Climate change linked to the growing number of African and Asian pirates

Scientists just began studying the connection between weather and crime. No serious reason to worry about yet, but beware – decaying environment fuels poverty and despair.

Climate change is a multifaceted phenomenon with far-reaching consequences that extend beyond the realms of meteorological anomalies and environmental shifts. Recent research has unearthed a connection between climate change and a surprising consequence - maritime piracy.

While this association might seem unbelievable at first glance, the underlying mechanisms and rational choices at play warrant serious attention, according to the authors of a groundbreaking study published last April in the American Meteorological Society journal. 

The paper, titled “Climate change, fish production, and maritime piracy,” explores the relationship between rising sea temperatures, fish production, and the proliferation of pirate attacks in regions such as East Africa and the South China Sea.

Historically, research has paid little attention to the interplay between climate change and criminal behavior. However, sociologist Bo Jiang of the University of Macau, China, and Gary LaFree, a criminal justice expert at the University of Maryland, USA, found evidence that economic insecurity, stemming from climate-induced disruptions, can significantly influence individual decisions regarding criminal involvement.

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The two scientists looked closely at professions reliant on the environment, such as fishing, and at areas where the effects of climate change are particularly accentuated.

They observed, for example, that fishermen, in times of hardship and despair, can turn to piracy as a solution to compensate losses from their peaceful trade.

Warming waters

The study examined data spanning over two decades and analyzed more than 2,000 acts of piracy in two piracy-prone regions: East Africa and the South China Sea. It employed rising sea surface temperatures as a proxy for fish output, attributing declining fish production to warming waters in East Africa and increased fish production to rising temperatures in the South China Sea.

Surprisingly, the results unveiled a distinct pattern. In East Africa, where sea temperatures are on the rise, declining fish stocks have contributed to economic instability, subsequently fueling an upsurge in pirate attacks. Conversely, in the South China Sea, where warming waters bolster fish production, pirate attacks have shown a decline. These findings emphasize that the relationship between climate change and maritime piracy is not uniform but rather contingent on the specific context of the affected region.

At demographic level, the study highlights that some of the individuals engaging in piracy were initially fishermen who turned to crime due to economic hardships resulting from fluctuating fish stocks.

The findings hold that climate change can have ripple effects on diverse aspects of society, including criminal behavior. The results emphasize the disproportionate burden that climate change places on vulnerable communities, particularly those with limited resources to mitigate its impacts.

As climate change continues to unfold, things get worse when weather becomes violent and destroys critical supplies and infrastructure, driving even more people into need and poverty.

The unexpected association between climate change and maritime piracy underscores the complex and far-reaching consequences of a warming planet. It will require policy- and decision-makers to bend their ears to researchers in order to craft strategies to address the impact of climate change.

The International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre said last April, at the time the Jiang/LaFree paper was published, that after years of rising number of pirate attacks, in the first quarter of 2023 it recorded the lowest level of reported global piracy and armed robbery incidents at sea since 1993. 

In 2021, Swiss insurer Zurich Insurance estimated the annual cost of piracy to the global economy at 12 billion dollars a year.