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Columbia Spectator Staff

Connections between civil conflicts and climate patterns are real, according to a recent Columbia study—confirming what scientists and conflict experts have speculated for years. Conducted through the School of International and Public Affairs, the study found that 21 percent of civil conflicts between 1950 and 2004 may have been influenced by climate factors. The study, published in the August issue of Nature, looked specifically at the effects of the weather pattern El Niño, which can cause droughts and other weather issues across roughly half the globe. The demand for answers, and immediate ones, lies in their real-world applications, as states like Somalia find themselves embroiled in violent conflict as drought and famine plague the area. The study was done by researchers Solomon Hsiang and Kyle Meng, participants in a joint Ph.D program with the Earth Institute, who drew upon 54 years of conflict and weather data to draw their conclusions. The study defined a civil conflict as one that caused at least 25 annual deaths—a term that conflict experts have struggled to find a common definition for in the past. John Mutter, director of SIPA's Ph.D program in sustainable development, said that this study is "the best that's been done in this area." He explained that research is underway to predict the implications of climate patterns and recommend action. This field of research is still rapidly developing, but he is optimistic. "Ideally, climate predictions would allow you to understand the amount of human aid that might be necessary," he said. Mark Cane, professor at Columbia's Earth Institute and a coauthor of the paper, noted that the study stands apart from previous ones. "There's a huge literature about climate impact on civilizations, but almost all of it is anecdotal," he said. When asked about local causes of conflict—food prices, for example—scientists agree that more research needs to be done. And Cane emphasized that climate alone cannot cause war. "You're going to get conflicts in places where there are fault lines in society," he said. The question, then, is what's behind the correlation. Halvard Buhaug, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, expressed two concerns about the study. First, he said, it shows that El Niño effects "take place in less than half a year. And it takes more than that, normally, to affect global patterns in trade." Second is the question of local weather patterns. "The puzzling thing about the Nature study is that they found that conflict risk is affected by El Niño, but not through local weather," Buhaug said. "In this particular case, one natural next step would be to look at the local level and to conduct interviews, to try to understand it on the ground level."