John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Climate Change and Conflict Triggers

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
July 3, 2013

A Kenyan woman fetches water from a gully in Nyakach district, an area where massive land degradation has been exacerbated by livestock grazing and a rapidly increasing population, in western Kenya June 28, 2005. (Antony Njuguna/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

Recent protests in Turkey and Brazil are being lionized in the financial press as products of rising prosperity in “developing” countries, where economic growth grates against stagnant institutions. Yet simultaneously another powerful force is also engendering violent social unrest and revealing institutional deficiencies: climate change.

Ohio State University professor Geoffrey Parker argues in his new book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, that “the experience of the seventeenth century shows that long-term turbulence and unreliability of the weather inevitably produces calamitous outcomes for humanity.” Civil unrest, conflict, disease, government collapse, and commercial disruption are among the dire consequences.

For Parker, close study of the past, of how governments and people coped with climatic catastrophe in previous centuries, can yield valuable lessons for dealing with such disasters today. But “denial…the commonest human reaction to environmental catastrophe,” is an obstacle.

“The worsening droughts, desiccation, and desertification in equatorial Africa over the past forty years have caused massive migrations, famines, and wars that resemble those of the mid-seventeenth century; yet the rest of the world does virtually nothing,” Parker wrote in an article five years ago. Climate change, he says we want to believe, is not happening yet, or at least not to us.

But in Africa, its effects are undeniable and likely to dwarf those of “booming” middle classes. According to a 1990 paper by Ahmadu Bello University professor Sabo Bako, members of the Maitatsine sect, active in northern Nigeria in the 1980s and described as Boko Haram’s “forerunner,” included victims of ecological disasters that left them in “a chaotic state of absolute poverty and social dislocation in search of food, water, shelter, jobs, and means of livelihood.”  Climatic factors are cited in analyses of Boko Haram’s emergence and, in the view of one Nigerian security official, “religious violence” in the country is strongly correlated with environmental stress.

Terrorism and jihadist ideology dominate analysis of groups such as Boko Haram. But Professor Parker suggests a different approach: rewind the tape of history as a means of bringing to light 350 year old coping strategies that could help manage what looks to be the world’s coming General Crisis. Such strategies are needed in Africa today.

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  • Posted by Chike

    As the writer of this post implied, “climate change” was a contributory factor to events like the French Revolution.

    I also think that if we go further down history, “climate change” was partly responsible for the overthrow of empires & the establishment of new orders – that is history & we shouldn’t attempt to change it.

    There is an established order in Nigeria, it is corrupt, very resistant to change & seems to be very established. The only thing that can overthrow this established order is a “system perturbation” – if “climate change” triggers that, well and good.

    A lot of scholarly literature & US foreign policy is focused on keeping things the way they are – even if the established order is unsustainable. Hence the focus on “failed states” – (but France was a failed state prior to its revolution).

    It is clear that a lot of the established order in Africa is unsustainable – artificial colonial constructs called “nations”, climate change, resource constraints etc.

    So why build a policy on trying to keep things the way they are?

  • Posted by Fred Colbourne

    To apply lessons from the 16th century to modern Africa the professor should have taken into account NASA’s definition of the Little Ice Age:

    Little Ice Age was the cold period between AD 1550 and AD 1850 with 3 very cold intervals: beginning about 1650, 1770, the latest around 1850.

    Thus the 17th century, the period of the professor’s study, was a particularly cold period, whereas we have nearly recovered from the last particularly cold period around 1850 with probably one or two degrees Celsius yet to go before we reach the Modern Climate Optimum..

    Nobody doubts that cold periods cause economic stress. And nobody really disputes that warm periods of the past were economically prosperous. We have lately been reading about the greening of Africa because of higher CO2 and higher rainfall.

    Nigeria extends from about 5 degrees north to 12 degrees north, definitely in the tropics neat the latitude least affected by either global warming or cooling. [The inter-tropical convergence zone is now centered about 4 degrees north latitude.]

    Nigeria has many ethnic groups and much ethnic conflict. but probably no more now than before the colonial period. So what is the professor comparing the present to? The peaceful colonial period? Pax Britannica?

    I wonder if the professor has spent much time in Africa? In Nigeria? In other countries where there is conflict among ethnic groups?

    My observations are based on work in 15 countries during the last 50 years, including Nigeria and two other African countries. I am now working in a South Asian country having worked in Southeast Asian earlier in the year. In all of these countries there is ethnic and religious strife and class struggles, not of the Marxist kind but more ordinary grievances.

    My opinions based on decades of observation are informed by study leading to an M.A. in economic geography in 1963 and an M.S. Earth science in 2005.

    I expect therefore that if substantial evidence existed that climate change is the cause of conflict in Nigeria and other African countries, I would have learned of it. If so, I would be inclined to believe that the professor’s conclusion have some merit. I do not.

    I prefer to apply Occam’s razor. We should not multiply theories and causes beyond what is needed to explain the observations.

    Poor governance, power struggles among ethnic groups, capture of power by elites, rampant corruption and misuse of public funds and national resources, these are what characterize public life in Nigeria. What more do you need to explain conflict?

    In my opinion it is completely absurd to conclude on the basis of existing evidence that climate change is a significant factor in conflict in Nigeria.

    If the Earth cools by two degrees Celsius, as it did during the Little Ice Age, and we witness widespread crop failures and the spread of epidemic disease on the scale of the 16th century, then the professor might have a laboratory to test his theories.

    But let’s enjoy the Modern Climate Optimum while it lasts and not give too much credence to this sort of speculation..

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