“There are political and economic vulnerabilities that are in fact more important—or seem more important—to the participants of conflict than the physical vulnerability to climate change,” said Clionadh Raleigh at the February 19, 2009, event, “Climate Security Roundtable: U.S. and EU Research and Policy.” Raleigh, a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, was joined by Nick Mabey, founding director and chief executive of E3G, and Sharon Burke, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, to discuss climate change’s impact on conflict and how the United States and European Union (EU) have begun to adapt their foreign and security policies to the threat of climate change.
Ecological Change, Migration, and Conflict: A Complex Story
“The lack of access to power for certain communities, certain ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa, and basic access to resources among the most vulnerable populations has led to people misinterpreting the relationship that ecological change plays in their decision to either participate in conflict or to migrate,” Raleigh said. Although Raleigh’s research, which examined civil conflicts from 1990 to 2004, found that population density and growth were related to higher risks of conflict, “environmental pressures were not more likely to cause conflict in poor states—and not more likely during periods of instability,” she concluded. “Social, political, and economic factors are the most important determinants of civil war within developing countries,” she emphasized. “Poverty and unequal development come up time and time again.”
According to Raleigh, fears of mass international migration in response to climate change are overplayed. “Individuals and communities have quite a lot of coping mechanisms to deal with ecological difficulty,” including migration from rural to urban areas in the same country, she explained. Most migration, including labor and distress migration, “is temporary, internal, and circular,” she emphasized. “There is very little to no evidence that there will be an increase in international migration” in response to ecological change, although “there is evidence that there will be an increase in internal migration.”
Climate Change and Security: Perspectives from the EU
“Climate change is serious,” emphasized Mabey. “It’s a threat multiplier, it will make unstable places less stable—it’s going to change strategic interests, alliances, borders, threats, economic relationships, comparative advantages, the nature of international relations, and the legitimacy of the UN.” In the future, “security policy will need to get more preventive and risk-based because climate change just injects a huge bolt of uncertainty into the future,” said Mabey. He urged the expansion of forward-looking information systems that provide policymakers with the data they need to make decisions at the geopolitical, strategic, and operations levels. He also said security experts should strive to communicate the potential consequences of climate change to decisionmakers.
The EU has taken steps to integrate climate change into its security strategy; Great Britain, Germany, and Denmark have taken the lead. The Arctic has been a particular focus, with security experts examining trade routes, maritime zones, and new access to resources. Climate change “is not all about instability” in fragile, impoverished states, Mabey explained. “The Arctic is by far the most important climate security issue in the minds of traditional foreign-policy types in Europe.”
Environmental Security Gets a New Tool: The Climate War Game
Last year, Burke helped conduct a climate change war game based on a scenario of extreme weather events like droughts, wildfires, and cyclones. “Every country sort of hewed to what you would expect,” said Burke of the high-profile participants from China, India, Europe, and the United States. “The EU team spent the first two hours debating whether they could really be a country; the Indian team instantly came up with a negotiating strategy that sounded cooperative and brilliant but was completely impossible to execute; the Chinese team was, ‘No, we’re not going to do anything unless you pay us’; and the American team was keen to lead, only nobody was following.” One of the key lessons from the game, Burke explained, was that “everything comes down to what China is prepared to do.”
In developing the game, Burke and her colleagues discovered “that there’s a vast poverty of the kinds of information that you need to make decisions.” As Burke explained, policymakers need specific data “to obligate large amounts of money and personnel,” and the game revealed that “policymakers don’t have the information they need to make decisions.”
Photos: From top to bottom, Clionadh Raleigh, Nick Mabey, and Sharon Burke. Courtesy of Dave Hawxhurst and the Woodrow Wilson Center.