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In the New England I knew as a child, people commonly paraphrased Mark Twain’s famous line “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” This was true year-round, but when it comes to rapidly changing temperatures, winter really had its moments. Most years, there seemed to be a day in the middle of January when the usual freezing days would give way to one that reached 50 or 60 degrees F. This prompted everyone to go outside in shorts before returning to the layers of winter for another three months. Why everyone had shorts at hand in the middle of January in New England is a regional mystery that remains unexplained.

When it comes to temperature, New England has always been a pretty variable place. When I moved back, I assumed it still would be. But after returning and living in the region for a year, that variability started to feel odd. For example, I became acutely aware of the surprising number of December days that reached the high 40s or low 50s, mostly because there is no indoor track in Worcester so I train outdoors all year (a note to the city of Worcester: Seriously? Nine colleges and lord-knows-how-many high schools, all looking for somewhere to train and race, and nobody thought to build an indoor track? 1). While the temperature is still marked by significant and relatively rapid changes, these temperature swings seem more drawn out than I remember. Where my understanding of variable temperatures was formed around a world marked by a day or two of outlying conditions followed by a return to expected temperatures, in 2017 October averaged 57 degrees Fahrenheit for the month, wildly out of line with even the 2010-present average of 52.

NOAA defines extreme temperatures as falling in the upper 10th percentile (for warm temps) or lowest 10th percentile (cold temps) across the time for which records were kept. In terms of heat, the figure below shows the percentage of days where the daytime high meets this definition of extreme. It is important to note that in the chart these extremes are relative to the month in question. In December, an extreme high is a temperature above 51.1 F, while in July it is above 87.1 F. Both are significant deviations from the norm, but the human experience of each is quite different.

In fact, the number of days marked by extreme/unusual high temperatures, just under 43 per year, has not changed since my childhood. However, as the chart shows, the distribution of these extremes throughout the year has changed. September has seen the greatest increase in these unusually hot days, which contributes to the sense of a longer summer season. On the other hand, the average number of days with extreme high temperatures in January and February has not changed much. We still have unusually warm periods in those months, but their frequency and duration is similar to that I knew as a child. March, June, and August are marked by fewer such days.

There has been a more dramatic change in the patterns related to extreme cold days – annually, there are now 26 fewer unusually cold days than seen in my childhood. This decline is visible in every month. August has more than three fewer unusually cold days, a change that means that today we see one such a day every five years. Along with overall increased average temperatures, and a longer duration and larger number of increased temperatures, this makes for a summer that feels more consistently summery.

There are four fewer extremely cold days in December, and these days now occur less than once a year. This is both a staggering change, but also a marker of a past that is now gone. Part of my identity is based on my ability to shrug off really cold temperatures, an ability borne of being sent outside to play regardless of the temperature throughout my childhood. Who from my generation did not make the mistake of coming inside, using the bathroom, and washing their hands under hot water too soon? If you have not done this, it really shocks the nerves and feels like someone is jamming dozens of needles into your hands. Generally, you make this mistake once. My kids are big Star Wars fans, but unless they concentrate on outdoor play during February, the warming temperatures mean they will probably not be reenacting versions of the Hoth scene from Empire Strikes Back as frequently as I did with my friends, and probably complain more when it is cold.

In my head, this image of my childhood home is still what winter should look like

The wild swings in temperature I recall from my childhood also appear to have become less frequent. There is a reason most New Englanders my age or older have an innate sense of layering in their wardrobes. That said, there’s also something very New Hampshire about a nostalgia for the days when you’d start sweating in your snowsuit because you needed it when you first went out, but it had since warmed up into the 50s while you were outside.

“Hey kid, if you’re big enough to sled, you’re big enough to help shovel the driveway!”

To better understand this change, I looked for days where the high temperature either increased or decreased by 20F or more from the day before. The charts below show what I found – overall, it appears that we see fewer of these swings now than in the past.

Where once there was an average of about 18 days per year where the temperature was 20 F warmer or cooler than the day before, today there are fewer than 13 days. As with most other temperature-related conditions, the deep winter period of January and February is much as it was in my childhood. Nearly every other part of the year has changed. For example, it appears the swings in temperature that I used to associate with March are being displaced into April and May. While July, August, and September rarely saw such swings in the past, they have now disappeared completely. Again, summer is becoming more consistently summery. Where November and December were once ground zero for this sort of day-to-day temperature change, today the temperature in these months has become more stable than in the period from January through April. Those warm days in December reflect high temperatures relative to my memory, but it doesn’t get as cold in December as it used to. Those temperatures feel unusually warm to me, but relative to current conditions they simply don’t qualify as extreme.

