In March, the Trump Administration released a new budget proposal that would cut funding to the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development by 28 percent. The proposal also reduces funding to the United Nations for ongoing climate change efforts. At the same time, the White House is publicly considered withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, with a final decision anticipated any day. Critics both outside the administration and within have pointed to the drawbacks of these moves, but the sum of the policy changes could have an even greater impact than the individual parts.
New research results published in the Journal of Peace Research suggest that reducing U.S. development and governance assistance to foreign countries while simultaneously reducing U.S. – and potentially global – action on climate change risks creating a perfect storm for future unrest.
Our study looks at the impact of climate change on violent unrest – including, for instance, violent demonstrations, riots, and the like. As previous scholars have done, we found that climate-related shocks to the price and supply of food significantly increase the risk of violence. Unlike previous scholars, we found that climate shocks have a greater impact in some countries than in others.
The most vulnerable countries are those that are relatively poor with weak political institutions and greater reliance on agriculture. These conditions create a permissive environment in which droughts or sudden increases in international food prices are readily translated into violent unrest. Less vulnerable countries – those with stronger political institutions, greater wealth, and more imports – can better weather the storm that droughts or food price fluctuation create. Indeed, we find that a country’s vulnerability has a bigger impact on the probability of violent unrest than the intensity or frequency of food shocks.
Kenya and Ghana
The divergent experiences of Kenya and Ghana during the 2000s illustrates our point. Between 2003 and 2004, a severe drought typical of the kind extreme weather that is more likely under climate change hit Kenya. A similar drought also struck Ghana in 2007. Both severely affected food availability.
The droughts fomented grievances, both new and pre-existing, within each country. Yet Kenya experienced more widespread violent unrest than Ghana because it was more vulnerable to food shortages. Kenya’s GDP per capita was below the median value for African states and the population was more than triple the median, leaving the government with less capacity per capita to respond to exogenous shocks. By contrast, Ghana was in a stronger position to marshal state resources to mitigate the negative consequences of the drought because Ghana’s GDP per capita was much higher and its population smaller.
Our research underscores the fact that politics is a complex system: the impact of environmental phenomena and food scarcity is mediated through social, economic, and political institutions and dynamics. A country with a large population and less productivity, like Kenya, will have a harder time adapting to food shocks than a country with a smaller population and more productivity, like Ghana. This indirect pathway underscores the importance of understanding the role of state capacity and vulnerability in mediating the link between environmental factors and social outcomes. Without appropriately addressing this relationship, it is difficult to determine when or under what conditions environmental shocks will lead to violent unrest.
An Indirect Pathway
Indeed, numerous studies have addressed the links between environmental degradation and/or food scarcity on the one hand and the incidence of violence and potentially civil war on the other. Yet results so far have been mixed. While there are numerous possible explanations for these discrepant results, one of the primary culprits is simply that the links between environmental shocks, the onset of food scarcity, and violence are indirect.
We pulled the different strands of the indirect pathway together in two ways in this research.
First, we recognized that both food shocks and state vulnerability are multidimensional phenomena that do not lend themselves to straightforward measurement through a single metric. As a result, we accounted for numerous dimensions of each phenomenon.
We modeled food shocks as arising from the combination of environmental factors (including rainfall or the lack thereof), temperature, and the international price of food, including sudden increases in that price. With respect to the vulnerability of states, we examined state characteristics related both to their susceptibility to food shocks (the likelihood that states will be negatively affected by food shocks in the first place) and their ultimate resilience in the face of such shocks (meaning their institutional capacity to manage the consequences). Accordingly, we took into account a host of factors including a country’s dependence on agricultural production, its imports, the coherence of its political institutions, wealth, and more.
Second, we assessed the outbreak of violent unrest in a country as resulting from the combination of both food shocks and state vulnerability. The presence of either factor, in isolation, may have some impact on whether we are likely to observe violent unrest. However, the highest risk of violent unrest occurs in those situations in which food shocks are all but certain and states are highly vulnerable.
Investment and Resilience
Our results suggest that climate-related food shocks are important catalyzers for violent unrest in Africa. They also suggest that state vulnerability substantially shapes the relationship between food insecurity and violence. They emphasize, as other studies have, the dangerous ramifications that climate change can have in vulnerable areas of the world.
Moreover, because our results demonstrate that vulnerability is a multidimensional phenomenon, they suggest that counteracting the worst consequences of climate-induced food scarcity will require a composite approach, comprising initiatives to stabilize domestic regimes and investments in “green growth” policies aimed at increasing economic growth while also fostering resilience to climate shocks. These strategies can boost the wealth of the state and provide the government with a greater capacity to respond to shocks in the future, while simultaneously reducing the likelihood of negative environmental impacts.
As one of the major producers of greenhouse gas emissions – and the largest historically – the United States is in a unique position to lead the way on both paths by renewing its commitment to the Paris Accord and using its aid programs to strategically reduce vulnerabilities. While the violence-related effects of food shortages may be more prominent beyond U.S. borders, the broader consequences of climate change can hardly be confined.