Revealed: climate quirk that doubles risk of war

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

New study shows stark correlation between the fluctuations of El Niño and the incidence of civil conflicts

A A A

Wars and civil conflicts are twice as likely to occur during years affected by the El Niño climate-warming phenomenon, a study suggests. The naturally recurring weather system, which boosts temperatures and cuts rainfall over a broad swath of the globe every three to seven years, doubles the risk of civil wars across many countries in the tropics, shows a remarkable statistical analysis by American scientists.

In fact, the researchers suggest, El Niño may help account for a fifth of worldwide conflicts during the past half-century, although the exact mechanism remains unclear. The study, in the journal Nature, claims to be the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies relates strongly to the global climate. Its disquieting implication, in the context of continuing man-made climate change, is that the world may be facing more turbulent times still.

At its heart is El Niño, the periodic warming of the waters of the eastern tropical Pacific, given its name – "the Christ child" in Spanish – because its onset is often observed just before Christmas. El Niño leads to warmer conditions and droughts across many parts of the tropics including Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Americas.

It is one half of the Southern Oscillation, the other half being La Niña, which conversely is a cooling phenomenon marked by more plentiful rainfall over the areas affected; the two together are known as Enso (El Niño-Southern Oscillation).

The researchers, from Columbia University in New York, compared more than half a century of Enso data with the history of conflicts in the tropics from 1950 to 2004 which killed more than 25 people in a given year. The data included 175 countries and 234 conflicts, over half of which each caused more than 1,000 battle-related deaths.

For nations whose weather is controlled by Enso, they found that during La Niña, the chance of civil war breaking out was about 3 per cent, whereas during El Niño, the chance doubled, to 6 per cent. (Countries not affected by the cycle remained at 2 per cent no matter what.)

Overall, the team calculated that El Niño may have played a role in 21 percent of civil wars worldwide over the past 50 years, although they stressed that the study does not show that wars are started by weather alone.

"But if you have social inequality, people are poor, and there are underlying tensions, it seems possible that climate can deliver the knockout punch," said Solomon Hsiang, the study's lead author. "When crops fail, people may take up a gun simply to make a living."

It is poorer countries which appear to be tipped into chaos more easily by bad weather; that of rich Australia, for instance, is controlled by Enso, but the country has never seen a civil war. But on the other side, at least two countries, said Dr Hsiang "jump out of the data".

In 1982, a powerful El Niño struck impoverished highlands Peru, destroying crops; that year, simmering guerrilla attacks by the revolutionary Shining Path movement turned into a full-scale 20-year civil war that still sputters today.

Similarly, forces in southern Sudan were already facing off with the domineering north, when intense warfare broke out in the El Niño year of 1963. The insurrection flared again in 1976, another El Niño year. Then, 1983 came a major El Niño and the cataclysmic outbreak of more than 20 years of fighting which killed two million.

Dr Hsiang said other countries where festering conflicts have tended to blow up during El Niños include El Salvador, the Philippines and Uganda (1972); Angola, Haiti and Myanmar (1991); and Congo, Eritrea, Indonesia and Rwanda (1997).

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015