In Steven Pinker’s brilliant new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he demonstrates that peace has actually increased over the course of human history, even over the past few centuries, and particularly the last few decades. In this excerpt, Pinker discusses the myth that resource scarcity increases violent conflict, and that climate change could contribute to more war, terrorism, and violence.
A 2007 New York Times op-ed warned, “Climate stress may well represent a challenge to international security just as dangerous–and more intractable–than the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War or the proliferation of nuclear weapons among rogue states today.” That same year Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their call to action against global warming because, according to the citation, climate change is a threat to international security. A rising fear lifts all the boats. Calling global warming “a force multiplier for instability,” a group of military officers wrote that “climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror.”
Once again it seems to me that the appropriate response is “maybe, but maybe not.” Though climate change can cause plenty of misery… it will not necessarily lead to armed conflict. The political scientists who track war and peace, such as Halvard Buhaug, Idean Salehyan, Ole Theisen, and Nils Gleditsch, are skeptical of the popular idea that people fight wars over scarce resources. Hunger and resource shortages are tragically common in sub-Saharan countries such as Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania, but wars involving them are not. Hurricanes, floods, droughts, and tsunamis (such as the disastrous one in the Indian Ocean in 2004) do not generally lead to conflict. The American dust bowl in the 1930s, to take another example, caused plenty of deprivation but no civil war. And while temperatures have been rising steadily in Africa during the past fifteen years, civil wars and war deaths have been falling.