Southern Madagascar is suffering its worst drought in decades, devastating crops and leaving more than a million people in need of urgent food aid. And for months, United Nations officials have warned that the African island nation is on the brink of the world’s first climate-change-induced famine.

Now, new research has cast doubt on whether global warming is the main cause — underscoring the pitfalls of viewing food crises primarily as a result of human-caused climate impact.

Factors including poverty, natural weather variability and the coronavirus pandemic have had a bigger effect on Madagascar’s food crisis than climate change, according to a study published Wednesday by World Weather Attribution, an international research collective.

It is likely that climate change contributed to increased droughts in the region, the scientists said, though they added that “these trends remain overwhelmed by natural variability.”

“When you just blame everything on climate change then you take all the agency away from local decision-makers to actually deal with the disasters,” Friederike Otto, co-head of the researchers, told Reuters.

The group of scientists based in the Asia-Pacific, Africa, Europe and the United States used peer-reviewed methods to assess the extent human actions were responsible for the below-average rainfall in southern Madagascar.

Officials from the U.N. World Food Program have for months been referring to the crisis in Madagascar as being driven by climate change. A senior WFP official in the country said in November that pockets of the country’s south were experiencing “famine-like conditions,” which he described as “basically the only — maybe the first — climate change famine on Earth.”

WFP didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

To be sure, Madagascar does face a severe climate threat, which at the global scale is likely to worsen despite pledges made by world leaders at a U.N. climate summit in Glasgow last month. The nation of just under 30 million is projected to experience increased droughts and more severe cyclones, according to an August report by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

World Weather Attribution’s research suggests that if existing challenges such as poverty, poor infrastructure and overreliance on agriculture aren’t managed, even minor changes in climate patterns could be “absolutely catastrophic” for Madagascar, Otto told Reuters.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world; in 2018, nearly half its children were chronically malnourished. Poverty is particularly severe in the country’s south, which researchers say makes it even more challenging for people in local communities, who are dependent on rain-fed crops, to cope with extended periods of drought.

Mark Howden, a climate expert at the Australian National University who was not involved in the new research, agreed with the collective’s conclusion that famines shouldn’t be seen “solely or even primarily a function of climate or related factors.”

However, he said the “biggest issue” with the study is that it only deals with rainfall, adding that factors “such as temperature and potential evaporation” also need to be considered when studying droughts.

“A particular influence in the Madagascar situation over the past years relates to temperature and wind fields across the Indian Ocean and downwards to the Southern Ocean, and arguably the latter has a climate change signal,” he said.