Disinformation, migration, conflict: Opinions have ethical implications

[8.2.14: Update below] This new type of post, identified by the icon at the right, is intended to draw attention to interesting articles in the scientific literature. I came across an article by Valerie Mueller and colleagues in Nature Climate Change that examined the effects of weather extremes on migration within Pakistan. This research attracted my attention because it meshes nicely with our recent work on climate change and the risk of conflict. Although our work focuses in particular on how misinformation contributes to exacerbating those risks, any evidence for the linkage between extreme weather events and potential conflict triggers is of interest to us.

In a nutshell, Mueller and colleagues conducted a longitudinal (>20 years) survey in rural Pakistan. The information from this survey was then linked to satellite measures of climate variability which permitted an examination of the link between potential climatic triggers and (internal) migration. Mueller and colleagues found that heat stress considerably increased the likelihood of long-term migration (at least of men), driven by a negative effect on farm and non-farm income.

If you are interested in more details, Andy Extance has written a very informative and detailed blog about this paper here.

The work by Mueller and colleagues adds another piece of evidence to the suggestion that climate change may ultimately trigger violent conflicts. Although the authors did not postulate that linkage, and although their work studied internal migration within Pakistan, it seems self-evident that in other contexts displaced persons may turn into refugees when heat stress forces them to cross international borders. That is, if heat stress generally triggers migration, then it will sooner or later also trigger a stream of refugees. Estimates of the number of such future refugees run as high as 187 million.

It would be optimistic indeed to assume that such a large number of refugees could migrate around the world without violent conflict. Indeed, some research has already suggested that countries that host a particularly large number of refugees are more prone to domestic and international terrorism.

In other words, unmitigated climate change may well lead to violent conflict and human misery. To the extent that disinformation about climate, curently spread to the tune of $1,000,000,000 a year, delays mitigation efforts, it is a contributing factor to future violence and misery.

This link reinforces the philosophical thesis that opinions have ethical consequences. It is not ethically neutral to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. Spreading climate disinformation entails a responsibility for the “downstream” consequences. At present, this is a philosophical argument, but the possibility of it eventually acquiring legal force should not be precluded. Interesting legal arguments along those lines have been made with respect to the tobacco industry’s activities.

Lest one wonder whether misinformation can really have violent consequences, remember the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? Remember the Iraqi defector who revealed “work on at least 20 hidden weapons sites”? The “undisputed fact” that September 11 attacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague? None of those claims were true, despite being reported in some of the most prestigious American mainstream media outlets. 

Ironically, the same newspapers and the same journalists who beat the war drums a decade ago are now also frequently misrepresenting the risk the world is facing from climate change.

[8.2.14. Update: I verified with the first author of this article, Dr Valerie Mueller, that the research also swept up out-of-village migrants that emigrated to other countries (mainly in the Middle East, e.g., UAE). However, the overwhelming majority of migrants, around 90%, were domestic and resettled within Pakistan (those numbers are not in the published version of the article). The article thus primarily studied internal migration, rather than exclusively, as I first understood it to be the case.]