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Seeking to ease conflicts linked to climate change

King Center graduate student fellowship recipient Garrett Albistegui Adler, ’18, MA ’22, PhD is exploring the factors that might influence how people respond to climactic shocks.
Environment and Climate Change

Increasing evidence suggests that extreme weather events associated with climate change—including droughts, floods, and powerful storms—are likely to exacerbate existing conflicts between people and states over resources such as food, water, and land.

In recent years, the United Nations has called climate change a “threat multiplier.”

But what if the link between increasing temperatures and conflict could be broken, or at least diminished? That is the question at the heart of new research by Garrett Albistegui Adler, a recipient of a graduate student fellowship from the King Center.

garrett adler
Garrett Albistegui Adler

“Climate change is coming,” says Albistegui Adler, noting the difficulty countries are having meeting even the relatively modest goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. “Even if we do the very best we can do, there are still going to be changes. We have to be prepared.”

In forthcoming research, Albistegui Adler, a PhD candidate in Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, explores how several factors might moderate the climate-conflict relationship, including trust and social capital, or connections among people and their leaders; collective behavior, such as participation in water resource management and community grazing; and social safety net policies like Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme, which provides cash transfers and jobs to people who need them.

The work is timely, and necessary.

“If we know which places are most vulnerable to conflict, then we can target interventions at those places,” Albistegui Adler says.

Marshall Burke
Marshall Burke

One of Albistegui Adler’s advisors, Earth System Science Professor Marshall Burke, says Albistegui Adler’s work “provides important new evidence and understanding on how societies might respond to a warming climate.”

“Using both very large datasets and detailed individual data, Garrett shows how community characteristics like trust can play a large role in how people are affected when the weather turns bad,” says Burke, a King Center faculty affiliate. “His work has important implications for how societies will adapt to future climate change.”

Albistegui Adler has long been interested in climate change—his father studied geochemistry under Wallace Broecker, the scientist credited with coining the term “global warming” in the 1970s. But before pursuing the field himself, Albistegui Adler was a middle and high school science teacher. He loved the classroom—“I tried to embody Bill Nye,” he laughs—but, after participating in a science research program for K-12 teachers, he realized he wanted to be doing his own research.

At Stanford, Albistegui Adler’s work has been interdisciplinary in nature, employing quantitative methods from econometrics and data science and incorporating theories and concepts from political science, development economics, earth systems, and geography, among other disciplines.   

For his dissertation, Albistegui Adler has mostly relied on existing data sources, including survey data from the pan-African research network Afrobarometer and data on poverty from the World Bank, which Burke helped him obtain.

Although other scholars have explored the role trust and social capital play in climate adaptation efforts, Albistegui Adler says his work is among the first to apply that framework to the climate-conflict relationship and also to such a broad geographical area: the first chapter in his dissertation combines geolocated survey data, conflict outcome data, and temperature data for 33 African countries.

“Climate data and conflict data are readily available,” he says. “If you know how to find it and work with it, you can study climate-conflict anywhere in the world.”

Albistegui Adler’s second dissertation chapter, co-authored with a student from Columbia University, explores the “micro-level” impact of climate change on the behavior of people in drought-affected northern Namibia. The third chapter in Albistegui Adler’s dissertation will look specifically at Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme to see whether the cash and jobs it provides reduce the likelihood of conflict and violence in areas where climatic shocks are common.

Albistegui Adler says the fellowship he received from the King Center made it possible for him to be within reach of completing his dissertation, especially after setbacks related to the pandemic (when daycares shut down, he became the primary childcare provider for his family, watching his son during the day and trying to work on his research at night).

Albistegui Adler adds that he’s also benefitted from support from other King Center affiliated researchers, like Brandon de la Cuesta.

“Being part of the King Center ecosystem has been pretty impactful,” he says.

Although his dissertation is not final—and results from the third chapter have not yet been analyzed—analysis so far indicates that Albistegui Adler’s chosen topics are ripe for additional research.

In the larger study of 33 countries from the first chapter, for instance, he found that social capital—and especially connections between citizens and their local leaders—strongly moderates the relationship between temperature and violent conflict, implying, as he writes in his conclusion, that “building social capital will be a particularly valuable tool for climate change adaptation efforts, especially as those efforts seek to limit violent responses to warming.”

In the Namibia study, Albistegui Adler and his co-author found that reduced rainfall either does not affect or increases cooperative behaviors and that more rain actually decreases cooperative behavior. The results were strongest in “lab-in-the-field” behavioral games, which pit an individual’s interests against the community’s. In this case, participants could contribute money to a community pot or keep funds for themselves.

“When rainfall is abundant, individuals are less altruistic and likely to contribute to the common pool,” the authors write. “When rainfall is scarce, they are more likely to contribute.”

Albistegui Adler says he has “pet theories” about why that might be the case but points out that policymakers need more than theories to head off potential conflicts as the world confronts the effects of climate change.

“We’ve got to study these things,” Albistegui Adler says. “We have to know what the evidence suggests to help us build better policies to help buffer people’s experiences with climate shocks.”