Authors of a new book on how heat stress and extreme weather affect the human brain are calling for action to limit violence and conflict.
Rarely is it the case that climate change is the only trigger in creating conflict. Yet a new book from researchers at Iowa State University details the relationship between heat stress and human violence, and calls for a more serious focus on the need to prepare people for climate impacts.
The book, “Climate Change and Human Behavior,” draws on decades of research to explain how heat and extreme weather change the way people think and act. The authors say climate impacts can lead to individual violence, but also cause an escalation in political unrest, civil war and other forms of communal violence.
“Heat stress primes people to act more aggressively,” says Dr. Craig Anderson, a psychology professor at the university. “We can see this play out on a larger scale across geographic regions and over time.”
In one example, Anderson and his co-author, graduate student Andreas Miles-Novelo, hold the view that Syria’s civil war and the resulting migration crisis in Europe originated with extreme drought that affected farmers.
“A large proportion of the rural population moved to cities in search of jobs, food and water, but an already unstable government did not prepare for the influx of people, which led to competition over resources like jobs and housing, spurring political unrest and eventual civil war,” said Miles-Novelo.
He admits the Syrian case is a bit of an oversimplification, and many who have studied the relationship between climate and conflict have agreed. The data doesn’t draw a direct link between the two, and researchers are still working to understand exactly how clashes over resources contribute to violent outbreaks, or shape the tensions within communities as they respond to new arrivals because of forced migration and internal displacement.
“Scientists generally agree that climate change does not directly cause armed conflict, but that it may indirectly increase the risk of conflict by exacerbating existing social, economic and environmental factors,” says the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The new book from Anderson and Miles-Novelo explains how heat affects the human brain and makes the case for an increase in violent crime amid rising temperatures, linking it to other known factors including nutrition, childhood stress and family disruption, poverty, and economic challenges.
“What struck me when I really started delving into this a decade or so ago was how many of the risk factors for adulthood violence are going to become much more common as a result of rapid climate change,” said Anderson.
He explains that one of the goals of the book is to make clear how these human costs attach to climate change, and how basic psychological concepts “can be used to reduce both the amount of global warming and human violence problems that arise from the climate crisis.”
The Iowa State University authors say that taking the climate change threat seriously, and being proactive about the challenges now, may pay off in the future. The solutions may be as simple as support for pre-natal and post-natal nutrition programs, which may protect against some of the risk factors that can leave adults prone to violence later.
Anderson also calls for nations to be more proactive about migration, particularly well-resourced nations that he says are likely to see “hundreds of millions – if not billions – of people” seeking escape from climate disaster and related conflict.
“There are issues we’re going to have to take more seriously in the U.S. and worldwide as climate change pushes more ecomigration,” said Anderson. “The problems that we’re seeing now are relatively small compared to what’s going to happen in the next 50 years.”