Will Rising Temperatures Derail Africa’s Rise?


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Africa is on the move. After two decades of decline, fortunes reversed by the end of the 1990s, resulting in a decade of strong economic growth and sizable improvements in sanitation, education and health. Real incomes per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa grew by more than 30 percent over the last ten years, and six countries from the continent made it on the list of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world. Big men, although still around in some parts of the continent, have become less common, elections have become more frequent, and many civil wars have finally ended. All this has produced a narrative of “Africa Rising” and a widespread optimism that Africa is finally on the right track. Indeed, the 21st century may well turn out to be Africa’s century.

Or not. Ted Miguel’s keynote address at the annual conference of the Center for the Study of African Economies (CSAE) in Oxford highlighted a potentially important concern. Applying a common statistical framework to a large number of studies on the link between temperatures and human violence, Miguel and his co-authors find a remarkably consistent and strong correlation between exceptionally high temperatures and manifestations of violence. Drawing on detailed data from a variety of countries and studies, they show that exceptionally high temperatures are correlated with significant increases in witch killings (Tanzania), rapes (USA), murders (USA), aggressive behavior of baseball players (USA) and more frequent and more aggressive horn-honking.

Applying the model to civil wars, Miguel and his team find that a one standard deviation increase in temperatures is correlated with an 11 percent increase in civil war onsets. Average temperatures in Sub-Saharan Africa are forecasted to rise by two degrees Celsius by 2050. This represents an increase of three standard deviations. Applying the findings, this could increase civil war onsets by 33 percent. The link between high temperatures and war onsets is likely to run through the impact on economic conditions, as research shows that a one degree increase in temperatures is correlated with a 1.5 percentage point decrease in GDP growth.

So there would be a double negative effect: Temperature shocks would drive down economic indicators, which in turn would increase-in the well-known Collier-Hoeffler framework-the likelihood of conflict that would in turn have devastating impacts on the economy and the people.

Fortunately, there are a number of caveats. Miguel and coauthors examine the impact of temperature “shocks”, extreme deviations from the average, on violence. An increase in temperature of two degrees Celsius over a 50-year period (0.05 degrees per year) is probably not a “shock”.  This caveat would however cancel out if higher average temperatures were to be correlated with more frequent and steeper temperature swings). Also, given the time-period we would expect African countries to adapt and put policies in place to mitigate the impact of rising temperatures (although some African Governments will do so better and faster than others).

What do you think? What will be the impact of global warming on Africa’s future?
Miguel’s address can be watched here.   See also Markus Goldstein’s post on the subject here.


Tom Bundervoet

Senior Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

April 03, 2013

Thanks for your comment. That is exactly the mechanism that is believed to be driving the relation between high temperatures and violence: High temperatures reduce a country's growth rate, which according to the empirical evidence increases the risk of violence. However, the link that is currently studied is the one between high temperatures and agricultural growth (harvests that falter because of droughts or excessive rains). But you are correct, there is likely also a link between high temperatures and productivity. Having lived in some very hot countries, I can only support your claim.

March 29, 2013

I have experienced first hand rising temperature during this March in Ouagadougou Burkina Faso, when even the locals are saying they don't remeber a month of March so hot (saeveral days in a row at over 40-43 C).

With increasing rotating power and water cuts, one cannot expect to be effective at those temperatures, when inside, temperatures stay over 30 C. I worked in a non A/C office, lived in a non A/C home, moved around on dust roads even in the middle of Ouaga on the back of a motorbike, adding to the level of pollution. Looking back I was not even 50% effective and my brain was not even interested in anything. How about adding drastically reduced rate of growth as a result of increasing temperatures?