Robert Agnew is perhaps most famous for his development of the “general strain” theory of crime. He’s recently written an article for the Journal of Theoretical Criminology called “Dire Forecast: A Theoretical Model of the Impact of Climate Change on Crime.” In this interview, Agnew explains why he thinks climate change may become one of the biggest drivers behind rising crime rates in the 21st century. To listen to the full Office Hours podcast discussion with Agnew, click here.
Sarah Shannon: I’d bet a lot of people visiting The Society Pages are wondering, “What in the world would climate change have to do with something like crime?” How did you first get interested in possible links between the two?
Robert Agnew: Well, you know, I’ve been a criminologist for several decades now, but I’ve also had a personal interest in climate change since the mid-90s. With each passing year, I became more and more concerned about climate change and what it might bring. As the science has become more certain, and as forecasts have become more dire, I’ve really begun to feel almost something of a moral obligation: this is, perhaps, the greatest crisis that will confront humanity. I really need to be doing something about it. It occurred to me that my particular strength is academic research—maybe there’s something that I could do in that area to make the greatest contribution.
As I began to look at the literature on climate change, I noticed initially the predictions focused on just the physical impact of climate change, but more and more, social and behavioral scientists were getting involved. Some political scientists, for example, were talking about the possible impact of climate change on social conflict; public health researchers talked about the impact on health; and others talked about the impact on migration. It occurred to me that there’s good reason to think that climate change might also have an impact on crime.
This isn’t something that criminologists have devoted much attention to, although I might mention that an emerging area in the field of criminology is known as “green” or “environmental criminology,” but there wasn’t really much discussion about how climate change might impact crime. Since most of the work I do in criminology focuses on the causes of crime, I decided to take my emerging knowledge of climate change, combine it with my knowledge of the causes of crime, and argue that there’s good reason to believe that, if climate change proceeds, it may become one of the major forces—if not the major force—driving crime.
So, that’s the origin of my interest: just combining my professional interest in criminology with a personal interest in climate change along with a strong feeling that this is a major problem and I need to do something about it. Research is, perhaps, the best way I can contribute.
Shannon: That’s great! I know so many of us are thinking, “I’ve got to change the kind of light bulbs I use or cut down on the use of the car,” but you’re thinking, “How can I use my research skills to impact this problem?”
What are some of the aspects of climate change you see as being most connected to crime or mechanisms we know increase crime?
Agnew: First, let me give a little background on climate change—what it is and some of its different effects. Climate change basically is being driven by an increase in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, principally carbon dioxide, but also other gases like methane. And, we’re quite certain that this increase is largely due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels, to a lesser extent deforestation.
Climate change itself involves several related phenomena. It’s gonna involve, among other things, a rise in average temperature (and this is already happening, this isn’t the future). Twelve of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last 13 years. If you’ve been listening to the news lately, even up north we’re setting a lot of record temperatures. A few decades ago, the ratio of record highs to record lows was about 1:1, but recently that has changed to about 2:1. The average annual temperature in the United States has increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 years, with close to a 5 to 7 degree Fahrenheit increase in Alaska and western Canada. Most scientists agree that anything more than a 2 degree Celsius increase will bring catastrophic results; right now, we’re expecting maybe a 4-5 degree increase by the end of the century, if not sooner.
In addition to a rise in average temperature, climate change will bring changing patterns of precipitation. It’s going to get warmer, sea level is going to rise, and also there’s going to be an increase in extreme weather events: heat waves, droughts, cyclones, hurricanes, floods. Once more, that’s already starting to happen, and there are some examples of that. So, for example, the 2003 European heat wave killed over 70,000 people, including 15,000 or more in France, where temperatures reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Melting glaciers in the Alps caused flooding in Switzerland. Over 5% of the total forest area in Portugal burned. There was a 30% drop in plant productivity due to drought. In the last year or so, there have been numerous instances of drought, heat waves, and flooding in China, Pakistan, Russia, Australia, the horn of Africa, and here in the United States.
These are some of the phenomena associated with climate change, and they are going to have a number of effects that, I argue, will directly and indirectly increase crime. Climate change is going to impose heightened economic demands on nations that are not prepared to meet that challenge. For example, things like rising temperature, rising sea level, extreme weather events—they’re going to damage infrastructure. Roads, bridges, pipelines, power lines, water sanitation facilities, and a lot of nations aren’t going to be able to recover from that. It’s going to hurt their economic development and contribute to poor health outcomes, transportation problems, you name it. They’re not going to have the economic resources to adapt to and recover from climate change.
