Science! and Violence

Image of Maya temple
This file photo establishes both our historic and multi-cultural bona fides. Therefore, everything we tell you is true.

Studies have been done. They say something.

Hot and bothered: Climate change amplifies violence, study says

Before reading the article, let’s speculate:

– “Climate Change” here means Hot. This is based on the risky assumption that the headline means anything at all.

– It would seem we are going to claim either 1) that hotter temperatures correlate to violence, in which case we can conclude that people are more violent near the equator than near the poles; or 2) that when the temperatures increase, people get more violent, in which case Summer is the most violent season of the year.

Now, let’s check it out:

As the planet’s climate changes, humans everywhere should brace for a spike in violence, a new study suggests. Civilization as we know it may even be at risk.

The dramatic finding comes from a synthesis of several dozen studies that examine the relationship between climate and conflict. The studies cover most regions of the world and points in time over the past 10,000 years. Across all, the findings are consistent: changes in temperature or rainfall amplify violence.

“As long as future populations continue to respond to climatic events the same way … we should probably expect an amplification of interpersonal and intergroup conflict moving forward,” Solomon Hsiang, a public policy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, told NBC News.

The underlying mechanism for the causal link is unclear, he and colleagues note in the paper published Thursday in Science. Theories range from the psychological effect of hot temperatures making people testy to drought destroying crops, which erodes local economies and raises unemployment.

So, we have a meta-study showing that lots of other studies have shown a correlation of changing temperatures and violence over the last 10,000 years.  We’re not sure why this is so, so we are free to speculate: drought and unemployment.

Now, the well-educated products of modern schooling will no doubt get the right answer: Something Must Be Done! But us old-school pedants might point out a couple things:

– History starts maybe 6,000 years ago. How we arrive at violence levels correlated to temperature any time before 6,000 is an intractable problem;

– I think I once read that the first war ever mentioned in an historical document was an attack by one agrarian group on another neighboring group because the first group’s crops had failed, and they chose war over starvation. Be that as it may, violence resulting from drought is certainly plausible. But other causes of war seem to be only at best tenuously connected to temperature. There’s a strong current running through history of leaders and politicians starting wars when there arose a worrisome number of young men with time on their hands. Better killing an ‘enemy’ there than making trouble here. a growing population might be caused, I suppose, by a string of better than usual harvests (or improved technology, or some other cause.)  These are in addition to the usual suspects of greed, revenge, empire, egomania and lust – things that, on the surface, don’t seem too tied to temperature.

– Even over the last 6,000 years, it is difficult to imagine the kind of data you’d need to make this anything other than untethered speculation being available. Over the last couple hundred years, perhaps, you could tie homicides, for example, to temperature, as there are records of both kept in many places.  But concluding, for example, that hunter-gatherers who left no written records and little enough evidence of their mere existence were more violent at some times rather than others looks like sheer fantasy.

– while the ancient and even prehistoric human worlds were no doubt well acquainted with drought, the concepts of ‘economies’ and ‘unemployment’ a pretty anachronistic before maybe 3,000 years ago anywhere, an into very recent times in some places. In a subsistence culture, everybody’d busy. I don’t get violent because I don’t have a job, or because there’s depressed demand for labor in the gazelle hunting sector. I might get violent rather than starve, however.

Then it goes on:

The research, he (Hsiang) noted, is intended as a rigorous approach to the question of what — if any — role climate plays in human conflict in order to advance the debate beyond the question of a link to the development of policies that can break the linkage.

“The purpose of the study is ambitious and good,” Halvard Buhaug, the research director at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, told NBC News in an email. “Unfortunately, it falls short of its target and the sweeping conclusion does not hold water.”

The main problem here, and in the whole study? That the purpose of the study isn’t to discover the truth – it’s to move policy-making forward. The mask has slipped.

Among his criticisms is wide disagreement among the studies analyzed: A third, he noted, fail to show a statistically significant effect of climate on conflict and those that do disagree on the relationship — too much rain, or not enough, as increasing the risk of conflict, for example.

What’s more, he said, the paper lacks case studies of real conflicts from modern times that were caused, at least in part, by climate extremes.

“If a general and strong causal link has been established beyond reasonable doubt, as the authors claim, I would expect them to be able to point to at least a handful of recent armed conflicts where unusual fluctuations in climatic conditions played a central role,” he said.

Yeah, some modern case studies would be good. Also, I can hear the heads of both Ye Olde Statistician and the Statistician to the Stars exploding: A public policy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley is looking for a statistically significant *proof* for their thesis? Hmmm – could we have an independent statistical expert maybe look that over, preferably prior to publishing and the hysteria-generation machinery kicks in? Guess not. Oh, well. For example:

The team uses a measure of how different a climate is relative to normal, called standard deviation, to compare different regions of the world, which have different climates.

A standard deviation of one, for example, corresponds to a month in New York that is 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal or a year in Nigeria that is 0.7 degrees F warmer than normal. This translates to a 4 percent rise in interpersonal violence, such as domestic abuse, and a 14 percent jump in intergroup conflict, such as civil war.

Boy, that sure sounds scientifilicious, especially from a guy whose job is public policy research, in the sense of moving such policy ‘forward’ in the ineffably undefinable progressive way. A more cynical mind might wonder: Assume he’d found no connection, yet insisted on blowing the horn on publication – how secure do you think his job would be in Berkeley?

By 2050, most parts of the world are expected (by whom? Same people who predicted the last 15 years of flat temperatures? No?)  to warm by 2 to 4 standard deviations. “That suggests that we could potentially have a dramatic increase in violence, particularly in the form of intergroup conflict … it could be in excess of 50 percent in some regions,” Hsiang said.

So, feet to the fire: 50 years out, it’s unlikely Mr. Hsiang will be working or even alive. Even apart from the Ehrlich Affect, wherein being wrong doesn’t affect your career provided you’re wrong saying what your keepers want you to say, this is an utterly risk-free prediction, career-wise. If things are both hotter and more violent in 20-30 years, this dude may be polishing up his Nobel speech.  But can we expect a retraction if not?

Such intergroup conflicts underpinned by changes in climate have been linked to the collapse of civilizations around the world, including the Maya between the 8th and 9th centuries and China’s Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, which experienced prolonged droughts at the time of their demise.

“Many populations in the modern world,” Hsiang noted, “actually exhibit a similar level of economic development that those historical populations had at the time of their collapse.”

As a professional salesperson, I admire and sympathize with Mr. Hsiang’s quest for ROI – Return on Investment. whenever you are selling something new to  a customer, they are likely to ask: is the money you want me to spend sufficiently dwarfed by the money I’m going to save? Hey, you don’t want to end up like the Mayans or the Ming Dynasty, do you? why, the Mayans would still be offering human sacrifices to this day if only they’d invested in controlling the climate a thousand years ago! No, really!

Speaking of retractions, appears I was only .5 for 2, or 25% correct – still better than Erlich or Gore, but nothing to be proud of. No discussion of geographic or seasonal violence (not sure why not), and that heat AND drought make people violent. Raymond Chandler was prescient.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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