If you pick up the newspaper these days, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the headlines: historic wildfires, a deadly pandemic and an impending U.S. election unlike any in recent memory. When you take a step back, it seems a bit like the fabric of society is fraying. Climate change isn’t entirely responsible for any of these problems, but there is a growing body of literature suggesting that climate change shapes political and social stability.
Research has shown repeatedly that warmer temperatures and more extreme weather contribute to a slew of adverse outcomes: violent crime, political instability and the collapse of regimes, to name a few. This year is likely to be the first- or second-hottest year on record, and extreme weather and climate-related events have struck from coast to coast in the U.S., not to mention around the world, and so it’s worth asking: what role does climate change play in our current political instability?
It’s a controversial question. For years, many politicians and commentators shuddered when scientists or climate activists discussed climate change in relation to individual storms or wildfires, accusing them of politicizing disaster—and, in those cases, the link to climate change was relatively straightforward. The evidence connecting climate change and political stability has been less obvious, but is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore. Warmer temperatures and extreme weather exacerbate social stress and worsen economic outcomes; these in turn affect political behavior. A landmark 2013 paper in the journal Science found that a change in temperature of one standard deviation was associated with a 2.3% increase in interpersonal conflict rates and a 13.2% increase in the rate of intergroup conflict. By 2050, temperatures are expected to rise by two standard deviations in most places across the globe and by as much as four standard deviations in some places.