Climate Change and Crime

Written by Dr. Gary Potter

Climate change is one of those issues Americans have a hard time getting a grip on. After all, it’s cumulative and gradual, unlike the immediate threat of a tornado or hurricane. And more importantly, it requires that we actually do something that might impinge on our pathological need for useless and destructive consumption. How are we Americans to demonstrate the value of our lives without the biggest cars and trucks, the newest electronic devices, the most massive televisions and a fleet of ATVs ready to tear up the countryside?

But now we have a new concern about climate change. Two natural antagonists, academic researchers and the U.S. military have both discovered an obvious fact. Climate change will have a profound impact on crime. As the climate changes and the earth warms destructive and disorganizing social changes will inevitably occur. Suddenly the use of land, the ownership of water, bio-security and the production and distribution of food will begin to have “criminal” implications on both the top and bottom of society. Natural disasters will disrupt communities. Corporate environmental disasters like the recent nuclear plant failure in Japan will become more common. And some of us will begin to ask whether ecological genocide is a form of corporate crime.

Surprisingly it was the Department of Defense in its 2014 version of its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which gave form and substance to these concerns. The report didn’t equivocate on the issue: "Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating."

The DOD called climate change a catalyst for conflict and crime which threatens national security: "The nature and pace of observed climate changes -- and an emerging scientific consensus on their projected consequences -- pose severe risks for our national security." The report cites many potential problems, but a few are illustrative of the scope of the problem:

  • Rising sea levels threaten the food supply in coastal regions of countries like India and Bangladesh. This will cause massive problems and refuges seek to relocate. This will result in massive undocumented migration and will turn these areas into fertile recruiting grounds for “terrorists.”
  • The increase in the strength of severe weather events, which has already impacted the U.S., the Philippines, Malaysia and other areas, will create greater demand for American troops to aid in rescue and recovery efforts and maintain order.
  • In parts of the world organized violence is already occurring over water rights. As the Nile and major rivers in India dry up, not to mention Lake Mead in Nevada and the rest of Colorado River system, that violence will intensify.

The DOD report warns that all of these impacts become force multipliers with particular relevance to terrorism: "These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions -- conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."

But it’s not just terrorism, violence over natural resources and massive population dislocations that we have to worry about. For years criminologists have noted the obvious connection between climate, seasons, temperatures and crime. The implications are obvious. In the depths of winter during deep freezes there is a marked decline in “outdoor” crimes like robbery. In the summer, when temperatures are high there is an increase in violent crimes. While these connections are tenuous and not terribly enlightening they begin to take a different form when considered in the light of climate change occurring over decades. While mathematical modeling is imprecise, the prediction of trends using this technique is relatively reliable. Research looking at a 30-year panel of crime and weather data for U.S. counties shows a clear impact of weather on crime. In particular it shows that temperature has a strong positive effect on criminal behavior.

Using the data from the last thirty years to assess the impact of climate change produces a chilling estimate. In the United States alone, climate change over the next 90 years will cause an additional 22,000 murders, 180,000 cases of rape, 1.2 million aggravated assaults, 2.3 million simple assaults, 260,000 robberies, 1.3 million burglaries, 2.2 million cases of larceny, and 580,000 cases of vehicle theft in the United States. That may be something to worry about.

Gary Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies


Davenport, C. 2014. Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military Researchers. New York Times, May 13.

Ranson, M. 2014, Crime, weather, and climate change. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 67, 3: 274-302.

White, R. (ed.) 2012. Climate Change from a Criminological Perspective. New York: Springer.

Published on May 27, 2014