Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

H2020

CLIMCONFLICT — Result In Brief

Project ID: 709185
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.
Country: Ireland
Domain: Society

Understanding whether environmental conditions can provoke violence

Reduced access to resources brought on by human-induced climatic changes is regarded by many as a critical security issue. Understanding whether, and how, weather patterns have influenced conflict in the past can help shine a light on future flash points.
Understanding whether environmental conditions can provoke violence
Evidence that natural resource inequalities can trigger social stresses, that may then flare up into conflict, already exists. But however logical it is to make such a connection, the proposition of links between climate and conflict is contentious.

How far a medieval society’s coping strategies are stretched by extreme weather and its impact on food production and security, were considered by the CLIMCONFLICT project. “The degree to which climatic conditions may influence conflict remains under-researched,” says lead researcher Dr Francis Ludlow.

To identify and characterise the full range of possible links between climate and conflict, multiple climate parameters must be set against a broad range of conflict types: large- or small-scale, organised or spontaneous. “A critical challenge is to resolve the complex climate-conflict pathways underlying observed correlations, and to identify the social and economic contexts that can increase vulnerability to climatic changes, thereby heightening the risk of violence and conflict.”

A complex jigsaw

Applying approaches from historical climatology, the project aimed to reconstruct past climatic conditions using historical sources, and to examine how these conditions influenced society. The research looked at written evidence of the climatic impact of explosive volcanism preserved within medieval chronicles known as the Irish Annals. It also analysed tree-ring-based evidence of past climatic extremes. “We used the long lens of history to examine how humanity has influenced, and been influenced by, the environment.”

Dr Ludlow found that the Irish Annals themselves provide direct statements linking weather conditions to violence and conflict. In the year 1465, violence arose at least partly from scarcity-induced resource competition. The Annals of Connacht describe, “Great frost and snow and stormy weather, so that no herb grew in the ground and no leaf budded on a tree until the feast of St. Brendan [May 16], but a man, if he were stronger, would forcibly carry away the food from the priest in church…”

There are further points at which the texts imply some connection (e.g., between harsh weather and the raiding of churches in 1077). Similar examples include instances of internal migration or population displacement within medieval Ireland with suggestive links to extreme weather and/or famine.

The abundant recording in the Irish Annals of extreme precipitation, temperatures, windiness and associated impacts (social unrest, scarcity and famine, mass mortality) can therefore be put to good use. It can shine a light on the social dynamics which may underlie any observed climate-conflict associations. But despite its strengths, the reporting in the Irish Annals is not complete and can be complemented by data from natural archives.

Ring reading

The growth of Irish oaks is influenced by weather conditions, including temperatures and precipitation. However, in Ireland they are generally most sensitive to spring and summer precipitation (more specifically soil moisture). One particular period examined by the project using ring widths was between 728 and 748, during which the trees show a profound decrease in growth for the years 737 and 738. “This decrease is on a scale only rarely matched in the remainder of the first millennium,” Dr Ludlow explains.

“Despite the magnitude of the drought that can be inferred from the tree rings, and the fact that the Irish Annals often do register the occurrence of drought, there is no specific mention of weather conditions in these specific years.”

Dr Ludlow had to look to Britain to find written corroboration of the oaks, in the form of the description, “A great drought [which] rendered the land infertile,” for the year 737, as reported by a continuator of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

The Irish Annals may not mention the drought, but this does not mean that the texts are silent during these years. In the Annals of Ulster, the count of named (and hence elite) individuals identified as dying in conflict from 728 to 748 is generally low, with the exception of a striking increase in violent deaths in 738. “This,” says Dr Ludlow, “conspicuously matches the second consecutive spring-summer of severe drought identified through the independent evidence of the Irish oaks.”

Implications now

These findings are consistent with existing evidence of links between weather-related scarcity and increased (including violent) competition over scarcened resources in other regions and eras. “But,” questions Dr Ludlow, “is this merely a random coincidence in timing? And even if it is not random in this specific case, we still need to know whether droughts, or other extreme weather, systematically correspond with heightened violence and conflict throughout human history.”

He feels the way forward is clear: if we wish to answer such questions, there is a need to conduct statistical comparisons over multiple drought events; and to closely examine the underlying historical socioeconomic, cultural and political contexts to understand the mechanisms that may link extremes to any given social outcome. As Dr Ludlow says, “We need to understand why these outcomes may change through time and space, and to understand how past experiences may be relevant to us today.”

Keywords

CLIMCONFLICT, climate change, environment, resource scarcity, conflict, flash points, social outcomes
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