong attribution or measurements of costs, there is a real risk that they could negotiate for too little – not enough to actually invest in the infrastructure and processes needed to ensure a strong foundation for local innovation. Either outcome would be a disaster. And these are the most likely outcomes of any negotiation conducted in blindly.

I’m glad loss and damage is on the table. I hope that more smart people start looking into it in their research and programs, and that we rapidly build an evidence base for attribution and costing. That, however, will take real investment by the richest countries (who can afford it), and that investment has not been forthcoming.  If we should be negotiating for anything right now, it should be for funds to push the frontiers of our knowledge of attribution and costing so that we can get to the table with evidence as soon as humanly possible.

I’ve been off the blog for a while now. OK, about two months, which is too long. The new semester, and a really large number of projects, has landed on me like an avalanche. I have a small lab that I now manage (the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab, HURDL), and while I am fortunate to have a bunch of really good students in that lab, I’ve never run a lab before (nor have I ever worked in someone else’s lab before). So figuring out how best to manage projects and personnel is a new challenge that eats up time. As I told my students, this is not a fully operational, efficient program that they have joined. It’s more like a car that has stalled, and every day I am pushing it along screaming “pop the clutch” at whoever is in the driver’s seat.  To follow the metaphor, there are a lot of fits and starts right now, but things are coming together.  Among them:

  • A report on gender and adaptation in agrarian settings for USAID’s Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and the Office of Global Climate Change which, through both literature review and empirical example, is a first step toward thinking about and implementing much more complex ideas about gender in project design and evaluation. This report will spawn several related journal articles. Watch this space for both activities and publications.
  • A long-awaited report offering a detailed, if preliminary, assessment of the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program. I started this project before I left USAID, but it is finally coming together. Again, a set of journal articles will come from this – our empirical basis alone is absurd (720 interviews, 144 focus groups, 36 villages covering most of Southern Mali).  There are going to be a lot of interesting lessons for those interested in providing weather and climate information to farmers in this report…
  • A white paper/refereed article laying out how to implement the Livelihoods as Governmentality (LAG) approach that I presented in this article earlier this year. It is one thing to present a reframing of livelihoods decision-making and the livelihoods approach, and another to make it implementable. One of my students and I piloted this approach over the summer in Senegal, and we are pulling it together for publication now.  This will become the core of some trainings that we are likely to be doing in 2014 as we start building capacity in various countries to conduct detailed livelihoods analyses that might inform project design.

Then there is work in Zambia with the Red Cross on anticipatory humanitarian assistance (focused on hydrometeorological hazards), and a new project as part of a rather huge consortium looking at migration as an adaptation strategy in deltas in several parts of the world.

Did I mention that it’s a small lab – me and three other students working on all of this? Yeah, we’re a little short-staffed. I’m supposed to have a postdoc/research associate on board to help as well, but there have been some contract challenges that have prevented me from advertising the position. I hope to have that out some time in the next month or two, ideally to bring someone on for a year, extendable if the funding comes through.  So if you are interested in gender and some combination of development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction/humanitarian assistance, and want to join a really outstanding group of people wired in to a lot of donors and partners, and working on projects that bring critical scholarship to the ground, let me know…

So that’s where I’ve been hiding. I am crawling out from under the rock, and hope to rejoin the blogosphere in a more active capacity in coming weeks. Thanks for your patience…

So, climate change and conflict is back in the media, seemingly with the strength of science behind it.  I’ve been a rather direct, harsh critic of some work on this connection before, at least in part because I am deeply concerned that work on this subject (which remains preliminary) might disproportionately influence policy decisions in unproductive or even problematic directions (i.e. by contributing to the unnecessary militarization of development aid and humanitarian assistance).  So, when CNN, the Guardian, and other media outlets jumped on a new paper in Science (sorry, paywalled) last week, and one of the authors was responsible for the paper I critiqued so harshly before, I felt compelled to read it – especially after seeing Keith Kloor’s great post on the issue. After reading it, I feel compelled to comment on it.

My response is lengthy, so for those on a time budget, I offer some takeaway points. The main post, with details, follows.