Once upon a time, you had to pack sweaters and jeans for a Salsbury beach vacation because even in early August you were going to get one of those days…

Even contemporary daily temperature changes are less pronounced than in my childhood. The chart below shows that the average day now operates in a somewhat smaller temperature window than in the past – across the year, the difference between the daily average high temperature and the average low temperature has shrunk by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since I was a child. This trend is true in every month, but very pronounced in October and December. Most of this change can be attributed to the fact that daily average low temperatures are rising faster than daily average high temperatures.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that, at least when it comes to temperature, the New England of “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute” is going away. Since my childhood the weather has become a bit more predictable and a lot warmer. For a guy who prided himself on his resilience in the face of very cold and rapidly changing weather conditions, a resilience borne from a childhood outdoors in New England, this feels sad. It also challenges an identity I’ve carried throughout my adult life, which I lived almost entirely outside New England. I lived mostly in more temperate (if not tropical) climates. In those places I enjoyed being the New Englander, relatively unbothered by swings in temperature that made those around me complain. I took some pride in the ways in which my childhood had inured me to such discomforts. But now New England is warmer and, let’s be honest, just a little more boring when it comes to temperatures. My children are unlikely to develop quite the same sense of identity. Then again, this might be for the best. Compared to their father, they’ll be less insufferable when confronting cold or highly variable weather alongside those from warmer climates.

Notes:

  1. If you happen to have some capital laying around and are into track, I can help you spend it in Worcester – you are sure to make a mint, and I can stop freezing my ass off while trying to work out in January

This post, and those I will pull together for this series, are about my personal experience of climate change and its impacts on what feel to me to be extraordinarily compressed timescales. In each post, I’m going to talk through the differences I see, what the data say is happening, and what it means to me. For the first post, let’s start with something simple: temperature 1. More specifically, summer temperatures.

When I was a kid, neither of the houses I lived in had air conditioning. I’m not sure that any of my friends’ houses had air conditioning. Several family friends had pools, and we knew which ones got the most direct sunlight because those were the warmest ones…but swimming lessons at 9am could be really chilly, even in July. I have vivid memories of falling asleep to the enameled steel window fan in my room as it clattering away. I loved having that fan, because it meant that my window shade could not be fully drawn, and I would sit in front of the fan and look out through it at night, watching cars drive by and listening to neighbors outside (my parents put my brothers and I to bed early).  

This isn’t exactly the model of fan we had, but it is pretty close. I remember the metal blades of death. It was fun watching them shred paper, small pencils, any anything else handy. Who thought those were a good idea?

Moving back to New England, we bought a house with high ceilings and big windows, a perfect stack for creating cross-drafts and letting heat rise up and out of the house. We installed ceiling fans, and I figured if those weren’t enough we’d get some window fans and use the evening temperatures to keep things comfortable, just as my family had when I was a kid. My wife, who was raised in Louisville, went to college at the University of Kentucky (where we met), and lived with me in Ghana, Spain, South Carolina, and Washington, DC, thought this was insane and demanded we install some form of air conditioning. We settled on a few strategic window units, but after two summers it was clear that my plan would never work. Each year, in July, August, and even early September there were a lot of days where the daytime heated up enough that the cross-breezes in the house actually heated the place up, and evening temperatures were not low enough to really cool things off. I gave in, and we installed high-efficiency mini-splits (which can be used for heating and cooling – more on heating in another post).

In short, coming back to New England was not a return to the summers of my childhood, but a return to a different place, at least as defined by temperature. Climate data makes this perception concrete.

Since I was growing up, the duration of summer-like temperatures 2 has gone from an average of 121 days per year to 135 days. An increase of two weeks in just over 25 years is astonishing. Some of this increased duration is reflected in an earlier average onset of summer-like weather (when I was a child, this weather began, on average, on May 17th. Now the average onset date is May 12th). However, a greater portion comes from an extension of summer-like weather into September (the average end of summery weather has been pushed back from September 15th to September 25th).

This visual compares the average length and annual position of summer-like temperatures in Worcester between my childhood (1973-1991) and now (2010-present)

With regard to daytime high temperatures, the duration of the season is the main change to the structure of temperature. The average number of days above 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) has increased by 7 days per year. This means that Worcester today sees nearly a week more of summer temperatures each year than when I was growing up. While this is a remarkably rapid increase, this does not mean that the character of summer itself is changing. In fact, the distribution of temperatures within the season have remained relatively consistent. As the charts below show, in both my childhood and now roughly 56% of the days within the “summer-like” season reach 77 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. The average number of days in this season above 85 degrees Fahrenheit has crept up from 13.3 to 15, which means that whether as a child or today, 11% of my summer days get this hot. The average number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit has declined from 3.5 to 3, but in the scheme of things this is pretty steady, at around 2.5% of all days. In short, as the figure below shows, summer is longer than I remember it, so the distribution of heat and cold in the year has clearly changed. However, within summer the temperatures are well within the range of my prior experience.

