I’ve raised the issue of celebrity humanitarianism several times on this blog (here, here, and here). It is a fraught territory that generally raises strong feelings among the development community. Done wrong, it can be disastrous. Done well…well, honestly, there is a debate about whether or not it can be done well.

I had the opportunity to move beyond the blog and spend some time in academic thought on this topic – birthed from Twitter, no less! When some colleagues approached me about writing a chapter about Bono and celebrity humanitarianism for a book they were putting together, I really wanted to take up the offer but lacked the time necessary to really write a good chapter. So I put out a call for co-authors on Twitter, and Ami Shah took me up on it. She roped a colleague, historian Bruce Hall, into the project, which proved to be a boon to us. The product, “Bono, Band Aid, and Before: Celebrity Humanitarianism, Music and the Objects of its Actionwas a really interesting chapter (I learned things from my co-authors in writing it) on the history of celebrity humanitarianism, and how the “new” celebrity wonkery of Bono and others is, in fact, nothing new at all.

The chapter will appear in 2014 in the book Soundscapes of Wellbeing in Popular Music. (Andrews, Gavin J., Paul Kingsbury, and Robin A. Kearns, eds. Burlington, VT: Ashgate). I have posted a preprint version of our chapter on my preprints page (link here). If you are into this topic, I think you will find it an interesting read…

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!

So, some of you might have wondered where the guy who ground out a lot of longish (too-longish?), wonky blog posts has gone over the past year and a half or so. Well, the transition back to academia was much bumpier than I had anticipated. Funding for research takes time to arrive, as does the support (i.e. skilled labor) necessary to make that research happen. And then there is the fact I teach two classes a semester – and they are not small classes. I just finished my annual reporting for 2013, and because of this exercise I know that I taught 261 students last year. In four courses – one of which was a 12-person graduate seminar, so you do the math on my average undergraduate class size. It’s…not ideal.

I’m also now dealing with a complete reversal of my situation back in 2009-10, when I decided to leave academia for a while and go work at USAID. Back then, I felt completely disconnected from development policy and implementation. I was frustrated and bored. Now, I have a small lab running five different projects, only one of which is “pure” research. But we are not fully staffed yet – we’re about to search for a research associate to take up some of the load – and the result has been a lot of nights with less than six hours of sleep. This is hard, but as I remind people, it beats being ignored.

So, until about a week ago, I simply could not get my head above water long enough to blog. I think that is going to change over the next few months, as we get things under control in the lab. So, for that small but dedicated fanbase of the longish, wonky development blog posts, soon you will have more to read.

In the meantime, I’ve finally updated my personal homepage. There are new publications up, new preprints up, and a new mission statement on the home page. This week, I will walk you through these new pubs and ideas. I’m also at work on a new lab page. This will introduce you to a new cast of characters, and a new set of projects, that should keep things interesting around here for a while. I’m not yet sure about the relationship between the lab and this blog – I have to work that out. But the lab will have a twitter account, likely an Instagram account (we’re going to be going a lot of places), and the web page will have project-related videos. It should be pretty cool.

Thanks for bearing with me over the past year and a half. Watch this space – it should get interesting.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Elsevier, the Dutch academic publishing giant, has started issuing takedown orders to Academia.edu, a social-networking website for academics where many members post .pdf versions of their work for sharing. In fact, I received a notification from Academia.edu yesterday that one of my posted articles had received a takedown notice from Elsevier – it is a piece I am the fourth author on, but I still like the piece and find myself greatly annoyed this happened. On the other hand, it was sort of inevitable – I’ve published a good bit, and a lot of my stuff is available in various forms in various locations, so sooner or later one of those repositories was going to receive a takedown notice.

The Chronicle article is fine – basically, a rehash of the ongoing debate about academic publishing, profit models, and the rights of researchers to disseminate their research findings. But the comments section of the piece is a microcosm of why this debate persists – basically, the commenters sit on two sides: “information should be free and accessible” versus “if you don’t like it, stop signing contracts/publishing with journals that restrict your rights as an author.” This is not helpful – most academics want their work to be free, and we are not idiots when it comes to the contracts we sign when we publish. We sign them BECAUSE WE HAVE TO.

For those who are not academics, let me walk you through the problem. For academics in research-focused universities (and increasingly in teaching-focused institutions) a record of publication is our legitimacy, our standing in our discipline, our leverage for higher salaries or new jobs. And while the pervasiveness of electronic resources and networks have started to change the publishing landscape, as of now there still exists a hierarchy of journals in each discipline. And for most of us, that hierarchy matters – you simply must publish at least some pieces in the top tier of journals if you are to be tenured and promoted, and if you are to be taken seriously within your discipline. This is institutional reality. And guess who controls nearly all of those journals? For-profit academic publishers like Elsevier.

Let me lay this out in a simple scenario: You are a tenure-track assistant professor, and after a few years of research, data analysis, and writing, you’ve finally gotten a manuscript accepted by one of the very top journals in your field. You NEED this publication to ensure that your tenure file, which will go into review in the coming year, will be reviewed positively. Soon after your notification of the article’s acceptance, you receive the publishing contract from Elsevier/Springer/whoever and it says the usual restrictive things about not posting your own work. You hate this, as it means that those without access to academic libraries and interlibrary loan will likely have to pay $30 or more to access your article – in other words, nobody outside of academia will access or read your work. But if you refuse to sign, the publisher will not publish your manuscript. Here is your dilemma: at this point, do you withdraw the manuscript and send it to a new journal with more liberal author rights? If you do, you are certainly sending it to a lower-ranked journal, and you will have to go through peer review all over again, ensuring that the manuscript will not be accepted or published by the time your tenure file is submitted…which will really hurt your tenure case. Or do you sign the stupid contract because you absolutely must have this publication?

