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The people of Cape Town, South Africa, are enduring a terrible drought, and the resulting water shortages could soon force authorities to turn off the taps. Could civil unrest follow? When southern Brazil experienced a similar shortage in 2015, stories circulated about the authorities running drills to prepare a response to desperate people attacking water infrastructure. And a study published last year of some 1,800 riots in sub-Saharan Africa over 20 years concluded that drought can indeed be a powerful contributor to civil disorder (C. Almer et al. J. Environ. Econ. Manage. http://doi.org/ckdj; 2017).

Such retrospective analyses raise two questions related to cause and effect: did climate change alter the weather? And did the change in the weather provoke the conflict? Only a solid yes to both can justify bold statements that global warming promotes violence — and establishing this answer is difficult, if not impossible, in many cases.

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Image: By Discott – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59482111

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