Will climate change really lead to more civil war?

A few weeks ago several researchers from UC Berkley, including the impressive development economist Ted Miguel, published a study connecting a rise in temperature with the incidence and onset of civil war in Sub-Saharan Africa. You can find the paper here.

Last week the Times, the BBC, many other news outlets, dozens of blogs and climate change activists have been reporting the link and touting the paper’s claim that climate change will lead to a “54% increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030.”

I looked over the paper behind the result, and found that, while the study is interesting and well thought out, there are several reasons that the conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.
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More hardcore poverty porn, now with landmines

MSF have done it again. I’ve already discussed how these ads play to stereotypes and quite effectively use the medium to envoke the “right” emotions. See for yourself:

Common themes between this and their original ad “Boy” are pain, rape, and war. My prescription is the same.

The dangers of hot issues

How would we at aidthoughts link HIV/AIDS and climate change in six degrees or less? HIV/AIDS is a major health crisis in Malawi. Ranil and Matt used to work in Malawi. Ranil and Matt both share a love for awful b-movies. Kevin bacon once starred in a film called Temors, about worm-like monsters called graboids which attack people from underground. Tremors is, of course, an allegory for climate change.

How would we more plausibly link HIV/AIDS and climate change in six degrees or less? HIV/AIDS is a major health crisis in Malawi. Ranil and Matt used to work in Malawi. Ranil and Matt both share a love for awful b-movies. Kevin Bacon once starred in the awful b-movie "Temors", about worm-like monsters called graboids which attack people from underground. Tremors is of course a rather deep allegory for climate change.

In an unabashed attempt to cash in on two advocacy areas at the same time, UNFPA has just released a report linking climate change to HIV/AIDS. Whenever the global development agenda is dominated by “hot” issues, agencies and think-tanks have a direct incentive to play six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon and tie their work in directly with one of those issues. Why? It provides justification for the work, and hopefully diverts resources to their given cause. What was the hot issue of the past eight years? HIV/AIDS. What’s the new hot issue? Climate change!

This isn’t the only reason why advocacy centred around hot topics is a bad idea: when single-button issues dominate the discourse, we’re much more likely to misallocate resources. When we should be talking about improving health and education systems, we end up parceling up these complex problems into impressive soundbites – HIV/AIDS, malaria, and universal primary education.

The problem is that money tends to collect around these simple soundbites instead of rather complex problems. This sets up an optimisation problem across the wrong parameters. Ideally, we should worry about optimally distributing funding across different systems in different countries (or, even better, just across governments), where those systems in turn have to optimise their allocations across problems within their sector.

Instead, as funding gravitates towards hot issues we find ourselves faced with an entirely different optimisation problem, one in which funding is allocated across countries within that sector. For example, the HIV/AIDs industry allocates more money to Malawi than Ethiopia, as Malawi’s HIV burden is higher. This would be a reasonable way of allocating resources only if the global funding for each issue was optimally allocated. But it’s not – it’s decided through desperate PR trench warfare between issues which leaves less popular ones out of the game.  Owen Barder accurately describes the situation in his fantastic new post about the dangers of global advocacy:

The development industry seems to be riddled with people whose main job is to divert money  to their good cause.   The advocates are united by a strong belief in the priority that should be given to their sector (education, water, AIDS etc). They convince themselves that they are speaking for real interests of the poor, which they consider to be unaccountably neglected by everyone else. Within many aid agencies there is a permanent state of low intensity bureaucratic warfare for resources, sucking up the time and attention of staff as they fight to defend and expand funding for the causes they work on.  They deliberately stoke up pressure in private alliances with civil society organisations – many of whom they fund – to raise the political stakes through conferences, international declarations, and publications with the aim of committing funders to spend a larger share of aid resources on their issue.  Territory is captured and held by way of international commitments in summit communiques.  But for the aid budget as a whole these are zero sum games, and everyone would be better off – and many lives would be saved – if it stopped.

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Dumbing down advocacy for the greater good

My heroes

Three is a crowd

In Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in the NYTimes last week he considered factors that may have contributed to lack of international action on humanitarian issues. He uses Peter Singer’s drowning child argument to set up this contradiction: surely members of the G8 would be willing to jump into a pond to save the child – why aren’t they willing to save those larger, more distant groups of people? Krisfof gives some examples from (what I guess must be) the psych literature:

A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life. For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokia’s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.

Oh dear.

Professor Singer notes that in one experiment, students filled out a market research study while a young woman went behind a curtain and then appeared to climb on a chair to get something — and fell down. She then moaned and cried out that her ankle was injured. When the person filling out the form was alone, he or she helped 70 percent of the time.

But when another person was in the room, also filling out the survey and not responding, then only 7 percent tried to help. In the case of fighting poverty, there are billions of other bystanders to erode a personal sense of responsibility. Moreover, humanitarian appeals emphasize the scale of the challenges — 25,000 children will die today! — in ways that are as likely to numb us as to galvanize us.

Kristof doesn’t exactly recommend a full solution – but I find his train of thought a little troubling. Explaining the context of hunger makes people less likely to donate? Even if these experimental results aggregate up – is this a wise trade-off? Surely dumbing down the debate to better capture the public’s attention (and purse strings) carries with it the opportunity cost of poorly-targeted advocacy – recall as Mia Farrow’s short-lived hunger strike, during which she urged world leaders to support both the indictment of al-Bashir and the return of aid workers (two outcomes that weren’t exactly complementary). The headless heart reigns when we don’t give people a complete information set – even if that means we make a few people yawn.

I’ve always admired Kristof’s dedication to humanitarian issues, if not always with his conclusions. What would be the ideal advocacy in his opinion, given the above constraints? Michael Bear at the Humanitarian Relief blog has a solution: the return of Sally Struthers