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Climate Change and the Risk of Mass Violence: Africa in the 21st Century

Andreas Exenberger and Andreas Pondorfer


Climate change is often related to various adverse effects, among those endangering food security and raising the risk of conflict. But empirical evidence is rather inconclusive so far, particularly about its relationship to (mass) violence. In this letter, we provide a brief review of studies explaining connections between climate change and mass violence and discuss strategies how to properly address the issue in the future, focussing on sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) and climate effects on agricultural production. We conclude that we need better explanations of indirect effects, especially those moderated by the socio-economic systems, and a better understanding of endogeneity issues, especially of shifts in transmission. Hence, a particularly promising direction of research especially for SSA is addressing a combination of agricultural and institutional vulnerabilities.

Corresponding author: Andreas Exenberger, Department of Economic Theory, Policy and History, University of Innsbruck, Universitätsstraße 15, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria, E-mail:

  1. 1

    By mass violence we understand violent acts with large death tolls (certainly exceeding 1000 people per year or episode), particularly including wars, civil wars, riots, genocides and politicides.

  2. 2

    ENSO refers to the climate phenomenon El Niño/Southern Oscillation, which is a quasi-periodic variation in sea surface temperatures in the eastern part of the tropical Pacific Ocean, affecting atmospheric circulation patterns and hence (tele-)connected to many regions in the rest of the world.

  3. 3

    However, there are also solid arguments that in the long run and especially in the European case, war was positively related to innovation (Acemoglu and Robinson 2006, among others).

  4. 4

    Their numbers tell basically that a “five-percentage-point decline in lagged growth – which is somewhat <1 standard deviation in annual per capita growth – leads to a >12%-point increase in the incidence of civil war, an increase of nearly one-half of the average likelihood of conflict” (Miguel, Satyanath, and Sergenti 2004, 740). While their analysis was recently challenged methodologically (Ciccone 2011), they countered this attack and reaffirmed their results with the only concession that the first-stage relationship between rainfall and growth became weaker after 2000 (Miguel and Satyanath 2011), pointing to the relevance of structural shifts in this context.

  5. 5

    But connections are contingent and complex. In the context of cattle-raiding, for example, others find the opposite relationship (Witsenburg and Adano 2009; see also the mentioned special issue of the Journal of Peace Research). By applying a broader concept of conflict, Hendrix and Salehyan (2012) show that large deviations in rainfall result in increased social conflict, but whereas violent conflict is especially correlated to wetter years, non-violent is to drier ones.

  6. 6

    They are brave enough to conclude that “given the 11% of country-years in our panel that experience conflict, this increase corresponds to a 54% rise in the average likelihood of conflict across the continent. If future conflicts are on average as deadly as conflicts during our study period […] this warming-induced increase in conflict risk would result in a cumulative additional 393,000 battle deaths by 2030” (Burke et al. 2009, 20672).

  7. 7

    The authors restrict attention “to those studies able to make rigorous causal claims about the relationship between climate and conflict,” and are able to “identify, for the first time, commonalities across results that span diverse social systems, climatological stimuli, and research disciplines” (Hsiang, Burke, and Miguel 2013, 9).

  8. 8

    Which they did already in 2012, when the large scale compendium Climate Change, Human Security and Violent Conflict: Challenges for Societal Stability (Springer, Berlin) was published.

  9. 9

    This also holds for comparative case study evidence, i.e., case studies with compatible methodologies, which would also be welcome. This would allow achieving thicker descriptions of conflicts and climate change dynamics, which will result not only in better, more localized data (especially on institutions, on marginalized groups, and on actual climate change dynamics “on the ground”), but also in theories better grounded in actual realities.

The authors want to thank the editors, two anonymous referees and the participants of the Jan Tinbergen Peace Science Conference in Milan 2013 for various valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper. All remaining errors are our own.


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Published Online: 2013-12-03
Published in Print: 2013-12-01

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