Big data and new technology can help us understand and respond to climate change and conflict risks – here’s how

Share this to :

Written by Elisabeth Gilmore, Senior Associate Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Associate Professor at Clark University. Photo: C. de Bode/CGIAR 

CGIAR FOCUS Climate Security explores the role of climate and food systems for lasting peace. We do this through multidisciplinary research and by building strong networks with partners who want to contribute directly or indirectly to climate security and peacebuilding. Find out more and read all our latest stories.

We are increasingly able to detect and attribute changes that we are observing in our environment to climate change. And what we are seeing is concerning. Climate impacts, such as increased frequency and intensity of droughts and heatwaves, longer and more intense wildfire seasons, and increasing storm surges due to sea-level rise—are affecting our wellbeing and may exceed the capacity of our communities, practices, institutions and infrastructure to moderate the adverse effects.

As these physical impacts increase in scope and scale, practitioners and humanitarian agencies are voicing new worries of conflict, violence and instability, especially in regions that are already conflict-affected. For those of us who work to understand these relationships, there is also a troubling implication: What if these changes are so profound that the relationships between climate and conflict as observed to date are no longer a sufficiently good predictive of future risks?

I discussed the increasing severity of attributable impacts of climate change and the implications for societal stability and violence in a recent webinar with CGIAR. In my debate with other scholars and practitioners who work at the interface of climate impacts, food security, and humanitarian relief, three clear opportunities emerged for big data and new technologies to inform both scholarship and on the ground efforts:

1. Using new technologies to collect a larger set of indicators of changes in social stability, such as changes in attitudes towards violence, as well as the collection of data in regions with underreporting would rapidly update our knowledge base.

The best understanding of the research community is that the influence of climate change impacts on violence is small compared to factors that have historically driven conflict, namely economic performance, development, and institutional capacity. However, there is more disagreement and uncertainty about just how “risky” climate will be in the future.

One source of this uncertainty is that the speed and scale of the physical changes and the influence and interaction with new conflict risks and new types, such as one-sided violence and violence against civilians. For example, herders that need to shift their grazing patterns into new areas or disrupted livelihoods may make individuals more susceptible to recruitment into terrorist or violent activities.

Pratima Baral, researcher at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) using Plantex app. Photo: C. de Bode/CGIAR 

Collecting data on individual experiences and local conditions could also shed light on the dynamics of violence and its links to environmental factors. Improving the collection of data on climate, intermediate variables (such as food availability, prices, incomes, etc…) and violence from areas where there are gaps, especially in the most vulnerable areas and those that in conflict, could reduce the “streetlight effect”—an ongoing issue for quantitative analyses of conflict.

2. New technologies could facilitate the more rapid collection and analysis of data on climate impacts and societal stability to reveal new patterns and relationships.

New technologies can allow for the more rapid use of new data and large datasets. For example, machine learning and forecasting efforts that can more rapidly identify patterns in large datasets may provide new insight into underlying relationships of violence and environmental factors. Furthermore, expert elicitation and mental modeling exercises could assist scholars to more quickly update the state of the knowledge given new data. This type of forecasting and expert analysis could also help provide operational support to humanitarian groups and practitioners through “early warning” systems and structures. Some of these efforts on melding big data, structured modeling and early warning systems are now being developed in the scholarly community; however, these efforts to date have not been sufficiently focused on the needs of the different users from local humanitarian groups to government decision-makers who are directly large budgets for development and security concerns.  

3. New data could allow for improved casual attribution of the influence of climate on forms of conflict and violence.

Presently, the majority of the studies on climate and conflict use changes in weather or meteorological variables as a proxy for climate change. This is not the same as showing a direct impact of climate change on conflict. Whether observed changes in societal functions and human systems can be directly linked to climate change is difficult to show; however, new approaches may give us a way forward for “detection and attribution” of changes in human systems. Linking these attributed events to new data on different forms of conflict may help us understand whether the risks of conflict are different for climatic changes rather than indicative weather patterns.

But what to do with all this additional data and insights? We must aim to provide actionable information. While general development and institution capacity and inclusion will continue to be important to moderate climate and conflict risks, reducing the suffering of the most vulnerable will require quick and targeted approaches.

Whichever technologies or big data applications we pursue, key stakeholders and communities must be involved in the data collection process. The co-production of knowledge may present immediate opportunities to improve our understanding while concurrently helping individuals and those communities address the joint challenges of climate and conflict in ways that are most responsive to their needs and respectful of their dignity.

Share this to :