Another impact: increased migration. Drought is going to force people off the land, sea level rise will force coastal inhabitants to move, social conflict might force many to flee to safer areas, and extreme weather events and forest fires are going to destroy homes and livelihoods. Some estimates say that, by mid-century, we may have literally hundreds of millions of environmental migrants, though the estimates in this area vary a lot. There’s little doubt that climate change will dramatically increase migration across borders and within countries, and that it’ll increase social conflict with competition over scarce resources—competitions between nations, and also competitions between groups within nations. Migration produced by climate change will foster social conflict especially when migrants move to areas where resources are scarce and where there are pre-existing social divisions between the migrants and the people in the receiving area. Climate change is going to weaken states.
And so, in short—I know I’ve been rambling a bit perhaps!—climate change is going to set off a number of major physical, economic, health, and social effects. Many of these effects may impact causes of crime in ways that increase the likelihood of crime. Climate change may become the major driving force behind crime as the century progresses.
Shannon: For those who aren’t familiar with crime theories, how might climate change link to crime increases?
Agnew: In the paper, basically, I talk about the impact of climate change on seven or eight leading theories of crime. Let me begin with the theory where I do most of my work: strain theory.
There’s good evidence that certain strains or stressors increase the likelihood of crime. Not all strains or stressors, but those that are high in magnitude, those that are seen as unjust, those that have certain other characteristics. And people who experience these strains, these stresses, among other things, they experience a range of negative emotions. They become upset, angry, frustrated, depressed, and so on, and that creates pressure to take corrective action. You feel bad, you want to do something about it. And one possible response—certainly not the only one or even the most common—but one possible response is crime. There’s good reason to think that climate change will increase the number of strains or stressors and thereby increase crime. Let me give you just a few examples.
Climate change is going to result in an uncomfortable increase in temperature, both average temperature and temperature spikes. And there have been, not a lot of research, but some research suggesting that when the temperature rises, particularly when there’s a large increase in temperature (past a certain threshold), crime increases, especially violent crime, but perhaps also property crime. There’s also some evidence that the effect of temperature is stronger in low-income areas, where access to air conditioning is limited, and rural areas, where outdoor activity is more common. Climate change is going to increase average temperature, temperature spikes, and heat waves, and there’s some research suggesting that, when temperature increases, it may increase crime. In part, this is for reasons related to strain theory. It makes people angry, irritable, touchy. Also, it may increase crime for reasons related to the other theories. So, when it’s warmer, people, for example, spend more time outdoors, and so there’s more opportunity for crime with more people interacting with one another.
Another example: we know that climate change is going to increase extreme weather events—floods, hurricanes, droughts—and blackouts will increase, as well. These events are not only strains or stressors in and of themselves, they can lead to a host of additional strains: physical injury, death, destruction of home and property, loss of livelihood, and so on. And there’s been some research on natural disaster and crime, and, interestingly, most of the research suggests that crime, despite popular perception, decreases after a natural disaster. People kind of pull together, they help one another, they take care, but in some cases, crime increases after a natural disaster. So, for example, this was the case with Hurricane Hugo in St. Croix; Andrew in Homestead, Florida; Katrina for certain categories of people. The most recent research suggests that natural disasters are more likely to increase crime when disaster victims believe the government will be unable to meet pressing needs for food, water, shelter; the disaster, post-disaster problems are blamed on others; security is lax; and there are pre-existing divisions or resentments among those in the affected area.
As climate change proceeds, disasters, I argue, will increasingly have these features. They’ll become more frequent and severe, straining the ability of people and governments to meet basic needs and provide security; they’ll often be blamed on other individuals (as climate change proceeds, as knowledge about climate change grows, people will increasingly realize this isn’t an act of nature, an act of God, or a random event, that this is something that, you know, was created by people); and these natural disasters, I argue, will more often occur in the context of social division. So that’s another strain that I argue will increase crime.
Yet another: food and fresh water shortages. It’s not unreasonable to suppose these might lead to crimes like theft, aggression (against those blamed for the shortages), maybe corporate and state crimes (like price-gouging, forced displacement, and so on). There hasn’t, in criminology, been a whole lot of research on the impact of food and fresh water shortage on crime, but there’s been a little research. For example, studies among the homeless suggest that homeless individuals that report that they’re particularly hungry are more likely to engage in crime, and certain anecdotal evidence suggests that food and fresh water shortages might increase crime. So, for example, when food prices spiked in the mid-2000s, increased by over 80%, there were riots in 30 countries.
