Climate change and criminality: what’s the link?

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By Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay and Professor Francis Pope
University of Birmingham

The increased frequency of adverse events such as floods or drought associated with climate change may adversely impact economies. Such a negative impact may induce ‘survival crimes’ […]

Climate change is widely held to be the greatest challenge facing the world today. Another challenge of more ancient vintage is the problem of tackling criminality. In fact, crime and crime policy almost always feature in the top few concerns of citizens and there is evidence that even in the period when crime fell in the UK, citizens still believed crime was rising.

Both climate change and crime are polarising issues, not only in terms of perceptions about how grave a threat they are, but also on what policies are most effective, some advocate market-based solutions to combat climate change while others argue that they have failed to deliver. Some of this is highly correlated with one’s political leanings. Indeed, some even argue that one’s worry about climate change may be moderated by political ideology. Similarly, political beliefs play a role in what works in crime fighting, although the left-right divide in terms of being tough on crime is less clear, even in polarised America some consensus has been seen.

But the link between climate change and crime is hardly discussed even in research circles and almost never features in public discourse. However, the social and economic costs of crime are high (an issue on which there is at least a certain level of shared agreement, even by those who vigorously debate the causes), and the cost of climate change is likely to be catastrophic.

There are various channels by which climate can affect criminal as well as victim behaviour which have been overlooked given that the (often polarising debate) on how to prevent crime has been mainly on whether law enforcement or socio-economic factors are more important. However, there is evidence to suggest that environmental factors, such as temperature, may influence criminal activity.

More generally, climate change may impact criminality both directly and indirectly in several ways. The most obvious channel is that high temperatures may induce aggression and hence increase violent crime. But more subtly, temperature may affect the degree and type of social interaction which when combined with other factors e.g. greater alcohol consumption may lead to violence. Further, temperature can create opportunities for economic crime – a warm sunny day at the beach may increase theft as well as burglaries in unattended residences.

There are more dire scenarios. The increased frequency of adverse events such as floods or drought associated with climate change may impact economies. Such a negative impact may induce ‘survival crimes’ for people who have lost their income and livelihoods, which could, for instance increase property crime. This vulnerability may also cause organised criminal networks to lure people into joining their networks for drug distribution or entrap them into becoming victims of trafficking.

Some of these concerns may become more pressing globally as the effect of climate change begins to have a differential impact across regions. Where the impact is more negative, mass migration is likely to occur with the possibility of ethnic conflict increasing further. Conflict leads to violence and political instability, which can last for decades, as history has taught us repeatedly. This often provides a fruitful area for certain types of criminal activities e.g. the drug trade, because the state institutions have been weakened.

Finally, even (necessary) climate change regulation has the potential to fuel criminality. Firms may manipulate data on how much greenhouse emissions occur from their activity when the likelihood of auditing is low, though researchers have suggested innovative ways of checking for such data manipulation.

These are challenging problems, not least because the world remains divided on how to tackle climate change, and its precise impact on criminality is not well understood. Technology may provide a solution as it has with some aspects of mapping climate change as well as in tracking criminals. But we need to understand the connections between climate change and criminality better before we can formulate adequate responses.

Registration for ESRC Festival of Social Sciences now open!

As part of the College’s involvement in the ESRC Festival of Social Science, Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay and Professor Francis Pope will be hosting an event titled: Climate change and criminality. Register to attend.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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