Warmer seas, more piracy

Climate change has long been blamed for extreme weather, food shortages and related price increases, and now, it can also be blamed for some of the crimes currently happening in our world’s oceans and seas.

According to new research published in the American Meteorological Society’s Weather, Climate and Society journal by criminology and criminal justice Distinguished University Professor Gary LaFree and former graduate student Bo Jiang, an Assistant Professor at the University of Macau, rising sea temperatures are having an impact on piracy-related crimes.

“When we think of pirates, a guy with a peg leg and a parrot comes to mind, but modern piracy is a much more sophisticated phenomenon,” LaFree explained. “Piracy is an attempt to illegally board a ship—at sea or in port—with the purpose of stealing property and taking hostages for some sort of financial gain. It’s like burglary in common law: Breaking into somebody’s house with the plan to enrich yourself either directly by stealing materials of value, or taking hostages and bargaining for some sort of remuneration.”

Looking at 15 years of sea surface temperatures and maritime piracy data from the South China Sea and the waters that border East Africa, LaFree and Jiang found that rising sea surface temperatures caused an increase in piracy attacks in East Africa due to decreased fish production, and a decrease in piracy attacks in the South China Sea due to increased fish production. The researchers explain that in some parts of the world, there are species of fish that do better when temperatures increase, like fish in the South China Sea, and others that do worse, like in the waters around East Africa.

“These results suggest that as climate change continues, its impact on violence and criminal behavior will likely be complex, with increases and decreases depending on the specific situational context and the rational choices changing sea temperatures generate,” Jiang said.

To LaFree, the findings also add to our understanding of who criminals are—or can be.

“Crime is much more of a dimmer switch than an on-off switch; these fishermen drift into crime when the economy is bad and they drift out of it when they’re able to. This sort of hard dichotomy between criminals and noncriminals is way more porous,” he said.

The results also demonstrate how serious an impact offenses in these areas alone can have on our world economy.

“A huge proportion of all the world’s trade comes through these areas; in terms of total value, we’re talking billions and billions of dollars, so if left unchecked, piracy in especially a few of these narrow straits and bottleneck areas where pirates tend to head can have a huge economic impact,” LaFree added.

Through a new Grand Challenges Individual Project Grant, LaFree and Jiang plan to do a deeper dive into the relationship between climate change and crime by collecting sea surface temperature data from 109 countries with coastlines and seeing how rising temperatures impact acts of political violence, and more specifically, acts of terrorism.

“The proposed research will tell us the extent to which climate change may alter the socio-political and environmental situations where terrorist organizations can proliferate, rise and grow, as well as offer insights into the individual decisions to engage in terrorism,” LaFree concluded.

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