New study connects climate’s rising temps to armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa

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CU-Boulder Professor John O’Loughlin led a research team that assessed more than 78,000 armed conflicts between 1980 and 2012 in the Sahel region of Africa – a semi-arid belt just south of the Saharan Desert that spans about 3,000 miles and more than a dozen countries from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans.

The team was looking for links between armed conflicts and temperature and rainfall anomalies, as well as assessing other causes of violence in the Sahel. “We found a clear signal that higher temperatures in the Sahel over time does increase the risk of conflict,” O’Loughlin said.

John O'Loughlin, Ph.D.

Professor John O’Loughlin

The new research follows a 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study led by O’Loughlin that indicated the risk of human conflict in East Africa from 1990 to 2009 increased somewhat with hotter temperatures and dropped a bit with higher precipitation.

That study, which charted about 26,000 instances of conflict, also showed socioeconomic, political and geographic factors played a larger role in armed conflicts than climate change.

For the new study the research team divided the African continent into thousands of geographic grid cells, each about 6,214 square miles (10,000 square kilometers), examining them individually for both conflict and climate data, said O’Loughlin, also a faculty research associate at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Sciences.

A paper on the subject appears this week in PNAS. The study was co-authored by CU-Boulder postdoctoral researcher Andrew Linke and University of Alaska Anchorage Assistant Professor Frank Witmer, a former CU-Boulder graduate student who received his doctorate under O’Loughlin. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the study.


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