causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (56): The Weather, Ctd.



How does the weather affect people’s rights? In an older post I cited a study claiming that colder temperatures in pre-modern Europe made persecution of Jewish communities more likely. The economic hardship resulting from cold weather in agrarian societies is one possible cause of rights violations, but perhaps not a very relevant one in our post-industrial societies faced with the risk of global warming. A warmer climate can also have an effect on rights. First, higher temperatures may increase irritability, aggression and interpersonal violence resulting in small scale rights violations. Perhaps there’s an added risk that this type of violence escalates and becomes group violence or even war. Second, global warming may have devastating economic effects: drought may decimate crops or reduce the inhabitable surface of the earth, and these consequences of warming may in turn cause tensions between population groups, tensions which can become violent conflicts.

The first effect is well documented. For example,

hotter US cities still yield significantly higher violence rates than cooler cities, even after statistically controlling for 12 social risk factors, including age, education, race, and economic factors. (source)

Whether or not this can escalate and morph into larger scale conflicts is less clear. There is this study which found an

increase in conflict associated with increasing surface temperature in locations that are temperate or warm on average. … [C]limate’s influence on security persists in both historical and modern periods, is generalizable to populations around the globe, arises from climatic events that are both rapid and gradual, and influences numerous types of conflict that range across all spatial scales. The majority of studies suggest that conflict increases and social stability decreases when temperatures are hot and precipitation is extreme, but in situations where average temperature is already temperate, anomalously low temperatures may also undermine stability.

And then there’s also this:

for each one standard deviation change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, the median effect was a 14 percent increase in conflict between groups, and a 4 percent increase in conflict between individuals. (source)

If this is correct, future climate change may be truly apocalyptic if we don’t learn to adapt. How exactly higher temperatures cause conflict is unclear. The effect of heat on individual temper seems an unlikely explanation for large scale conflict. Perhaps the effect is indirect: heat may for example reduce economic output, which in turn may make conflict more likely. Perhaps drought causes conflicts over land, which in turn may map upon pre-existing ethnic tensions.

For a criticism of the cited studies, go here. Additional doubts regarding these findings come from this paper which found that cold could stir up as much trouble as heat. Generally speaking, colder periods force more people to stay inside more of the time. That’s due to both the cold and the fact that the cold usually comes with more hours of darkness. Hence there’s a lower risk of interpersonal conflict such as assault or robbery. Tempers are also generally subdued when it’s cold. However, prolonged spells of coldness can in theory have similar economic effects as heat and drought, as is shown by the study of anti-Semitism in pre-modern Europe cited above.

It seems that it’s too early to be certain about the effect of the weather on rights violations. If there’s an effect, it’s not large enough to be immediately obvious, as is the case for other effects such as tyranny, poverty and war.

More posts in this series are here. More on the link between rights and environmental concerns is here.

human rights and the environment

The Environment and Human Rights (7): The Effects of Climate Change on Crime Rates

heat wave


The relationship between environmental problems and human rights is underexamined. This is deplorable, because the most important environmental problem, namely climate change, is likely to have an adverse effect on human rights in lots of different ways.

For example, there is some data supporting the hypothesis that higher temperatures lead to an increase in crime, probably in part because high temperatures cause higher levels of aggression:

[H]igher temperatures lead to more assault and … the rise in violent crimes rose more quickly than the analogous rise in non-violent property-crime, an indicator that there is a “pure aggression” component to the rise in violent crime. …

Note that all crime increases as temperatures rise from 0 F to about 50 F. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that a lot of this pattern comes from “logistical constraints”, eg. it’s hard to steal a car when it’s covered in snow. But above 60 F, only the violent crimes continue to go up: murder, rape, and assault. The comparison between murder and manslaughter is elegantly telling, as manslaughter should be less motivated by malicious intent. …