The structure of daytime high temperatures has not changed much, if at all, between my childhood and the present

So why does it feel hot enough to require air conditioning? Well, part of it is the duration of the summer and the number of summery days. Another part is that minimum temperatures are also changing. A tropical night is defined as one where the temperature is at or above 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). During my childhood, a typical year had around five of these days. Today, we experience an average of more than eight and a half such nights. Further, the frequency of tropical nights appears to be increasing – rapidly. During my childhood, there were three years (1973, 1979, 1988) with 10 or more tropical nights. Since 2010, there have been four (2010, 2012, 2013, 2018). Across my eighteen years growing up in New England, there were 89 total tropical nights in Worcester. Since 2010, a period half as long, there have been 77. Part of why it feels so hot is that there are a lot more warm evenings.

The gently increasing number and share of tropical nights per year.

My return to Worcester is not a return to the summers of my childhood as much as a move to a new place that I’ve never lived in before. Whatever my nostalgia for summers and window fans, my kids are already living in a different world – in July and August they usually sleep with their windows closed, unable to hear different nocturnal animals, people walking and talking on the street, the sounds of nighttime in summer. I’m not comfortable saying that what I had as a child is better than what they have. I’m a person who expects and accepts change in the world. But it is just that much harder to relate to your kids when they are natives of a different world than the one you grew up in, and if nothing else that fact nags at me.

Notes:

  1. A note on data for those who care: All the data in this post is taken from the weather station at the Worcester Airport, which has daily records since 1948 (I accessed all the data you see here through the KNMI Climate Explorer). To create a comparison periods, I took an average for all measures across my childhood in New England (1973-1991), and compared that to the average from 2010-2018 (though I moved back in 2015, only using 2015-2018 created a very small series for an average that might be heavily skewed by an outlying year).
  2. Here I am defining “summer-like” somewhat arbitrarily as the period between by the first day of the year over 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) that was followed by consecutive days of temperatures above 70 degrees and closed by the last day over 25 Celsius at the end of several consecutive days over 70 degrees. I am sure I could systematize this definition a bit more, but any changes to the calculations represented in this post would be at the margins, and not affect the larger narrative

I returned to New England in 2015, after 24 years living in other parts of the country and the world. Aside from the occasional summer at my parents’ place (those ended in 1995) and visits for holidays and vacation, I was pretty removed from the weather back home. I’d hear about blizzards, though generally only when it got really rough (New Hampshire folks don’t complain much, except when talking about people who are not from New Hampshire. Then we complain a lot). I did not expect that within a year of the move I would be overwhelmed by pervasive signs of changes that had taken place since my childhood. While having the sun set at 4:30 in the afternoon in December felt strangely right and soothing (my family has yet to adopt this sense), temperatures seemed all wrong, the timing and amount of precipitation was confusing, and the plants, especially the trees, around me were behaving in odd ways, such as dropping green leaves very late in the year.

Part of my work is on climate change, albeit usually in places like sub-Saharan Africa, so I was not at all surprised to find that things might have changed in my absence. Indeed, my first reaction to this experience was to assume that being gone for more than half of my life created a significant experiential gap. I hadn’t lived through year upon year of subtle changes for more than two decades, perhaps preventing me from being the proverbial frog in the simmering pot. At the same time, if there is one thing that more than two decades of work on livelihoods and the environment has taught me, it is that I should not fully trust human perceptions of the environment. So I started playing with data. The results startled me, and provoked me to do something I rarely do: write about where I live, and what is happening to it.

As subsequent posts will show, my overwhelming sense that something had changed significantly was right. What I did not expect was how the data would support the pervasive and substantial character of those changes. One of the most important stories about climate change is the rate of change: while the climate has changed in the past, these changes tended to operate on geologic timescales far outside the experience of most organisms. Much has been made of current rates of change, and how they have shifted from geologic to human timescales, a rate of change that far exceeds the ability of many species of plant and animal to adapt to the new conditions. What most strikes me about the data, and the ways in which it weaves through my experience of the world, is that the changes I see are now operating not at a human timescale, but at a generational timescale – that is, so fast that they are clearly perceptible over less than 25 years, as opposed to a 75- or 100-year timescale. Put another way, while I was largely born into the same environment as my mother and father, my children were born into a different environment than me. I was oddly unprepared for that fact, and I am still not sure what it means to me as a parent or the work I do professionally.