I think everyone reading this knows which way this decision is going to go. So do the publishers. This is why the model persists, people – not because academics are stupid, but because we are trapped in an institutional model that gives us very few degrees of freedom on this issue. It’s also not because academics are greedy. Note that I never talked about money, because academics DO NOT GET PAID FOR THESE ARTICLES. At all.

This is why I argued that a real change in this model will require disciplinary reorientations/reorganizations that recognize a whole new set of publishers/journals as legitimate/important outlets. It is the only way academia can really undermine the for-profit academic publishers and end the practice of restrictive publishing and dissemination contracts, as it would make the boycott/avoidance of such publishers a real possibility within the institutional realities of academia today.

Until disciplines, or at the very least particular institutions that are seen as academic leaders, start to recognize alternative journals or means of publication as legitimate outputs that will facilitate a path to tenure and promotion, we will be having the same conversations about academic publishing. Of course, there is one other possible lever that I have raised before – the White House could issue an executive directive reorganizing federally-funded research such that copyright does not attach. Federal employees currently publish in academic journals without transferring copyright (in these situations, there is no copyright to transfer to a journal), so there is a model in place for this. In the end, this makes a great deal of sense no matter how you feel about academic publishing, as these publications represent findings that were obtained via the expenditure of public money, so allowing private profit from such “public goods” is pretty perverse.

The White House appears to have considered this, but there has been little recent noise on this front – perhaps because of major exertions by the publishers to neuter this effort. My guess is that the decision-makers in the White House don’t really understand academic publishing and the institutional structures that maintain it (as opposed to OSTP, which is staffed with people who do, but serve in a mostly advisory capacity to the decision-makers). If they did, they would realize that most arguments for the persistence of exclusive publishing rights with for-profit academic publishers in the era of the Internet make no sense at all. It’s harder for an industry lobby to win an argument when those they are lobbying actually understand the rules of the game…

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.

So, this just popped up in my twitter feed from @USAID:

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 11.23.57 AM

 

What’s fun about this tweet is the fact that USAID, and indeed most development donors, are  “other places” where failure = damage to your career and budget. There are a host of reasons for this (just start reading this Natsios piece and work out from there), but anyone who denies this problem is just delusional (there are pockets of high risk operations at USAID, but they are the exceptions, not the rule).

Also note, this tweet is related to a discussion of innovation policy…which, it seems to me, missed the point of innovation entirely. Let me summarize a workable innovation policy for everyone: If donors want innovation, they need to foster a culture of reasonable risk for big rewards among their staff and implementers. They need to stop being the “other places” in this tweet. How they do this depends on the institution, but this should be the goal.

See, you don’t even need an executive summary for that.

CGD has an interesting short essay up, written by Matthew Darling, Saugato Datta, and Sendhil Mullainathan, entitled “The Nature of the BEast: What Behavioral Economics Is Not.” The piece aims to dispel a few myths about behavioral economics, while offering a quick summary of what this field is, and what its goals are. I’ve been looking around for a good short primer on BE, and so I had high hopes for this piece…unfortunately, for two reasons the piece did not live up to expectations.

First, the authors tie themselves in a strange knot as they try to argue that behavioral economics is not about controlling behavior. While they note that BE studies and tools could be used to nudge human behavior in particular directions, they argue that “What distinguishes the behavioral toolset [from those of marketers, for example], however, is that so many of the tools are about helping people to make the choices that they themselves want to make.” This claim sidesteps a very important question: how do we know what choices they want to make? What we see as problematic livelihoods outcomes might not, in fact, be all that problematic to those living those outcomes, and indeed might have local rationales that are quite reasonable. While this might seem an obvious point, most BE work that I have seen seems to rest on a near-total lack of understanding of why those under investigation engage in the behaviors that “require explanation”. Therefore, the claim that BE helps people make the choices they want to make is, in fact, rather patriarchal in that the determination of what choices people want to make does not rest with those people, but with the behavioral economist. Sadly, this is a fairly accurate representation of much work done under the heading of BE. It would have been better if the authors had simply pointed out that BE is no more obsessed with incentives than any other part of economics, and if people are worried about behavioral control, they’d best have a look at the US (or their own national) tax code and focus their anxiety there.

Second, the authors argue “Behavioral economics differs from standard economics in that it uses a more realistic (and more complicated) model for people [and their decisions].” Honestly, I have seen no evidence for a coherent model of humans or their behavior in BE. What I have seen is a lot of rigorous data collection, the results of which are then shoehorned into some sort of implicit explanatory framework laden with unexamined assumptions that generally do not hold in the real world. Rigorously identifying when particular stimuli result in different behaviors is not the same thing as explaining how those stimuli bring about those behaviors. BE is rather good at the former, and not very good at all at the latter. The authors are right – we need more realistic and complicated models of human decision-making, and there are some out there (for example, see here and here – email me if you need a copy of either .pdf). BE would do well to actually read something outside of economics if it is serious about this goal. There are a couple of disciplines out there (for example, anthropology, geography, some aspects of sociology and social history) that have long operated with complex framings of human behavior, and have already derived many of the lessons that BE is just now (re)discovering. In this light, then, this short paper does show us what BE isn’t: it isn’t anthropology, geography, or any other social science that has already engaged the same questions as BE, but with more complex framings of human behavior and more rigorous interpretations of observed outcomes. And if it isn’t that, what exactly is the point of this field of inquiry?

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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