Comments on Mach et al, ‘Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict’, Nature (2019)

This new article in Nature is an interesting innovation. Authored by Katharine Mach and two other facilitators together with 11 leading scholars, the article uses an ‘expert elicitation’ methodology to assess the links between climate and conflict. Day-long individual interviews were conducted with each scholar; the whole expert group then met for a two-day deliberation; and the article presents a synthesis of their views. The aim of the article is to ‘systematically characterise’ the collective judgements of the 11 experts, and through that ‘to generate a comprehensive and balanced assessment of the relationship between climate and conflict risks.’

What do we learn from the study? We learn that the 11 ‘experts agree that climate has affected organized armed conflict within countries;’ that they also ‘agree that additional climate change will amplify conflict risk;’ and that it can be concluded from this that ‘climate variability and change shape the risk of organized armed conflict within countries.’ However, these ‘findings’ are neither particularly surprising – climate indisputably affects conflict in all sorts of ways: one need only consider the history of military planning and tactics to recognise this – nor particularly new.

Indeed, the main thing which I took from reading this article was how low and uncertain a conflict risk climate was judged to be. Collectively, the 11 experts ranked climate variability and/or change as only the 14th most influential conflict risk factor out of a basket of 16, and also judged it to be the risk factor over which there is most uncertainty (figure 3a). We also learn that there is ‘low confidence’ in understanding ‘the mechanisms through which climate affects conflict.’ A more accurate title for the article would surely have been: ‘Climate as an uncertain but probably relatively weak risk factor for armed conflict’.

All that said, my main concern with the article is methodological – in particular, with how its parameters and the selection of experts serve to limit the boundaries of permissible debate, and to produce (the appearance of) consensus. The focus of the article and the expert elicitation underpinning it is the impact of climate on the risk of ‘organised armed conflict within countries;’ consideration of individual-level violence and of inter-state conflicts is excluded. But in truth, the exclusions run far deeper than this. The focus on ranking abstracted ‘risk factors’ excludes all those approaches which would insist on analysing climate-conflict relations in a less positivist and more dialectical way. This focus also excludes consideration of historical changes in the significance of, and the relations between, these ‘factors’, and presumes that conflict can be sensibly studied through methodologically nationalist premises. The article presumes that analysis of the links between climate and conflict is sufficient to draw conclusions about anthropogenic climate change and conflict – a common fallacy within climate-conflict research (although there is brief mention of possible unintended consequences of actions relating to anthropogenic climate change, this seems rather an afterthought and is not integrated into the discussion of conflict risk). And it presumes that, when exploring climate-conflict links, one doesn’t need to bother to ask questions about the purposes, politics and interests which are structuring the terms of analysis.

The selection of experts reflects these various exclusions. The article’s 11 person expert group was selected, according to the authors, as ‘a sample of the most experienced and highly cited scholars on the topic, spanning relevant social science disciplines (especially political science, economics, geography and environmental sciences), epistemological approaches and diverse previous conclusions about climate and conflict.’ I have no doubt that the facilitators did indeed think long and hard about the composition of their expert group. However, in practice major problems remain. We can put to one side questions of gender and racial representation (all white, one female expert out of 11) as well as institutional location (all 11 experts being based in the US and Europe); while this doesn’t look particularly good, it isn’t the main issue. More concerning is what methodological and theoretical perspectives are represented, and which not. For, of the eight members of the expert group to have written extensively on climate and conflict (the other three experts are conflict but not climate-conflict researchers), all but a token one are essentially quantitative scholars. And with the near-total exclusion of qualitative input come a series of further exclusions – of political ecology, critical geopolitics, post-colonialism, feminism, constructivism, post-structuralism, and more – traditions which have each made extensive contributions to understanding environment-conflict and climate-conflict relations, and which all, in one way or another, question the parameters outlined above. The collective judgments as set out in this article would undoubtedly have been very different had such perspectives been represented.

Why is this important? It is important because this article – together with the many other reviews and syntheses of research on climate and conflict – are above all attempts at constructing the field of climate-conflict research, at helping to shape consensus, and at defining what counts as legitimate scholarship, and what does not. Unfortunately, there is a well-established pattern within climate-conflict research of qualitative and non-positivist approaches being excluded from consideration and debate. Review essays routinely map the field as if discourse analyses and political ecology research on the subject did not even exist. Citation practices follow the same pattern. A bogus semi-consensus is established – but only through acts of exclusion. This study mirrors and reproduces these unfortunate tendencies.

One last thing that really strikes me about this article is that it gives little sense of whether and how the exercise functioned as a dialogical process – including of what the participants learned from one another, and whether they changed any of their views. No doubt at least some of them did (I hope so!). But my sense is that the project was not structured to this end, with the openness in terms of framing and participation which dialogue ideally requires. Perhaps – and hopefully – this might be something for the future.