In upcoming posts, I will walk you through these changes and their manifestations, drawing on data but writing about it from my perspective. I’m not sure where this will take me, but that’s fine: I generally write to process things, and now you, dear reader, get to come along for the ride.

I’m not making huge promises, but maybe it’s time to fire this machine back up…

If you’ve been following my SDG posts (here and here), you are probably at the point of asking what exactly we should be doing about them. Fair enough. I’ve burned two blog posts and about 2000 words on the problems I see with the new SDGs. As I tell my students, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to dismantle something. You have to tear it down and put something new in its place. So, in this spirit, my suggestions for how to get out of the ditch that the SDGs appear to currently occupy are threefold:

  1. Engage the donors now, not later. Start this process by narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals, and ensuring that the goals are actually achievable
  2. Engage the climate negotiations. The flows of money under the likely climate agreement are huge, and will impact all development goals, therefore impacting the achievement of the SDGs. Further, donors are already engaged on the climate negotiations, so linking the SDGs to those negotiations will likely increase donor interest in the SDG process.
  3. Engage the implementers. If you want to productively reduce the number of indicators, targets, and goals, talk to the people who will have to take the money and achieve those goals. By working with implementers, the SDG process could reduce all of these indicators, targets, and goals (thus driving donors to the table) while ensuring that whatever emerges from the process is actually achievable

1. Engage the donors:

A few caveats from my Wilton Park experience:

1) I know that if we are going to get “beyond aid” and start thinking about innovative partnerships for development, we are going to have to get past the donor-recipient binary. However, refusing to call a spade a spade doesn’t make change happen. The fact is that USAID, DfID, GIZ, JICA, and all the other bilateral organizations are, more or less, donors. So is the World Bank. So we can call them “development partners” all we want, but they will still behave like donors (making plans, issuing edicts, programming on institutional/national interests instead of beneficiary interests, etc.) – behavior change takes a long time. Remember, many bilateral donors already call themselves “Cooperation” organizations (e.g. Spanish Cooperation, Swiss Cooperation)…but they still behave like donors.

2) The flows of development aid are, in many places, already dwarfed by flows of foreign direct investment and other flows of money. In some contexts, remittances may well be as important as formal aid. So we shouldn’t over-privilege donors or their aid funds in this conversation. Indeed, it is the declining power of aid dollars that has spurred the “beyond aid” conversation in the post-2015 agenda.

All that said, much of the politics of development still flow through development donors/partners, and this is not going to change before the SDGs are formalized. I’ve heard a bit of grumbling about traditional donor organizations’ lack of serious engagement with the SDG process. I have little time for this, as nobody should find this lack of engagement surprising. As I said in my first post, a set of goals that allows everyone to evade responsibility, and enables practically everything currently implemented under the heading “development”, is not going to get a response from the donors. If the process won’t have any effect on what they do, why should they care?

Some might see this lack of engagement as a good thing, an opportunity to craft a development agenda outside the agendas of the donors. I disagree with this strongly. The donors will eventually engage, especially if the SDGs move toward formal commitments. Such commitments might create responsibilities and constraints on actions and agendas – at which point, the donors will engage to shape the agenda to their interests. Because the SDG process has churned along without the donors to this point, the current indicators, targets, and goals are likely not well-aligned with donor interests. Without suggesting that donor interests are necessarily good, remember that the politics of development and aid still flow through these organizations, and when they engage they will have one of two effects: they will either heavily reshape the SDGs to their interests, or they will marginalize the entire process to the point of irrelevance. In either case, those running the SDG process will find themselves in a reactive position, and will lose control of the process. If the SDGs are to be more than what donors already want and do, the process must engage the donors now.

How do we engage the donors? One way is to reduce the absurd number of indicators, targets, and goals. Once you start taking away the ability to justify everything, donors are going to have to start looking at these goals and their own portfolios. Where there are mismatches, the donors are likely to engage. Another way is to carefully review the targets and goals and ensure that all could be achieved in the next 15 years with reasonable ambition. This will create a situation where accountability for their achievement becomes important, which likely drives the donors to the table. Getting the donors to the table now means there will be time to negotiate with them to develop a set of workable SDGs. Waiting until the last minute will either subvert what has, to this point, been a very open process as the SDGs are heavily reworked or even shunted into irrelevance at the 11th hour in negotiations.

