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
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own