As temperatures rise, empires fall: heat and human behavior

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EXCERPTS (2013): The link between environment and human behavior can be writ much larger too.  For decades, archaeologists and historians have uncovered evidence that extreme weather events that cause crop failures can lead to unrest, uprisings, and downfalls—from Babylon to dynastic China to modern-day Africa—usually in concert with other factors. And in recent years, thanks perhaps to the looming specter of climate change, research into the connection between climate fluctuation and conflict has snowballed, with papers often looking at one particular geographic area, or one particular weather event.

That work has been both illuminating and incomplete. Can you really compare the effects of a drought in Ethiopia to a flood in Bangladesh to a hurricane in New Orleans—with their radically different cultures, populations and economies—much less make any connection to the person-to-person level of the psychology literature about how we behave when we’re hot? What would be helpful would be a sort of grand unified theory of environment and behavior, something that holds true across every location, scale, and time, with the only constant being us.

Now, a group of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, may have developed one. After reanalyzing  data from 60 existing studies using a new statistical method, they reported in this week’s Science (2013) that they have found a consistent statistical yardstick, a way to link a particular degree of fluctuation from  average temperature or rainfall  to a particular percentage point change in human conflict—at the subway level and the national or even regional level.

[...] Not everyone agrees with the team’s conclusions. Halvard Buhaug, a professor of political science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, applauds the study’s goal of uniting the literature, but says that he believes that there’s more to be learned from paying attention to the large-scale direction of climate change than to standard deviations. He also notes that even with the old data newly reanalyzed, a third of the studies involving civil war don’t support the idea that climate was involved. “I think they conclude against their own evidence when they look at civil conflict and climate,” he says.

The paper’s authors and Buhaug do agree that the next important step is to look more closely at the mechanisms at work at each of these levels... (MORE - missing details)

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