2. Engage the UNFCCC negotiation process

While the development community has two big processes coming to the fore this year (the Third Conference on Financing for Development and the SDGs), there is a third, and arguably far more important, process coming to a head: the climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. By the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, I fully expect that there will be a deal on the table that discusses transfers of funds from rich to poor countries that will broadly 1) enable adaptation to ongoing climate change impacts and 2) facilitate the development of these countries through low-greenhouse emission pathways. The amounts of money on the table are likely to rival, if not displace, formal development aid, and they will be used to address issues that development aid traditionally covered. Yet the SDGs do not meaningfully engage with the likely outcomes of this process. Yes, proposed SDG 13 demands we “Tackle climate change and its impacts” and that goal recognizes the size of financial flows likely to emerge from the upcoming climate deal ($100 billion per year at a minimum, which would rival all of formal development aid). But simply acknowledging that there will be a climate deal with a lot of money attached doesn’t align the SDGs with that money. These flows of money will likely impact every SDG – indeed, we should expect them to. A climate deal that moves funds to the poorer countries is two things: an acknowledgement that climate change impacts will likely inhibit their efforts to improve the quality of life of their citizens and residents, and a recognition that the climate change impacts of their development could become problems for even the wealthy countries.

Because climate funds will engage development issues and goals, they are going to create attribution problems and therefore further responsibility problems for the SDGs. For example, if exposure to increasingly variable precipitation is a significant challenge for a group of rain-fed agriculturalists who find themselves in a challenging financial situation, and the funds from the climate deal help to provide seasonal forecasts that alleviate some of this stress, will the SDGs get to claim victory for the increased yields and incomes that result? Or will the climate negotiators get to use this case as an example of why a climate deal was a good idea? Worse, if these funds don’t actually result in constructive changes to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be to blame?

Engaging the climate negotiations would also help to bring the donors to the table, as the donors and their national governments are already engaged on the climate negotiation process. Linking the SDGs to this process 1) creates a more realistic view of how these goals will be funded and achieved and 2) will likely drive the donors to the SDG table to ensure the SDGs are aligned with the climate agreement.

3. Engage the implementation community:

It is pretty obvious that these goals were written in a policy context that lacked significant input from anyone who would have to achieve these goals. Nearly all of my critiques in the previous two posts were based in the practical challenges these goals would present for implementation: the lack of responsibility for their achievement, the enabling of a huge range of actions under what masquerades as a focused set of goals, and the creation of goals that potentially undermine each other are all apparent when you’ve spent time building programs to actually achieve these goals, or had to execute the work under those programs. If you want goals that are either aspirational or focusing, you need to incorporate a lot of feedback from the implementation community.

Engaging the implementation community could serve as a means of narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals as I suggested is necessary to get donors to the table. It would kill two birds with one stone – it would get us a set of achievable, interesting SDGs while forcing donors to engage with the process before the 11th hour.

Save the SDGs!

There is still time to break the SDGs out of the multilateral bubble in which they were constructed and make this a proactive process that can bring together the many important trends reshaping development today (climate change negotiations, new flows of investment, etc.) into a coherent program that gives us targets to aim for, and a reasonable focus for development going forward. The three steps above would go a long way toward this end. I hope to see something like this start very soon.

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.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on South Carolina politics, and never on this blog (I had some op-eds in The State and the Sun News out of Myrtle Beach).  But there is an ongoing dustup in South Carolina politics that pretty much aligns with one line of my work in development – thinking about governance.  Development is plagued with people and programs that operate under the assumption there is a simple, straight line between democracy and good governance, or worse conflate the means (democracy) with the ends (responsive, transparent government).  This has led to many hilarious (read: sad) cases where development-donor sponsored work on environmental governance has focused on state-level capacity to write legislation and regulations on the use of the environment in places where a) the state has no capacity to actually enforce laws or regulations and b) where actual political legitimacy that might make such regulations work tends to rest at the local level, in the control of those who shape access to agricultural land.  And people keep wondering why all that work doesn’t seem to amount to much change on the ground?

Well, here in South Carolina we could learn a bit about our own governance issues from these various failures. The Speaker of the House here in SC, Bobby Harrell, has been under a cloud for some time regarding his use of campaign funds.  Jody Barr, an investigative reporter for local NBC affiliate WIS-10, had the temerity to actually start digging through records, asking for interviews, and then…wait for it…actually reported on the story.  And a bunch of people are shocked, yes shocked, that…Jody Barr would dare ask such questions.  Even if the Speaker’s spending patterns are really, really problematic. Like spending $54,812 of campaign money for memberships, dues, meals and receptions to two Columbia private dinner clubs. Or $54,834 on cell phones between 2008 and 2012.

Why, how dare anyone wonder how the Speaker ran up monthly campaign-related $1000 cell phone bills for four straight years? Or mention that the State Law Enforcement Division is, in fact, investigating this issue? That’s just so…impolite. Or something.

