Catastrophic storms and floods, in greater strength and number, are projected to be one potential consequence of climate change. Will greater civil unrest follow in their wake? Political scientist Peter F. Nardulli and researchers Buddy Peyton and Joseph Bajjalieh sought to find out by randomly selecting 45 of these natural disasters occurring between 1981 and 2004. They studied the intensity of civil unrest events, including mass demonstrations, politically motivated violent attacks, and state repression, before and after the disasters – also taking into account the proximity of those events to the disaster sites. Their research, conducted at Illinois’ Cline Center for Democracy, was published earlier this year. Their tools included a “big data” resource called SPEED, developed at the center over almost a decade using archives from The New York Times, the Summary of World Broadcasts and other global news sources. With the approach of the United Nations climate change conference at the end of November, Nardulli, now a professor emeritus, spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
It’s easy to picture a population rising up out of desperation or anger following a natural disaster – an extreme response to an extreme event. But you found only about 15 percent of these events resulted in significant civil unrest. What holds people back?
Short-lived unrest can emerge fairly easily in the wake of natural disasters. But sustaining that unrest – and transforming it into sustained violent unrest that is destabilizing – is much more difficult. Much depends on the demographic makeup of the population, the nature of information flows and social networks within the society, the availability of political and legal venues for addressing and resolving discontents, and prevailing norms concerning the use of violence in a society.
In cases where significant civil unrest emerges, what are the factors that appear to make the difference?
The magnitude of the natural disaster plays a role here, though it is not nearly as important as systemic and institutional factors. Two of the most important factors we uncover relate to the prior history of governments in using force against their citizens and of organized civil groups employing violence. In each case, a greater use of force or violence prior to a disaster enhances the likelihood of violence in the wake of a disaster. A country’s commitment to the rule of law also is important; it reduces violent unrest.
You note that the connection between natural disasters and civil unrest has long been a topic of speculation, as well as research. What’s different about your work?
Most prior research worked at the country-year level using fairly crude data – that is, scholars correlated variations in the number of a country’s natural disasters with simple counts of incidents of unrest in that year. This approach ignored differences in the intensity of the civil unrest and failed to establish that the incidents occurred after the disaster struck, and in regions of the country that were affected by the disaster. Other researchers studied only a handful of major natural disasters, making it difficult to generalize their findings more broadly.
In contrast, we used a random sample of severe storms and floods – natural disasters projected to increase with climate change – and collected rich data on civil strife events in specific cities and on specific days. Our rich data allowed us to gauge the intensity of strife events. We also were able to determine whether the strife events occurred before or after the disaster, as well as their proximity to the disaster. This enabled us to compare levels of unrest in post-disaster situations with benchmark levels of unrest, and to examine factors that led to different responses by affected populations. Working with a random sample of disasters enhances our ability to generalize our findings.
Why might your findings be important for policymakers?
One benefit of our city-day focus is that we are able to determine that major unrest takes almost three months to crest. That provides governments and international aid agencies a window of opportunity to address the stresses generated by the disaster. Our findings also suggest there is a benefit in long-term efforts to reduce a society’s propensity for violence, which can be achieved by enhancing accountability among governmental actors and providing citizens with venues for addressing their concerns.
Civil unrest is a primary research focus of the Cline Center. Why?
Civil strife – as opposed to international conflict – is currently the most important threat to personal security. Moreover, because strife is rooted in diverse origins, such as religious or ethnic animosities, the desire for political rights or power, or social or economic grievances, its causes are challenging to unravel. SPEED (Social, Political, Economic Event Database) and another “big data” resource developed at the center, the Composition of Religious and Ethnic Groups database (CREG), are both attempts to do that.
The challenges of understanding civil unrest are compounded by the circumstances in which it unfolds: differences in a country’s political system, its commitment to the rule of law, demographic composition, etc. We realized early in the center’s life that the multifaceted challenges involved in addressing civil strife required a sustained and institutionalized research effort. The center’s resources, in conjunction with those available elsewhere within the university, put us in a unique position to contribute in this area. Recent developments in Europe and the Middle East underscore the enduring importance of the center’s efforts.