Coping with Complexity: Toward Epistemological Pluralism in Climate–Conflict Scholarship

Academic article

Over the last two decades, climate security has become an increasingly salient policy agenda in international fora. Yet, despite a large body of research, the empirical links between climate-change and conflict remain highly uncertain. This paper contends that uncertainty around climate–conflict links should be understood as characteristic of complex social–ecological systems rather than a problem that can be fully resolved. Rather than striving to eliminate uncertainty, we suggest that researchers need to learn to cope with it. To this end, this article advances a set of principles for guiding scholarly practice when investigating a complex phenomenon: recognizing epistemological uncertainty, embracing epistemological diversity, and practicing humility and dialogue across difference. Taken together the authors call this ethos epistemological pluralism, whereby scholars self-consciously recognize the limits of their chosen epistemology for understanding the climate–conflict nexus and engage with other approaches without attempting to usurp them. Reviewing the last decade of climate–conflict scholarship, Beumont and de Coning show that climate–conflict research already manifests many of these ideals; however, they also identify problematic patterns of engagement across epistemological divides and thus plenty of scope for improvement. To illustrate why a diversity of methods (e.g., qualitative and quantitative) will not suffice, the article critically discusses prior research to illustrate why at least two epistemological approaches—constructivism and positivism—cannot be synthesized or integrated without significant analytical cost, and elaborates why excluding insights from any one would lead to an impoverished understanding of the climate–conflict nexus. The authors conclude with five practical recommendations of how scholars can help realize the ideal of epistemological pluralism in practice.