Friday, March 30, 2018

Refuting Nature's "straw man": the risk of "social determinism"

Our (with A/Prof Ben Kefford) short letter was published yesterday in Nature. It can be read here (open access)

Its original text contained mild criticism of the journal itself. This was removed, but you can read it below.

Climate and conflict: magnifying risks

Your editorial (Anonymous, 2018) about climate change and conflict was sub-titled “Many studies that link global warming to civil unrest are biased and exacerbate stigma about the developing world.” The same editorial stated, prominently, that “Climate change is never the sole cause of war, violence, unrest or migration”. However, your editorial did not make it clear that no papers make this assertion, which has been characterized as a “strawman”, easy to knock over.

To help inform rather than potentially inflame such an important discussion, the conceptualization that climate change is never the sole cause of conflict, but rather can act as a “risk multiplier”, influencer or co-factor is helpful (Bowles et al, 2015, Gleick, 2017). In this way of thinking, environmental and ecological factors interact with social determinants, including those that are economic, demographic and political, to produce phenomena such as migration, conflict and famine, which have complex and multiple causes.

Your article cites a persuasive study finding that an increased risk of riot in association with drought across all of sub-Saharan Africa for the period 1990-2011 (Almer et al, 2017).  The authors of this study comment that this region is unusually vulnerable to negative water shocks, including because of its high dependence on rain-fed agriculture and the scarcity of clean water. That is, in this case, a contributory risk to riots includes predominantly rain-fed agriculture, a risk then magnified by drought. Another likely co-factor is the dependency, in many locations, on food aid.

To exclude environmental, including ecological, factors from explanatory models of conflict could be called “social determinism”, a simplification as flawed as environmental determinism is alleged to be.

We do not argue that the literature does this, but the sub-heading and foregrounded text in your editorial may inadvertently create such an impression.


Almer, C., Laurent-Lucchetti, J. & Oechslin, M. Water scarcity and rioting: Disaggregated evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa. J Envtl Ecs Managt 86, 193-209 (2017).
Anonymous. Don’t jump to conclusions about climate change and civil conflict. Nature 554, 275-276 (2018).
Bowles, D. C., Butler, C. D. & Morisetti, N. Climate change, conflict, and health. J Roy Soc Med 108, 390-395 (2015). Gleick, P. H. Climate, water, and conflict: Commentary on Selby et al. 2017. Pol Geog 60, 248-250, (2017).