Is El Niño driving civil wars?

Russ Steele

The Earth Instttute at Columbia University, recently published a study that ties El Niño events to tropical conflicts.

In the first study of its kind, researchers have linked a natural global climate cycle to periodic increases in warfare. The arrival of El Niño, which every three to seven years boosts temperatures and cuts rainfall, doubles the risk of civil wars across 90 affected tropical countries, and may help account for a fifth of worldwide conflicts during the past half-century, say the authors. The paper, written by an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, appears in the current issue of the leading scientific journal Nature.

In recent years, historians and climatologists have built evidence that past societies suffered and fell due in connection with heat or droughts that damaged agriculture and shook governments.

Do you remember the Drought Clock that was developed by Dr John Wheeler which is referenced here and is discussed in detail at the Cycles Research Institute, who had this to say about Dr Wheeler and his research on the climate conflict connection:

Professor Raymond P. Wheeler (University of Kansas) compiled 20 centuries of historical records, and concluded from his studies that there exists a most important 100-year-cycle of climatic changes that influences human affairs in a profound manner.

The cycle occurs in four distinct phases, which are descriptive of worldwide conditions rather than specific areas. The four phases are disturbed by secondary leads and delays — as much as 10 years — in isolated and widely separated areas.Prof. Wheeler stated:

“The climatic curve is intended to represent — as far as one curve can — the weather trend in the world as a whole at any one time. The curve has no absolute significance. The meaning of the curve at any one time is relative to the pattern of the 100-year old cycle as a whole.”

The 100-year weather cycle and its phases are not of precisely equal duration. The cycle can contract to 70 years or expand to 120. The cycle is divided into a warm and a cold phase, each of which has a wet and dry period. Because people are affected by weather, the cycles of weather produce similar patterns of behavior and events in history during the same phases of the century-long weather cycle. The phases are: (1) Cold-Dry, (2) Warm-Wet, (3) Warm-Dry, and (4) Cold-Wet. We are now in a cold-dry phase, which will prevail until about 2000 A.D.


“Three main facts pertain to the rise and fall of governments, that, all through the investigation, were so invariable and their relationship to climate so precise as to challenge any attempt at explanation in general terms:

“First, there were the occurrences of Golden Ages, the rise of strong governments under superior leaders, the outburst of international wars on climatic upswings from long cold periods into the warm-wet phase of the climatic cycle.

“Second, the decline, onset of decadence, the growing excesses of centralized government, the emergence of dictators, tyranny, fanaticism, communism, and socialism, as the warm epoch continued, and as temperatures and dryness increased.

“Third, the occurrence of civil wars, rebellions, and revolutions, the origin and growth of democratic institutions and individualism, during cold periods… No law of chance can explain the fact that undemocratic trends are invariably associated with the warmer climatic phases, and democratic trends with the colder phases. No law of chance can explain why international wars so consistently predominate on the warm side and civil wars on the cold. Relationship so consistent, universal and precise point directly to a causal factor or set of causal factors.”  [Emphasis added]

According to Dr Wheeler we are entering the Cold-Dry phase of the 100-year weather cycle. He defined the 100 year cycle as ranging from 70 to 120 years. Even at 120 years, we are simply off the cycle, at about 136 years.

While the Earth Institute found a correlation between El Niño warming and civil conflict between 1950-2009. Dr. Wheeler also found correlations between climate and civil conflict, but his investigation was over a much longer period of time. He found that civil conflict occured during cool dry periods, not warm dry periods.

The question is, are any of these correlations by Dr. Wheeler or the Earth Institute real, or imagined? If you look at short enough periods, it possible to find correlations with just about anything. We now have some historical contex for Dr Wheels Dought Index, we are cooling,  and have been for 10 or more years, yet we are not in the middle of a long term cool dry period.  Yes, Texas and the South East and parts of Africa have been in drought for several years and with the La Niña strengthening, this drought can continue for some time.

The discord between the Earth Institute finding and Dr. Wheeler would indicate there needs to be more analyis of the Drought Index and the Earth Institute claims. It is going to be an interesting winter.


2 thoughts on “Is El Niño driving civil wars?

  1. sean August 26, 2011 / 11:39 am

    Of course there is a connection. You have have a warm PDO that results in 2x as many El Nino events as La Nina. That leads to a bit of gentle warming where scientists take a weak warming trend (that’s cyclical) and turn in into an exponential temperature trend with clever computer modeling. Opportunistic agribusiness interests come up with a plan to turn food in to fuel to save us from the dreaded computed temperature trend, driving the price up of basic food commodities. People in poor countries suddenly find it almost impossible to eat any more leading to riots in the streets and civil war (Arab Spring?) Natural trend -> sloppy science -> opportunists -> high prices-> civil war.

  2. Russ August 26, 2011 / 8:39 pm

    Interesting! In both cases, the warm case and the cool case, the civil strife was over food. When you cannot feed your children, you will go to war over the oppressor that is denying your children food. It has been that way since the beginning of man kind. We will see more conflict over food in the coming century.

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