The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting a strong El Niño season, likely to disrupt global weather patterns in early 2024. Research suggests an El Niño could curtail economic growth, worsening the developing world's debt crisis, and spur armed conflict in heavily affected regions. It is not too soon for the world's creditor nations to pick up the pace on restructuring debt held by developing countries.
El Niños/La Niñas are periods of atypically warm/cool water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The cycling between the two is known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is the strongest source of year-to-year variability in the global climate system. Its broad impact on weather patterns is most acute in the tropics and sub-Saharan Africa, where many economies are dependent on fisheries and rainfed agriculture.
The impacts for growth in these areas could be dire. A recent article in Science by Christopher Callahan and Justin Mankin attribute massive economic losses to the persistent negative effects of El Niños on growth, estimating total losses of $4.1 trillion and $5.7 trillion from the 1982–83 and 1997–98 El Niños, respectively. Their estimates are orders of magnitude above previous ones of El Niño–associated economic losses. Estimates suggest that losses following these weather events could persist up to five years, including the compounding effects of forgone growth and investment, damage to infrastructure due to landslides and flooding, and disease outbreaks.
Some economists, including Matthew Kahn and David Ubilava, question these estimates. But developing countries, especially in Africa and countries where the historic relationship between El Niños and GDP growth is strongest—like Peru, Ghana, and Indonesia—would be devastated by even losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
A strong El Niño could also be politically destabilizing. A Nature article by Solomon Hsiang, Kyle Meng, and Mark Cane found that outbreaks of civil conflicts—armed conflicts between rebels and governments—were more than twice as likely during El Niños relative to La Niñas. Some of the triggers are economic shocks (weather-related or not) or declines in agricultural livelihoods—particularly for subsistence farmers and remote communities. Such armed conflicts have devastating, long-term consequences for both economic and human development.
In a recent article in Marine Policy, my research team found a strong relationship between El Niños and militarized conflict over fisheries among countries adjacent to the East and South China Seas, including China, Japan, and Indonesia. Fisheries disputes among these economies are more than three times as likely to occur during El Niños than during non-Niño conditions. Though these disputes have not sparked full-scale wars, they have led to international incidents with important economic effects. China's embargo of rare earth element exports to Japan during the 2010 Senkaku crisis began with disputes involving fishing vessels, for example.
All these effects are most likely to emerge in developing economies already struggling to pay external debts that have resulted from weak post-COVID-19 economic recoveries and rising interest rates, and that are worsened by disagreements among major creditor nations—principally China and Paris Club members—about burden-sharing in eventual debt restructurings. A strong El Niño could exacerbate the already acute challenge of servicing foreign debt while also attempting to provide critical government services like health care and pay for food and fuel imports. Both the Latin American debt crisis (1982–83) and East Asian financial crisis (1997–98) coincided with some of the strongest El Niños in recorded history.
The debt crises of many countries are a subject of wide discussions involving the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and creditor nations, but broad agreements have been elusive. However, in April, Ghana secured a $3 billion loan from the IMF after China and other creditors came to an agreement, signaling a potential for broader cooperation between China and Western creditors in addressing the developing world's debt overhang. A strong 2023–24 El Niño could raise the stakes on the need for more such cooperation.
1. The authors of the Science article note this co-occurrence and report results as well for models excluding these events that are broadly consistent with their main findings.
This publication does not include a replication package.