Now, the fact is that neither I nor anyone reading this (unless the speaker is reading) actually knows if any of these expenses are indeed fraudulent, or even pushing the boundaries of the letter/spirit of the law. It sure looks bad, but until SLED comes back with something, we all have to wait and see. Perhaps Mr. Harrell is just tarred by the brush of South Carolina’s painful, ongoing history of politicians who managed to enrich themselves, their families, or their friends via their office. Amazingly, quite often these actions were legal (see Haley, Nikki and nepotism), because for a very long time the state had very weak conflict of interest rules and laws (see Haley, Nikki – what do you mean I had to disclose my consulting work for a hospital, payday lenders, and an engineering firm with interests before the state? Nobody else does it, so why should I?*), and because governance in the State of South Carolina is staggeringly opaque.  This, it seems to me, is the point everyone here is missing, and it became clear to me today in a twitter exchange with State Representative Leon Stavrinakis (D-SC119). I don’t know Representative Stavrinakis personally, and I don’t have any personal issue with him.  But he popped up in my twitter feed when I noted that South Carolina has a remarkably opaque government at nearly all levels:

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My response, in which I was trying to point out that televising the end product of a long, informal process isn’t really transparency:

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And Representative Stavrinakis replied:

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Which totally misses the point, and worries me greatly. If elected representatives don’t understand the difference between the structures of government and the actual process of governance, who does?  Look, governance isn’t only about the formal votes. A lot of stuff happens before those meetings and votes, including the drafting of bills, that are shaped by various informal meetings and conversations. This is the informal structure by which representative democracy really works. Not every representative can know everything about every subject. Here in SC, they don’t have the staff support to become fully informed, either (this is a major problem at the federal level as well).  So a lot of their decisions are going to be based on the opinions and ideas pushed through this informal structure.

This is not a problem in and of itself – James Scott (among others) has observed that basically all large formal structures rest on lots of unacknowledged informal structures – but in representative democracy this becomes an issue because not every citizen has access to this informal structure (leaving aside the attempted use of absurd voting fraud laws to exclude part of the citizenry from the formal structure). This means that not everyone can exert the same influence on their representatives, and not everyone who is represented can understand the motivations of their elected representatives and therefore make an informed choice at the ballot box in the next election.  So, when you say you are making things transparent by televising votes, you are just televising the end product of a long, opaque process.

That’s not transparency. That’s theater.

Now, there is no easy fix for this. But a very nice first step would be to require full disclosure of all meetings that our elected representatives take during the day: who did they meet with, and about what? This would include “incidental contact” at private, non-governmental events, because this is where a lot of the work of the informal network happens. Yes, that’s right, if Representative X runs into a registered lobbyist at a wedding, and discusses a legislative issue with that lobbyist at the reception, the Representative should disclose that. If the Representative runs into the officers of a company with business before the State, and they discuss that business, the Representative should disclose that. Some might see this as intrusive. I see it as the price of admission to representing constituents in a representative democracy. This disclosure rule needs to have teeth to punish those who “forget” to do this, and it all needs to be posted publicly.

Second, representatives need to publish full lists of their donors IN REAL TIME, again in a public place. And again, give the damn rules some teeth, as a lot of our representatives are skirting this requirement with no real consequences. Third, representatives should have to disclose absolutely all of their business and investment interests. If you don’t like it, don’t run for office. I’d accept blind trusts for investments, actually, but that doesn’t work for businesses.  And all three of these public documents should be easily searchable, so constituents can quickly find out to whom their representative is talking, and from whom they are taking money and earning a living. Constituents deserve to know exactly how different votes might affect their representative’s personal interests, and be able to weigh a voting record to see if the representative is acting in self-interest, or the interest of his/her constituents.

Now, these first two steps would serve to push responsibility back to the voter for who they elect. Sure, in theory the responsibility sits with them now, but how responsible can anyone be when it is impossible to actually figure out what motivates the people running for office? Of course, just creating a situation where the voter might finally know what, exactly, he or she is voting for doesn’t guarantee they will pick good people to serve.  But at least the electorate could only blame itself.**

There is a third step that is needed here, however: do something about self-policing. Until this gets sorted out, voters will continue to grow cynical and apathetic in the face of problematic behavior in the government. You cannot have each branch of the government responsible for self-policing, as the incentives generally run against actually punishing anyone (because nobody wants to be retaliated against later by having their legislation or projects blocked. See Haley, Nikki – entire legislative career***). Yes, I do understand the concept of separation of powers. But checks and balances are key to the functioning of American-style representative democracy, and self-policing is not a check on much of anything. Court officers do have to answer to the bar, and while that is a fraught process in and of itself, the fact is that South Carolina has a branch of government accountable to someone or something other than itself, and the world has not ended.  This suggests that the legislature and executive could probably survive a similar structure.  Actually, each branch needs this to rebuild its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. At this point, very few people expect the legislature to do anything about the behavior of its own members (and don’t bother parading one or two high-profile examples out to argue with me, those are sacrificial tokens and everyone knows it).  And this is because the government has failed at governance.  The citizenry is getting frustrated, because the government neither responsive nor transparent.

