Kyle Meng.jpg

Kyle Meng ’05, along with colleagues from Columbia University, has published a cover article for Nature magazine on research linking El Niño weather events with civil wars in tropical countries.

Nature writes that this is the first quantitative study to link civil conflict with global climate fluctuations. The researchers relied on historical climate data associated with the El Niño/Southern Oscilation, known as ENSO. They divided countries into two groups. One group, which included Australia, Ghana, Laos, Sudan and Trinidad, had strong ENSO-related weather events. The second group, which included Afghanistan, Greece, Latvia, Sweden and Tunisia did not.

The researchers then used statistical models to determine the rate of outbreak of civil conflict each year from 1950 to 2004 correlated with ENSO events.

They found that among the group of nations with strong ENSO-related events, civil war was twice as likely to break out during year when El Niño warms the climate, as compared with cooler La Niña years.

“El Niño produces hotter and drier conditions . . . increased risk of natural disaster and hurricane activity, and it’s

costly,”  Meng,  a co-author of the study, told the Washington Post.

Because ENSO affects labor markets, increases unemployment and hampers the ability of governments to enforce law, “as a result, we observe an increase in violence,” according to Meng, who studied civil and environmental engineering as an undergraduate at Princeton and is now a sustainable-development PhD candidate at Columbia’s Earth Institute.

Does this mean that we can now predict civil conflicts based on anticipated weather events?

“I would love to say we would be able to predict conflicts, but this study falls short of that,” Meng said. “We are able to predict strong El Niño years, and based on the result of our study the likelihood of violence breaking out in the tropics increases dramatically. At a minimum, national governments and national institutions should be ready for such a thing.”