Monday, 23 April 2012

A Dire Forecast: A theoretical model of the impact of climate change on crime

Agnew, Robert (2011) A Dire Forecast: A theoretical model of the impact of climate change on crime, in Theoretical Criminology, Vol 16 (1): 21-42


In the mood for something outside our academic comfort zones this month, the DA gathered to discuss the implications and ideas put forward in Robert Agnew’s recent article in Theoretical Criminology: Dire Forecast. Agnew sets himself a bold task, pointedly stating his belief that climate change will become one the most significant driving forces behind increases in crime over the coming century. And who better to critically appraise the detrimental impact of the weather than the Irish, a nation of people who feel particularly maligned by our inclement climate!

Of course we are all familiar with images of weather-related disasters, as Agnew rightly points out, in the last 10 years many countries have been subject to catastrophic heat-waves, droughts, hurricanes and floods. Playing with the idea of the long-term implications of an increasingly volatile climate has provided fodder for many a Hollywood blockbuster – and leaving aside the ‘is it or isn’t it’ argument going on in America – the popularity of the topic suggests that climate change is very much at the front of our conscience.

The breadth of his argument sees Agnew cross disciplinary thresholds; bringing together disparate areas of literature, such as sociology, geography, social psychology and ecology, which he frames using strain theory, giving it a familiar criminological feel.

Agnew lays out the whole gamut of climate change and weather-related disasters: rising temperatures; changing patterns of precipitation; increased sea levels; hurricanes; floods; droughts. The ripple effect from these changes makes for sombre reading; water shortages will see crop production decline, resulting in food-shortages. And that is only the beginning; then there is the impact on health from malnutrition, cardio-respiratory diseases from increased air pollution, the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria, as well as the loss of livelihood, particularly in farming and fishing;  and that is to say nothing of the deeply felt trauma of weather-related catastrophes. All of which will be occurring at a time of increasing population, which will induce mass migration and see mega-cities mushroom.

He links this staggering list of climate-related changes to crime by describing them as a source of strain. These strains, or stressors, will increase poverty, erode social cohesion, weaken social support, and heightened social conflict. This paves the way for increased criminality as people’s values become less stringent and they start to see crime as a legitimate way to act out against the source of their strain. The forced migration will result in cramped and sub-par living conditions and work and resources will become increasingly scarce, all of which will provide fertile soil for increased criminality.  And it is not just the change in social structure that results in climate-related strains; Agnew cites research linking increased temperature to aggressive behaviour and heightened irritability. He also tries to link low intelligence to climate-related crime, albeit briefly, by linking it to malnutrition in pregnant women.

So did Agnew manage to convince us that the impact of climate change will do as much to crime rates as it will to sea levels? While we all admitted approaching the article with sceptical eyes, our thoughts on his paper were not as straight forward as we initially expected. Certainly, a cursory exploration reveals that Agnew is not alone in his view that climate change presents the greatest security threat of the 21st century.

The bad news is that we felt overall the article had a distractingly dystopian tone, with the entire plant appearing to edge closer to a Hobbesian state of nature, in which society comes undone due to dramatic climate change, and life becomes a violent, brutish and poverty stricken cycle. This dire state of affairs seemed to override a very important factor in this argument: even if climate change does proceed at catastrophic levels, the detrimental impacts will occur discreetly rather than uniformly. As such, how different societies and governments respond to the challenges of climate change will be highly diverse. The issue is a knottier one then Agnew presents here; one that is as much about government resources and developed democracies as it is about climate change. Evidence of this massively uneven impact can be seen around us with the current international recession; with the influence of austerity playing out very differently across national borders. And unlike the recession, climate change will generally occur at a far more incremental pace, giving states and societies longer to make sense of these changes. And what about the social cohesion that develops after unexpected disasters, such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes; where people pull together in a sense of shared survival and solidarity? Even in places where the state is weakened, people’s shared social values are not instantly dismantled. Despite the planet-wide crisis, climate change will be experienced differently by each nation state and society; a point which should be taken more seriously if climate related criminology is to avoid the ‘dangers of dystopias’, to borrow a phrase from Lucia Zedner.

Some people felt that the arguments around urbanisation could have been teased out more, it being a far more developed area of research; and certainly would have provided a firmer scaffolding on which to hang his argument. However, this is probably a result of Agnew’s bold ambition to sketch a broad overview of this nascent research topic in the limited space provided. As he puts it, his aim in this article is to scan the environmental horizon. Other issues which pose intriguing 21st century problems were mentioned briefly, for example that of corporate crime perpetrated in the avoidance of climate change-related legislation, an area which presents a significant area in itself.

The speculative framework he does present is incredibly rudimentary. However, he concedes this point throughout the article; emphasising that his model is better viewed as a template for further work rather than an already developed thesis.

However, no matter what your intuitive stance on this topic, it would be almost impossible to outright reject it. And despite our criticisms, at the heart of this article there is something very interesting that is worth engaging with. It is well known that people are responsive to the weather, Seasonal Affective Disorder and vitamin D deficiencies being among more popular weather-related ailments. Between the assembled DA members we had an arm length list of anecdotal evidence of weather related changes in behaviour; though, all of these came loaded with provisos and caveats. However, what really piqued our interest was one DA member’s recent research which exposed a clear link between certain offences and the time of year. Obviously this raises more questions than it answers, but it is hard to observe such a persistent annual pattern and not wonder about the environmental factors at play. We felt that much more quantitative and qualitative research of this type will need to be completed before Agnew’s argument can really get off the ground.

So, the question remains: is there a need to develop a distinctly ‘climate criminology’? This article is bursting with possibilities, ideas and theories, no doubt an indication of Agnew’s own passion for this topic, perhaps if he wants to move this area forward a more singular focus should be adopted; allowing the credibility of the various facets of his argument to be excavated. What this article presents is a whistle-stop introduction to a potential new-line of inquiry, and it certainly ignited debate among the assembled DA members, we will eagerly watch to see how Agnew seeks to evolve this topic and the consequences it may have for criminology more broadly. 

To listen to Robert Agnew discuss his article click here.


This month's blog was written by Louise Brangan.

The views expressed in this blog are the author's alone.

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