A final point: this is not a “size of government” issue. There is no necessary connection between opacity and size of government. You can have a very small, opaque government (I’ve seen this at work in towns back in New Hampshire) and you can certainly have big, transparent, and responsive government (most of Scandinavia, for example, though I’ve recently heard rumors about the Norwegian oil industry working to suppress government environmental impact studies that they don’t like through opaque means).  What I am arguing for here is agnostic about the size of government – transparency and responsiveness are the goals of a governmental structure, regardless of its size. Just continuing to shrink the state won’t fix any of this.  All that effort does is slowly reduce state capacity, which means that sooner or later we are one of those countries in the Global South with a government that no longer has the capacity to enforce its laws and regulations (or provide water, roads, healthcare, fire departments, or policing).  I’ve worked in such places for my entire professional life. Most of the people living in them either wish to see reforms that make the state more capable, transparent, and responsive, or are working, as we speak, to to these ends. Why are we trying so hard to trade places with them?

 

 

 

*No, really, that was the crux of her defense. And it worked.

**This is a depressingly likely outcome. After all, Mark Sanford (R-Appalachian Trail) is back in Congress.

***I bet you thought I had nothing good to say about Haley. See, I’m full of surprises!

In the world of food security and agricultural development there is a tendency to see market integration as a panacea for problems of hunger (see Theme 2, point 4). There is ample evidence that market integration creates opportunities for farmers by connecting them to the vast sums of money at play in the global food markets. But there is equally ample evidence pointing to the fact that markets are never just a solution – negotiating global markets from the position of a small producer presents significant challenges such as the management of commodity price instability (without meaningful market leverage).  The academic side, and much of the implementation side, of the food security world already recognizes this issue, driven by (repeated) studies/experiences of food insecurity and famine showing that markets are nearly always the most important driver of this stress on the global poor. Planning for the benefits of market integration without serious thought about how to manage the potential downsides of markets is a recipe for disaster.

For example, simplifying one’s farm to focus on only a few key crops for which there is “comparative advantage”, and then using the proceeds to buy food, clothing, shelter and other necessities, works great when the market for those crops is strong. But what happens when the food you need to buy becomes more dear than the crops you are growing, for example through food price spikes or a shift in markets that leave one’s farm worth only a fraction of what is needed to feed and clothe one’s family? In the world’s poorest countries, where most food security and agricultural development work takes place, there is little capacity to provide safety nets to vulnerable citizens that might address such outcomes.

This is not a call for the provision of these safety nets (microinsurance is very interesting, but a long way from implementation).  While useful and, in some contexts, critical, they are, in the end, band-aids for a larger conceptual problem – the framing of market engagement as a panacea for the problems of agricultural development and food security.  Often, such programs also presume a lack of existing safety nets at the community or household level – a sort of “we can’t make things worse” mentality that marks much development thought. However, farmers in these countries have long operated without a state-level safety net. They hedge against all kinds of uncertainties, from the weather to markets.  For example, one form of hedging I have seen in my own work is an emphasis on growing a mix of crops that can be sold or eaten, depending on market and weather conditions.  If, in coastal Ghana, you are growing maize and cassava as your principal crops, you can sell both in years where the market is good, and you can eat both in years where the market turns on you. I have referred to opting out of markets as temporary deglobalization, where people opt in and out of markets as they gauge their risks and opportunities.

Forcing farmers away from this model, toward one that focuses on enhancing the economic efficiency of agricultural production by reducing the focus of a country and its farmers to a few crops that are their “comparative advantage”, and which they should sell to purchase the rest of their dietary needs, removes the option of turning away from markets and eating the crops in conditions of years where the markets are not favorable.  This is even more true when some of that newly reduced crop mix only takes value from sale on global markets (i.e. cocoa) and/or which cannot be eaten (i.e. cotton). In short, such restructuring in the name of economic efficiency makes people dependent on the political structures of the state that govern the markets in which they participate.  Most of our work takes place in the Global South, where the state rarely has the capacity to step in and help in times of crisis.  It is pretty easy to do the math here: done wrong, food security programs principally framed around ideas of economic efficiency can enhance state capacity to extract value from farmers without a comparable improvement in the delivery of services or safety nets.  This is an acceptable outcome if you are trying to compel people to submit to the state and the markets the state regulates, which is one way to boost measurable GDP and state revenue. However, it is really bad if you are actually trying to improve people’s food security.

