Expecting the Unexpected: Disaster Risks and Conflict

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(2) 421 –433
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920911204
Do natural disasters have a pacifying effect on interna-
tional relations, or fuel discord and violence? Despite
decades of theoretical and empirical work, scholars have
failed to reach a consensus on the nature of the relation-
ship between disasters and conflict. A number of studies
suggest that natural disasters may have a pacifying effect:
when disasters strike, they may reduce the likelihood of
conflict by serving as a focal point for cooperation in the
aftermath of an environmental shock and reducing the
relevance of other potential sources of conflict (Kelman
and Koukis 2000; Quarantelli and Dynes 1976). In addi-
tion, natural disasters and climate-related scarcities can
damage the capacity to engage in conflict (Salehyan and
Hendrix 2014). This effect could be due to direct disaster
damage to military capabilities, as well as subsequent
reductions in military spending. Governments’ military
expenditures could decline because disasters reduce eco-
nomic resources and productivity in affected regions
where industrial and transportation infrastructure experi-
enced disaster-related damage and, consequently, govern-
ment revenues (Noy 2009; Raddatz 2007).
At the same time, there is an equally large amount of
research indicating that environmental shocks may have
the opposite effect. Disasters, especially sudden and
severe, appear to increase the likelihood and intensity of
conflict. They reduce economic resources available to
affected states and slow down economic growth. Shortages
of scarce resources and hence deprivations in affected
countries can then trigger violence as affected populations
seek to get access to territories with resources that could
make up for the disaster-related losses (Brancati 2007;
Gleditsch 1998; Homer-Dixon 1994, 2001; Kahl 1998;
Miguel, Satyanath, and Sergenti 2004; Nel and Righarts
2008; Reuveny 2002). In this case, environmental shocks
alter the relative size of fighting costs and expected bene-
fits of fighting: costly conflict becomes a more attractive
option if a population struck by a natural disaster faces the
trade-off between peaceful starvation and fighting to gain
new territory, which may induce risk-acceptant behavior
by the affected state. Similarly, exogenous shocks to
resources could lower the opportunity cost of conflict and
make conflict a more preferred course of action (Chassang
and i Miquel 2009).
In addition, some scholars disagree with the assess-
ment that natural disasters are linked to conflict and report
nonfindings in their investigations of the relationship
911204PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920911204Political Research QuarterlyBas and McLean
1NYU Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
2University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, USA
Corresponding Author:
Elena V. McLean, Department of Political Science, University at
Buffalo, The State University of New York, 507 Park Hall, Buffalo, NY
14260, USA.
Email: elenamcl@buffalo.edu
Expecting the Unexpected: Disaster
Risks and Conflict
Muhammet A. Bas1 and Elena V. McLean2
This study examines the relationship between disaster risks and interstate conflict. We argue that in disaster-prone
areas actors’ rational expectations about the likelihood and magnitude of potential future disasters can make conflict
more likely. The relationship emerges when future disasters are viewed as shocks that are expected to shift the
relative power balance among states. If large enough, such expected shifts can generate commitment problems and
cause conflict even before any disasters take place. Our approach represents a shift of focus from previous research,
which investigates the effect of actual disasters and ignores rational expectations regarding future events. We use a
simple game-theoretic model to highlight the commitment problem caused by disaster risks. We then discuss and
apply an empirical strategy enabling us to disentangle effects of disaster proneness from effects of actual disaster
events. Our results indicate that greater disaster risks are indeed associated with a higher likelihood of interstate
natural disasters, disaster risks, interstate conflict, commitment problems

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