Climate change and warfare

October 5, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

dscn0011.jpgHere’s an interesting piece of research and a slightly different way to tackle the climate change debate. A new study by earth scientist, David Zhang of the University of Hong Kong, looks at 900 years of conflict in eastern China and suggests that cold spells fuel the social instability that can result in war.

Zhang and his researchers focused on the 899 wars that took place between the years 1000 and 1911 in densely populated eastern China. They examined climate data for the same period. They established that there were 6 major cycles of warm and cold weather from 1000 to 1911 and clustered the frequency of wars into 3 classes:

  • very high = more than 30 wars per decade
  • high = 15-30 wars per decade
  • low = fewer than 15 wars per decade

All four decades of very high warfare coincided with cold phases. There were two really cold periods: 1448–1487 and 1583–1717. During these two periods, the researchers noted civil instability and turbulent weather patterns – famines, rebellions, heavy rains and severe flooding, devastated agricultural production. 1620-1640 witnessed the coldest temperatures and in 1644 a peasant uprising took place and the capital, Beijing, was captured. And the Ming period was brought to an end by the Manchu invasion.

The hypothesis is that during warm periods, populations increase but when cold spells hit and result in shorter growing seasons and lower agricultural yields, the population cannot be sustained. Social unrest takes place and Zhang points out that China’s dynastic changes all took place during cold spells.

So what’s the relevance of this study to global warming? Zhang believes world population numbers will be unable to adapt to the ecological changes brought on by global warming. He notes that animals adapt in various ways: migration; dietary change; and depopulation (mainly through starvation and cannibalism). Humans have more options when adapting, like birth control, trade and scientific innovation. These social mechanisms include waging war in an effort to depopulate. Zhang says that “war is just like the cannibalism of animals.”

I read recently (can’t remember where) that by 2100, the world’s population will be a staggering 8.4 billion and I think it’s around 6.6 billion now. Can you imagine: it was 1 billion in 1820, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1988, and 6 billion in 2000 (source: CIA The World Factbook).

If you think of the predicted effects of global warming – drought, withering crops, wild storms – then social unrest and possible warfare could easily happen just as it did following the ecological effects of cold weather spells in eastern China during 1000-1911.

Source: Discover Magazine.

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Entry filed under: Climate Change, Social problems.

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  • […] Thinkingshift wrote about a new study by earth scientist, David Zhang of the University of Hong Kong, looks at 900 years of conflict in eastern China and suggests that cold spells fuel the social instability that can result in war. […]

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