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Climate Variability and Security Threats

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - CLIMSEC (Climate Variability and Security Threats)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-06-30

Climate change represents the greatest challenge of mankind. Among the many foreseeable impacts, increased prevalence of violent conflict and disintegrating societies are the most devastating, although robust knowledge on such outcomes has been lacking. CLIMSEC set out to tackle these research challenges head on. It asked: How does climate variability affect dynamics of political violence?

The overarching research question was addressed through the accomplishment of four key objectives: (1) Investigate how food security impacts of climate variability affect political violence; (2) Investigate how economic impacts of climate variability affect political violence; (3) Conduct short-term forecasts of political violence in response to food and economic shocks; and (4) Develop a comprehensive, testable theoretical model of security implications of climate variability.

To achieve these objectives, CLIMSEC invested in advances along theoretical as well as analytical avenues. Central in this endeavor was conceptual and empirical disaggregation, new data collection, and improved research designs, identifying and evaluating plausible causal processes that act at multiple temporal and spatial scales, involve various types of actors, and potentially lead to very different forms of outcomes depending on the context.

A major result from this research is evidence of a highly context-sensitive nature of the climate-conflict relationship. Notably, armed conflict risk is little affected by climatic extremes if other, more central drivers of conflict are absent. The implication of the nuanced and conditional climate effect is a vicious circle, where well-functioning societies are largely resilient to climate-related hazards whereas fragile and dysfunctional social systems become even less likely to break out of the violence-and-conflict trap. This endogenous relationship is currently poorly understood and incompletely accounted for in extant climate change impact assessments.
CLIMSEC has fostered a series of connected research streams over the project period:

* A PhD project was dedicated to investigating the conditions under which climatological disasters and extreme weather events affect the risk and dynamics of political instability. A major undertaking within this PhD project has been the geocoding of nearly 40,000 disaster locations from the EM-Dat international disasters database. These data, which were published in the journal Scientific Data and are now hosted at NASA’s SEDAC data portal.

* CLIMSEC has also invested considerable time and resources to upgrading the widely used PRIO-GRID spatial data framework originally conceived by the PI. Aside from a greater selection of gridded time-series indicators, this update included launching a new user-friendly data portal and visualization tool. Moreover, CLIMSEC has contributed to a major expansion of the Urban Social Disorder (USD) dataset. In the new version just completed, the event dataset now has true global coverage, uniquely constituting the only available catalogue of political disturbance events in major cities worldwide over the past 50 years.

* At the time of reporting, the CLIMSEC project has produced 26 peer-reviewed articles, 3 chapters in anthologies, 2 PhD theses, and a large number of scientific presentations. Additional publications are expected over the coming year. Some of these publications have appeared in top interdisciplinary journals, such as Nature, Nature Communications, Scientific Data, and PNAS, whereas many others have appeared in leading disciplinary journals. The PI also co-edited a journal special issue on ‘Security implications of climate change’ in 2021. Substantively, this body of research shows that (a) the general climate effect on contemporary armed conflict remains generally weak and highly context sensitive; (b) climatic conditions are of little importance in predicting migration to Europe, compared to main drivers, despite weather extremes being a major cause of internal displacement; (c) development aid can be an efficient means to reduce social vulnerability to climate change; and (d) the future evolution of socioeconomic development will be decisive for global peace and security in the era of climate change.

* The project has actively disseminated key research findings outside traditional academic channels. For example, the PI is an invited participant in the European Commission / Joint Research Centre’s work on the Global Conflict Risk Index. The PI has organized an internal seminar at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, and a similar dialogue has been established with the UN World Food Programme. Moreover, the PI is serving as Lead Author in the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC. This is a remarkable recognition of the PI’s academic standing. Lastly, the PI and team have been actively involved in dialogue meetings and briefings with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform their work to promote climate security on the agenda of the UN Security Council.

* In terms of outreach to the general public, the project has set up a specific blog for popular dissemination of findings and knowledge on climate and conflict ( The PI and team also has been visible in the media, especially through the publication of op-eds in national news papers and popularized articles in major international outlets (e.g. Washington Post’s Monkey Cage; Political Violence at a Glance).
(1) The actor-oriented approach of von Uexkull et al. (2016), with careful attention to the role of the political context, is clearly beyond the state of the art, as evidenced by the exceptionally high citation rate. An expanded global follow-up study was published in a leading disciplinary outlet earlier this year (Buhaug et al., JoP 2021).

(2) A study on the importance of local climatic conditions on triggering asylum migration, relative to prevailing political, socioeconomic, and security contexts via innovative use of machine-learning tools is another example of research beyond the state of the art (Schutte et al., Nature Communications 2021).

(3) A novel conceptual framework denoting a vicious circle between vulnerability, impact, and conflict (Buhaug & von Uexkull, ARER 2021) represents an important theoretical contribution that pushes the field’s collective understanding how whether, when, and how climatic conditions influence conflict risk.
Drought effect on ethnic conflict across contexts
Predictors of asylum migration (Schutte et al. 2021)
Map of marginalized ethnic group settlements
Map of vulnerability and conflict event location
Expert judgement of most important drivers of conflict