Climate change will increase poverty and inequality. Many people will lose their jobs, lose their livelihood because of extreme weather events, sea level rise, poor health, forced migration, and social conflict. One of the things that we know about climate change, natural disaster, and so on is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Not surprisingly, the wealthy people in developed countries are much better able to adapt. They suffer less. And so, natural disaster, among other things, increases inequality, and that exacerbates the effects of poverty. It makes poverty seem all the more, ah, all the more serious, all the more unjust. Poverty and inequality are among major causes of crime.
Forced migration, I argue, is another stressor that may increase crime. Now, again, you look at the literature: immigration in and of itself doesn’t seem to increase crime, but, in certain cases it does, and I argue that the immigration that will be associated with climate change will be forced migration. People immigrating will experience a range of stressors: people in the receiving areas may be hostile to immigration, competition over scarce resources, etc.
Climate change will reduce coping skills and resources. It’ll rob people of financial and other resources. It’ll reduce social support. Governments will be less able to provide assistance. You’ll be less likely to turn to family, friends, and so on for assistance, because they are suffering, too. So that’s just one of the arguments that I make, you know. Again, I’m drawing primarily on strain theory.
But I argue that climate change will also impact the other causes of crime. It’ll reduce social control, it’ll foster beliefs conducive to the crime, it’ll increase social conflict, and so on.
Shannon: In your article, you so comprehensively march through the major crime theories and make these connections. Could you discuss some of the “legal coping strategies” you believe might mitigate some of these potential consequences?
Agnew: Great question. I’m talking about what might happen in the future based on what we know about climate change and the predicted effects of climate change, along with theories of crime, and, in some cases, small bodies of research. And so it’s a speculative article—this is what might happen. But, it doesn’t have to happen.
One of the major reasons that I’ve written this article is to sort of help sound the alarm and say, “Hey! This is something, this is a problem we need to take very seriously.” If the predictions that the large majority of scientists working in the area are making come true, you know, there’s good reason to believe that this is one possible consequence, a very serious increase in crime, a rather dramatic reduction in social order. But again, I say that this doesn’t have to be the future. That there are ways that we can deal with it.
Obviously, one way that we can deal with it is we can take steps to reduce those actions which contribute to climate change. Unfortunately, if you have been paying any attention to the media, you know that we haven’t been doing a whole lot in that area, and so, the United Nations, for example, has been sponsoring international conferences on climate change. You know, not much has resulted from those conferences. But, you know, we certainly need to do a lot more in that area, because, again, you know, we want to hold the increase in temperature to maybe 2 degrees Celsius maximum (many argue that we shouldn’t go beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius), but we’re heading on a trajectory that will take us well beyond that. And so, there are a number of things that we can do, from conservation, promoting green energy, changes in lifestyle, etc.
Beyond that, we also need to be thinking about adapting to climate change and its effects. Because even if we could somehow magically see-saw carbon emissions tomorrow, you know, if carbon is in the atmosphere, it’s going to stay there for a long time, and the climate change that has begun will continue. So, we need to think about how to adapt to climate change, and particularly need to help those countries in the developing world and certain groups in all countries (including in the developed world) that will suffer the most from climate change—the poor, females, in certain countries certain racial minority groups, the very old, the very young—help them better adapt. Some cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, are developing climate action plans. Not too long ago, for example, there was a major heat wave in Chicago. A lot of people died, suffered very badly from it. So that’s one of the reasons that Chicago is leading the way among U.S. cities to deal with this: they don’t want a repeat of that. Some companies are actually taking a lot of action in this area, too.
So, there are a number of things we can do, one, both to reduce the extent of climate change and two, to better adapt to it, to reduce the likelihood that, you know, one, as the effects of climate change become more severe, people don’t have to go out and turn to crime to get that fresh water, to get that food, etc., that cities or countries are better prepared to meet their needs so that they don’t turn to crime.
Shannon: Are there any other things in your mind that we should be doing right now to prevent and maybe decrease some of the severity of these impacts?
Agnew: Well, you know, fortunately we’re in a situation where we actually have a pretty good idea of what we need to do. It’s not like we desperately need more research, we don’t know how to respond—there are a number of strategies we can take, and there’s good reason to believe these strategies will even be cost-effective over the long run. I guess the final point that I want to make is that I think that it is great that you’re promoting public criminology, you’re reaching out and trying to share research with a broader audience. That’s especially important in an area like climate change, where there’s a lack of knowledge out there, there’s a lot of misunderstanding. It’s important for academics and researchers to get the word out and challenge misinformation.