The elephant and global warming

There’s a hoary Jewish joke about the school boy who wrote every essay, no matter what the assigned subject, about the Jewish question. In exasperation, the teacher assigns an essay about pachyderms. Next morning, little Jake comes back with an essay: “The elephant and the Jewish problem”.

Substitute “global warming” for “the Jewish problem” in the above sentence and it’s not even funny anymore. Case in point is this article (h/t Zombie) about a UC Berkeley study in which the authors argue that:

Global Warming Also Triggers Military Conflict
UC Berkeley study shows link between heat and war in sub-Saharan Africa.
By Madeleine Bair

We’ve heard that climate change will kill the polar bears, eradicate the salmon, and sink specks of land in the Pacific Ocean. Pinning down the effect of global warming on humans has been more difficult. But a team of researchers led by two UC Berkeley economists has done just that.
A study by Cal doctoral student Marshall Burke and professor Edward Miguel, published in last week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [F2: link to the actual (open access) paper added], is the first to link global warming to human warfare. Its conclusion is that over the next twenty years, if nothing is done, projected temperature increases in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to more bloodshed and the slaughter of an additional 400,000 Africans in civil conflict. If the legislators stalling a climate agreement in Copenhagen next month aren’t sympathetic to Hallmark photos of ice caps and polar bears , perhaps the prospect of more Darfurs will catch their attention.

Zombie comments:

It seems that these politically addled academics have descended into historical Lysenkoism, doing “studies” in order to prove specific political points. And they also seem to have confused coincidence with cause-and-effect, and the past with the future!

Apparently, in academia these days, if a false correlation in the past serves the correct political ideology, then it can be used to make a 100% positive prediction of the future!

For example, in 1972, the US elected a President whose last name had five letters: N-I-X-O-N.

Two years later, he ended our participation in the war in Vietnam!

So, in 2008, we again elected a president with a five-letter last name:

So, I predict that in 2010, he will end the war in Afghanistan!

Perfectly logical!

How about a paper on the causal link between stork migration and increased childbirth in Western Europe? [Both migration and increased childbirth happen in spring, i.e., approximately 9 months after summer vacation ;-)]

My own $0.02: to me, the idea that climate would affect precipitation, and hence food production — and that scarcity of foodstuffs might spark civil wars — doesn’t sound all that outlandish. However, if you want to create a link with GW, this has the inconvenience (the authors themselves basically admit as much in the introduction to their paper) that it’s not clear whether in that part of the world, GW might lead to desertification or just the opposite — high rainfall similar to equatorial Africa. Basically, you only get the nice story you want if you focus on historical temperatures.

As for the correlations that the authors trumpet in their tables: sociologists and economists will of course consider an R²=0.657 (i.e., R=0.81) to be quite respectable, but it’s not something that natural scientists would get their drawers in a knot about, let alone be able to publish a paper in PNAS about it.

2 thoughts on “The elephant and global warming

  1. Funny thing is, I know exactly where these Berkeley researchers got the “idea” for this study. Last year, when I was covering the controversy over the Code Pink siege of the Marine Corp recruiting office in Berkeley, the Code Pinkers painted their truck with the huge words, “GLOBAL WARMING = WAR.” They drove that truck around the city for weeks.

    What undoubtedly happened is that one of these researchers was walking to campus one day, saw the Code Pink truck, and suddenly had a brilliant idea for his new study, sure to land him grants and accolades!

    It goes without saying that they knew ahead of time the results they were going to look for — the exact opposite of the way science and historical research should be conducted.

    One could just as easily argue that COLD weather leads to war. Think of The Battle of the Ardennes in the snow; Napoleon’s march on Moscow during an arctic Russian winter; Washington crossing the frozen Delaware River; pelt-wearing Cro-Magnons wiping out the warmth-loving Neanderthals as the temperatures dropped in Europe and the Middle East…need I go on?

    The “insight” that drought can lead to food shortages, and that shortages can lead to social unrest, which can lead to violence, has been well-known in the study history for centuries. It’s just repeating what every schoolboy knows. And since the authors failed to prove any connection between possible global warming in Sub-Saharan Africa and less precipitation, then their study proves nothing whatsoever.

    (Here on the West Coast of North America, for example, global warming would almost certainly lead to a huge INCREASE in rainfall, since warming = stronger El Nino events = tropical storms drenching California.)

    In the past during warmer periods, the Sahara was much wetter and greener. Hmmmm…I think I’m beginning to detect a flaw in their argument.

    • Further to Zombie’s embedded comment, and point, although Obama did not end the war in Afghanistan, another president with a five-letter name, did just ten (2×5) years later: joe “Biden.” Although to his credit, it was Obama who observed, with alacrity and startling prescience, that “one should never underestimate Joe’s ability to f#ck something up”. So there is that.

      And still “perfectly logical.”

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