Ascribing violence to extreme weather and climate change risks anchoring a modern form of environmental determinism.
In his book Civilization and Climate, Ellsworth Huntington (1876–1947) noted1 that “Almost any American or European who has travelled or resided within the tropics will confess that he has occasionally flown into a passion, and perhaps used physical violence, under circumstances which at home would merely have made him vexed.” This begs the question — why is there no violent conflict when severe droughts, heavy floods or hot temperatures hit rich countries. One reason is that high levels of social and political stability exist in comparatively developed countries: farmers' crops fail, but they have insurance; property is damaged, but recovery centres are available to house victims; the injured are treated in hospitals; state agencies rush to assist. When disasters strike truly destitute societies with low levels of social stability, it compounds already poor governance, economic marginalization and substantial environmental vulnerabilities.
Some studies in environmental security are in danger of promulgating a modern form of environmental determinism by suggesting that climate conditions directly and dominantly influence the propensity for violence among individuals, communities and states. For example, increased temperatures have recently been shown to be correlated with more violence and decreased temperatures with less violence2, 3, 4, leading to the claim that climatic anomalies are linked to social conflict at all scales and across all major regions of the world. The implication is that poor people act violently for natural reasons. However, such de-politicized analyses remove violence from its local, social and political contexts, and reduce conflict to an immediate and unmediated function of physical, biological and physical–geographical signals. Instead, the impression is given that environmental conditions determine conflict occurrence, type and rate, in line with an environmental determinist perspective that has been widely discredited as a lens for academic research about social instability. We caution against a renewed environmental determinism in the study of a climate–conflict link.