Takeaway points

  • The Hsaing, et al paper in Science makes claims that are much more nuanced than what is represented either in the press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, or in many of the media stories (especially the big outlets) about them.
    • The actual findings of the paper simply reiterate long-held understandings of the connection between climate change and conflict
    • These findings are, in summary:
      • The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
      • Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
      • Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
      • Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future
    • We already knew all of this
      • The authors’ claims (as stated in this press release from Princeton) that this study was necessary to establish a causal relationship between changing climate conditions and conflict is based on a straw man of “people” who have been skeptical of “an individual study here or there.”
      • Much of the literature, and those working on this issue, have long accepted the idea of a complex link between changing climate/weather conditions and conflict. The real question is that of how climate variability and change contribute to rates of conflict.
      • The paper does not answer this question
  • The quantification of increased risk of conflict in the paper is problematic, as the authors appear to assume a constant relationship, year-to-year or season-to-season, between climate conditions and their influence on various drivers of conflict.
    • This assumption has long been discarded in studies of food security and famine
    • This assumption likely introduces significant margins of error to the findings of this paper regarding increased risk of conflict associated with climate change
  • The paper does not address the real research frontier in the study of conflict and climate change because it does not further our understanding of how climate variability and change result in increased risk of conflict
    • To the author’s credit, the paper does not purport to explain how observed climate variability and change are translated into conflict
    • The paper merely summarizes existing literature exploring this issue
    • The findings of the paper do not present an opportunity to adjust policy, programs, or diplomacy to avoid future conflicts, as they do not identify specific issues that should be addressed by such efforts.
    • To some extent, this makes the critique under #2 above irrelevant – the “risk of conflict” figures were never actionable anyway
  • Media coverage of this paper amounts to much ado about nothing new

 

Main Post

The Hsaing, et al paper bears little resemblance to the media stories written about it. It makes very measured, fairly contained claims about climate change and conflict that, if represented accurately in the media, probably would not have made for interesting stories. That said, the article deserves critical attention on its own terms so we can understand what, if any, new information is here.

First, I want to start with the good in this paper. This is a substantially more careful paper than the one I critiqued before, both with regard to its attention to existing work on the subject and to the claims it makes about the connections between climate change and conflict. The authors deserve credit for noting the long history of qualitative work on conflict and the environment, a literature often ignored by those conducting large, more quantitative studies. They also should be commended for their caution in identifying causal relationships, instead of basic correlations.

In my opinion, this much more measured approach to thinking about climate change and conflict has resulted in more nuanced claims. First, as the authors note:

“Social conflicts at all scales and levels of organization appear susceptible to climatic influence, and multiple dimensions of the climate system are capable of influencing these various outcomes.”

But later in the paper, the authors temper this point:

“However, it is not true that all types of climatic events influence all forms of human conflict or that climatic conditions are the sole determinant of human conflict. The influence of climate is detectable across contexts, but we strongly emphasize that it is only one of many factors that contribute to conflict.”

And in the end, the big summary (my emphasis):

“The above evidence makes a prima facie case that future anthropogenic climate change could worsen conflict outcomes across the globe in comparison to a future with no climatic changes, given the large expected increase in global surface temperatures and the likely increase in variability of precipitation across many regions over coming decades”

Every bit of this is fine with me. Indeed, had the reporting on this paper been as nuanced as the claims it actually makes…there probably wouldn’t have been any reporting on the paper. The hook “the climate affects a lot of things, and some of those things could affect rates of conflict, so climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future” isn’t exactly exciting.

And this is where I have to critique the article. My critique has two sides, one intellectual and one from a policy perspective. They are closely linked and blend into one another, and so I present them both below.

Intellectually, I fundamentally question the contribution of this paper. In a nutshell, there is almost nothing new here. Yes, there appear to be some new quantifications of the risk of conflict under different climate situations, and I will return to those in a minute. But overall, the claims made in this paper are exactly the claims that have been made by many others, in many other venues, for a while. For example, the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID put out a report back in 2009 (yes, four years ago) that reviewed the existing literature on the subject and came to more or less the same conclusions as this “new” article.  So I was a little bothered by the Princeton press release for this paper in which quoted lead author Solomon Hsaing several times, because I think his justification for the paper is based on a straw man:

“We think that by collecting all the research together now, we’re pretty clearly establishing that there is a causal relationship between the climate and human conflict,” Hsiang said. “People have been skeptical up to now of an individual study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can now show that these patterns are extremely general. It’s more of the rule than the exception.

I’d love to know who the “people” are who think there is no relationship between climate conditions and human conflict. Critiques of the study of this connection (at least credible critiques) have not so much argued that there is no connection, but that the connections are very complex and not well-captured in large-scale studies using quantitative tools.  So, when Hsaing goes on to say:

“Whether there is a relationship between climate and conflict is not the question anymore. We now want to understand what’s causing it,” Hsiang said. “Once we understand what causes this correlation we can think about designing effective policies or institutions to manage or interrupt the link between climate and conflict.”

…he’s really making a rather grand claim for an article that just tells us what we already knew – that there is a connection between climate conditions and human conflict. And he is burying the real lede here…that the contribution we need, now, is to understand how these causal relationships come to be. This argument for “where we should go next” is also a bit grand, seeing as everyone from academics to USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation have been conducting detailed, qualitative studies of these relationships for some time now because we already knew a) that there were relationships between climate and conflict and b) we needed to establish what caused those relationships.