Between 2010 and 2099, climate change will cause an additional 30,000 murders, 200,000 cases of rape, 1.4 million aggravated assaults, 2.2 million simple assaults, 400,000 robberies, 3.2 million burglaries, 3.0 million cases of larceny, and 1.3 million cases of vehicle theft in the United States. (source)

More on human rights and the environment here.

aid, human rights nonsense, intervention, war

Human Rights Nonsense (7): Peacekeepers Planting Trees

Italian peacekeepers arriving in Tyre, Lebanon (AP-Dimitri Messinis)

Italian peacekeepers arriving in Tyre, Lebanon (AP-Dimitri Messinis)


Via Chris Blattman:

United Nations peacekeepers are no strangers to working in some of the world’s most hazardous regions, and they are now helping out on a new battlefront: combating climate change.

“The care and protection of our environment is everybody’s concern,” said Lieutenant Colonel Um Bello, who heads the Alpha Company of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

He is leading his troops in a new exercise: planting 1,000 trees in the country’s west this year, as part of the tree-planting campaign of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which seeks to plant 7 billion trees – or one for every person in the world – by the end of 2009.

Blue helmets have already planted nearly 30,000 saplings in 11 peacekeeping missions worldwide, in countries including Timor-Leste, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Georgia and Lebanon.

Richard Gowan at Global Dashboard has this to say:

“That’d be the Congo that’s teetering on the edge of chaos while the UN mission is still 3,000 troops short? The Georgia from which the UN was just expelled? And the Lebanon where 14 peacekeepers were wounded this month in rioting after two Hezbollah arms dumps blew up? Any other trouble-spots requiring landscaping?”

More on peacekeeping. Other posts in this series.

lies and statistics, statistics, work

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (3): Growth Rates and Cherry Picking

Statistics can be dangerous, as is evident from the previous posts in this series. People making them can make mistakes, or can use them to deceive. And people reading them can misinterpret them. Our treatment of human rights on this blog depends heavily on the use of statistics, and so the quality of those statistics is important. This blog series mentions some of the things that can go wrong.

Statistical mistakes or statistical lies occur in all kinds of fields, not only the field of human rights. Here’s one that is often made in discussions on climate change. It has to do with measuring growth rates (which we also do for human rights).

Kevin Drum has a quote from George Will, and replies with a graph:

George Will [claimed] that “If you’re 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life”. … If you’re 29, you became an adult in 1998, and average global temperatures last year were lower than they were in 1998. So: no global warming in your adult lifetime.

Global warming 1998 2008

The earth is actually cooling! But as about a thousand serious climate researchers have pointed out, it’s not true. Global temps have been trending up for over a century, but in any particular year they can spike up and down quite a bit. In 1998 they spiked up far above the trend line and last year they spiked below the trend line. So 2008 was cooler than 1998.

Of course, you can prove anything you want if you cherry pick your starting and ending points carefully enough. For example: The year 2000 was below the trend line and 2005 was above it. Temps were up 0.4°C in only five years! The seas will be boiling by 2050!

Here’s another example of cherry picking start or ending dates in a time series so as to highlight or drown a growth rate (positive or negative), this time more closely related to the issue of human rights (more specifically the right to work).* Compare these two graphs (in the first graph, just look at the red line for “unemployment rate”, the rest isn’t important, for now – I’ll come back to it in a future post because there are other problems with this first graph):

graph number of jobs


US unemployment rate 1998 present


The first graph makes the – honest? – mistake of starting in 2003, giving the impression that Bush’s economic policies  brought down unemployment. The second graph, however, gives some more historical perspective because it starts earlier, and shows that unemployment was much lower before Bush (Bush took office in 2000) and that the decrease during his presidency wasn’t so spectacular as the first graph suggests.

Of course, you can’t hold a president responsible for unemployment, at least not exclusively. But then neither should you tweak graphs so as to give the impression that the president’s policies have a beneficial impact (read the title of the first graph).

* Technically, this isn’t a growth rate, just a time series, but the same logic holds.