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By Candice Bernd
September 13, 2011
Caption : A new study finds that civil conflicts may be connected to climate patterns—and as the planet heats, the trend could grow.     

Climate change could have more effects on the planet than just rising sea levels and higher temperatures—it could be promoting civil strife and wars in areas around the tropics.

A new study in the journal Nature found that the percentage of civil conflicts doubles during El Niño, a regular climate event that warms up the Pacific Ocean and surrounding tropics about every five years. The connection between El Niño and civil wars, as well as a link between the cooling period of La Niña and times of relative peace, is so strong that researchers believe it can be considered partly a cause of civil strife.

Another major factor? Poverty.

Many nations impacted by El Niño—such as Australia—don’t see the same rise in conflicts. It’s an issue researchers suspect might only worsen with time.

As food scarcity continues to be impacted by the drying out of arable farm land and the effects of globalization in an age of austerity, the poorest countries in the tropics will continue to feel the hunger and the heat. 

“Climate scientists will say the future world looks like it’s more El Niño-like, and that sort of colloquially means that the global distribution of warming and drying looks a lot like the global distribution of warming and drying we see when an El Niño happens,” said Soloman Hsiang, lead author of the study andan international affairs and environmental policy researcher at Princeton University.

Hsiang said the climate variation El Niño could look much different under a global warming scenario, but that scientific consensus on what that would look like has not yet been reached.

But the Dutch Meteorological Institute, the Max-Planck Institute, and Matt Collins of University of Reading point out that “one common trait among some climate models is the indication that a global warming may result in a more a general El Niño-type average state,” according to RealClimate.

“We’re careful about taking our results and extrapolating them on future changes because obviously future changes are very different,” Hsiang said, adding that the link to civil unrest, however, is quite strong. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario where we don’t have violence.”

While it appears the warming and drying period of El Niño does have a discernible effect on violence in the tropics, more is coming to light on how economic policies, such as the new global land grab, have also caused food riots across many countries in Africa.

Populations migrate as climate conditions continue to worsen and dry out usable land and water resources. The remaining land is increasingly being bought up in large swaths by foreign investors seeking food security in the aftermath of the 2008 food crises. It’s a problem that is leaving many still searching for food.

There are a host of variables in the climate change equation, and no matter how you put them together, they all seem to point toward an unstable future—one characterized by war and desolation. Unless we do something about it.

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