Second, I feel this article suffers from a critical methodological flaw, in that the authors never address the variable coupling of climate outcomes and changes in even those drivers of conflict identified in the literature. For example, it is not at all uncommon to have market shifts take place seasonally, in a manner that can be either coupled or uncoupled with shifts in climate: that is, sometimes a bad rainy season damages local harvests and drives market prices for food up, while other times it could be a great rainy season and a very productive harvest, but factors on regional or global markets could still generate price spikes that end up limiting people’s access to food. In both situations, the people in question would experience a food stress, one closely linked to climate variability, and the other experience a food stress uncoupled from climate. This is why, as I argued back during the Horn of Africa Famine, drought does not equal famine. Famines are far more highly correlated to market conditions than climate conditions. Sometimes climate events like a failed rainy season can trigger a famine by pushing markets and other factors over key thresholds. However, we’ve also had famines in times of normal or even favorable climatic conditions for agriculture.

Simply put, the authors appear to assume a constant relationship between a conflict driver like access to food and the local/regional/global climate. To be fair, this seems to be a pretty prevalent assumption in the literature.  But to the point, this is a bad bet. As best I can tell, the authors have not managed to address the intermittent coupling of conflict drivers like access to food and markets with climatic conditions in their analysis. This, to me, casts significant doubt on their findings that risk of inter-group conflict will rise 14% at one standard deviation of temperature rise – in short, this is far too precise a claim for a study with such large margins for error built into its design.  My suspicion here is that the margin of error introduced by this problem is probably larger than their analytical findings, rendering them somewhere between weak and meaningless. And this, to be honest, was the only really original contribution in the paper.

Third (as I begin to pivot from intellectual to policy critique), while the authors claim to have focused on causal relationships (a claim I think should be tempered by my methodological concerns above), they cannot explain those relationships. I’ve made this point before: in the social sciences, causality is not explanation. Even if we accept that the authors have indeed established causal relationships between climate variability and change and the risk of conflict/rates of conflict, they do not know exactly how these changes in climate actually create these outcomes. This is clear in the section of the paper titled “Plausible Mechanisms”, in which the authors conduct a review of the existing literature (much of which is qualitative) to lay out a set of potential pathways by which their observed relationships might be explained. But nothing in this study allows the authors to choose between any of these explanations…which means that all the authors have really accomplished here is to establish, by different means, exactly what the qualitative literature has known for a long time. To repeat:

  1. The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
  2. Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
  3. Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
  4. Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future

We already knew all of this.

At this point, allow me to pivot fully to my fourth critique, which comes from a policy perspective. People tend to see me as an academic, and forget that I served as the first climate change coordinator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) at USAID. I was Nancy Lindborg’s first climate advisor – indeed, it was in this role that I found myself first dealing with issues of conflict and climate change, as I was responsible both for briefing my Bureau’s leadership on these issues and guiding the programming of the Bureau’s dedicated climate change budget (some of which I directed into more research on this topic). In short, I do know something about policymaking and the policy environment. And what I know is this: this paper gives us nothing actionable to address. Even if I accept the finding of 14% greater risk of intergroup conflict at one standard deviation of temperature increase, what am I supposed to do about it? Without an explanation for how this temperature rise produces this greater risk, I have no means of targeting programs, diplomacy, or other resources to address the things that create this greater risk. In short, this paper tells me what I already knew (that climate variability and change can contribute to conflict risk) without giving me anything concrete I can work on. If I were still briefing Nancy, my summary of this paper would be:

  1. There is nothing new in this paper. Its key findings are those of CMM’s (four-year-old) report, and are already well-established in the literature
  2. The paper does not provide any new information about how climate change and variability might contribute to increased conflict risk, and therefore presents nothing new that might serve to guide future policy, programs, or diplomacy
  3. I have methodological concerns with the paper that lead me to believe that the rates of increased risk of conflict reported in this paper are likely stated with too much confidence. These rates of heightened risk should not be cited until put under significant scrutiny by the academic and policy community*.

In summary, the supportable parts of this paper are nothing new – it is a reasonable summary of the issues with establishing a connection between climate change and conflict, and a decent (if truncated) review of the existing literature on the subject (I’d suggest that a real review article of this subject would have to go wider and look at the conflict and environment literature more broadly). But it doesn’t say anything new that really bears up to scrutiny, and even if the “risk of conflict” figures are correct, the paper provides no information that might guide policy, programs, or diplomacy in a manner that could avoid such conflicts. For that information, we have to return to the qualitative research community, which has long espoused the same general findings as those in this paper.

The press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, and the more hyped of the media coverage we’ve seen around this paper (likely driven by those press releases) is much ado about nothing new.

 

 

*In my third point I am indeed taking issue with the peer review process that brought this paper to publication. I believe that Science wanted this paper for the same reason Nature wanted the last one: headlines. Let’s see how the findings here stand up to serious scrutiny.

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