The key points and principals here:

1)   Are you addressing food insecurity or strengthening the state’s capacity to raise revenue and measure economic activity? These are not the same thing – generally, they are at odds with one another, as making agricultural practice easier to see and measure only serves to improve the capacity to extract revenues from farmers, without any guarantee of improved services proceeding from those revenues.

2)   Economic efficiency is a desirable characteristic of agricultural livelihoods, but in the absence of safety nets cannot be the organizing principal of food security interventions. All else being equal, it is better when farmers use their scarce resources as efficiently as possible. However, the measurement of efficiency must take place within an assessment of the various risks currently managed through “inefficiencies” – as many such inefficiencies are in fact parts of robust, community- and household-level safety nets.

3)   Food security programming should be able to identify the difference between an inefficiency and a critical part of a community- or household-level safety net.  Regardless of the consequences for economic efficiency, programs and projects should not destabilize these until such time as new, reliable safety nets exist to take their place.

4)   Opting out is OK. Farmers should be allowed to structure their farms such that they can opt out of markets if things turn bad, even if this limits their total incomes in “good”/optimal years. This should not be assessed in terms of the average outcome, when best and worst cases are averaged.  Your best case is some more money. Your worst case is severe deprivation and death. These are not equal. Averting the latter is more important than achieving the former.

Colleague Ben Neimark at ODU recently asked me a tough question: “What makes for good (helpful to get published, strengthened,  intellectually creativity, etc.) peer review?”  I figured this might be of wider interest to academic colleagues, as well as those who see the entire academic publishing world as somewhat opaque.  So . . .

I think the challenge in producing a good peer review is to balance its dual imperative .  There is the part of peer review that ensures quality and offers constructive criticism (and I have received some in the case of my current livelihoods work – see here, here and here -, and have had some reviewers offer great stuff in the past).  Then there is the disciplinary policing that goes on through peer review, where reviewers don’t examine the quality of the data or argument, but simply argue against it because it challenges convention (which the reviewer likely belongs to or established) – see my comments about reviewer 1 at the bottom of this post.  This second function makes innovation very challenging unless you are very, very hardheaded (which I am).

In a nutshell, though, I think good peer review is that which looks at a paper for its stated aims and evaluates

  1. are those stated aims actually new and interesting and
  2. did the paper achieve the stated aims.

If standard 1) is not met, a good peer reviewer should be able to suggest where the real contribution of the paper lies – i.e. by suggesting literatures into which the author should place the manuscript.  If standard 2) is not met, the reviewer should explain exactly how and why this happened, and what sorts of remedial steps might solve the problem(s).  That is my minimum take . . .

I’m happy to hear the opinions of others . . .

David Reiff has a great piece on ForeignPolicy.com called “Millions May Die . . . Or Not.”  It is hard to read, in some ways, because nobody really wants to criticize folks whose hearts are in the right place.  At the same time, couching pleas for aid in ever escalating “worst disaster ever” claims, is risking the long-term viability of charitable contributions:

By continually upping the rhetorical ante, relief agencies, whatever their intentions, are sowing the seeds of future cynicism, raising the bar of compassion to the point where any disaster in which the death toll cannot be counted in the hundreds of thousands, that cannot be described as the worst since World War II or as being of biblical proportions, is almost certainly condemned to seem not all that bad by comparison.

I see this as akin to blizzard predictions – what one of my friends long ago started calling the “Storm of the Century of the Week” problem.  I cannot take an apocalyptic blizzard prediction seriously anymore, because they are all apocalyptic.  One day this will bite me in the ass, I know . . . well, unless I stay in DC and/or South Carolina.

But there was one thing left unexamined in the article that I wonder about – Reiff notes, quite rightly, that:

All relief agencies know that, where disasters are concerned, not only the media but the public as a whole practices a species of serial monogamy, focusing on one crisis to the exclusion of all others until what is sometimes called “compassion fatigue” sets in. Then, attention shifts to the next emergency.

Reiff does not tell us the origins of this syndrome – and the article seems to suggest that it “just exists,” a cause of the ever-escalating claims about the scale and scope of a given disaster.  I wonder, however, if he has overlooked something important here – that perhaps the escalating claims are the very thing that has created this “serial charity/aid monogamy” by overwhelming our capacity to address the wide range of needs that exist in the world.

In short, has the competition for relief dollars created a cycle in which claims about the magnitude of the crisis will continue to inflate, further focusing the attention of the public and media into shorter and shorter cycles until it completely evaporates?  Are we looking at a midpoint to the creative destruction of the relief industry?  And what have the policy implications of this narrowing been – is there space to back up and think more holistically, and with greater perspective, to do a better job of assessing need and capabilities of meeting it?



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