Climate change and colonial history: a toxic combination

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Climate change and colonial history: a toxic combination

by Alex Randall

We need to understand the new research in context, writes Alex Randall.

New research shows there is a strong link between climate change and war. Also it shows it is more likely that countries with an ethnic mix of people have conflict. But these results probably give more information about what happens as a result of colonialism, not from ethnic diversity.

There is already a lot of research on climate change and conflict. The research often has opposite results.

What is the link between climate change and conflict?

You cannot answer this question in one study. There are hundreds of studies trying to find an answer. Some studies show that climate impacts lead to more violence. But some studies find no connection at all. Some studies found the opposite: the results of climate change reduced some kinds of violence.

So what happens when we look at all this research together? Does it show a strong connection between climate change and conflict or not?

It still isn’t clear.

In 2013, one group of researchers looked at all the research and their conclusion was that it showed a strong link: a hotter climate would lead to more conflict and violence.

But another group of researchers didn’t agree. They came to a different conclusion with a new mix of research and they found no significant link.

So the studies that say climate increases conflict are wrong?

No, that’s not true either. A lot of the research looks at specific kinds of violence, in specific locations. It often also looks at only one kind of climate impact. For example, one study found a strong link between rainfall changes and conflict over land in Brazil. Another study found the opposite in Kenya: years with not much rain were usually followed by peaceful times. Brazil and Kenya are different places, with different economies, governments and geographies. The climate changes have different effects. So it’s very possible that both studies are correct.

So what about this new research? Context is important.

And they included ethnicity in the study. Why?

The researchers found that countries with more ethnic mix are more at risk of conflict after natural disasters. Countries that are less ethnically mixed countries are less likely to have conflict.

They studied ethnicity to find out why some economies grow faster than others. The research found that countries with high levels of ‘fractionalisation’ have weaker economies. And also that their governments are usually less stable. The researchers suggest the reason for this. Colonialism.

In the 19th and 20th centuries European countries divided up large parts of Africa and the Middle East. We can see this from the very straight borders of many countries. These borders often divided people from their linguistic, religious and ethnic communities. The borders put people from different religions and linguistic groups in new administrative areas. When the countries became independent, there were many ethnic and linguistic minority groups. These groups wanted to be independent from the new independent state they were in, or to join the rest of their group again.

Trying to become independent or join up ethnic groups often caused armed conflict. And this violence is one of the reasons for slower growth and instability. The new countries are vulnerable because European countries controlled them for hundreds of years, used slavery, and left the countries very poor with weak institutions.

So, from this new research, it’s maybe not that climate change and ethnic diversity are a problem. But that climate change and colonial history together are the problem.

This is important because people can misunderstand the new research. They could understand it as an argument against ethnic diversity. Or as a reason to stop immigration. Or to keep different ethnic groups separate.

It is more accurate to see these new results as a result of Europe’s colonialism.

In the future the most useful studies on climate change and conflict will be ones that help us do something to stop conflict. This research will probably study special types of climate impacts, in very specific locations. This research that would help peacebuilding and stop conflict where and when it might be needed most as the climate changes.

Alex Randall works for the Climate and Migration Coalition. The coalition supports and protects people at risk of displacement linked to disasters and climate-change impacts. The coalition is run by UK charity Climate Outreach.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).