At an American University event on his new book, Climate Change and Armed Conflict: Hot and Cold Wars
, the Center for Teaching Excellence’s James Lee identified some plausible scenarios that the international community will have to face to adequately and peacefully address the security impacts of climate change.
With the loss of glaciers and normal river flows, international boundaries that have long been determined by these natural barriers will be called into question, Lee said, raising legitimate issues of sovereignty, migration, and land rights. How will countries separated by large glaciers or rivers deal with their more open and easily accessible borders? Will people who depend on these resources migrate into other countries in search of water? How will these changes impact countries that share these resources?
In his presentation, Lee argued that climate change will lead to violent conflict, using the historical record of climate change and conflict to prove his point. But most of the cases cited occurred before the 20th century, and the changes in climate then were much different than what we are now facing.
Today, we live in a world that is truly global in both governance and accountability. Issues such as severe environmental degradation or scarcity can be a factor in conflict within a country, but the potential for climate change to cause an international conflict is not as high as some warn.
There are multiple variables on the causal chain between climate change and conflict that can be addressed now, through national efforts and international cooperation. Countries can start with strong governance initiatives now to ensure that future problems of transboundary water scarcity, migration trends, and border changes do not lead to conflict.
For example, while climate change may lead to water scarcity, declines in agricultural production, and therefore to food insecurity, countries can avoid this outcome by leasing agricultural land in countries that won’t face high levels of water stress.
In addition, countries could avoid future disagreements over territory by negotiating a shared understanding of borders independent of geographic markers such as rivers or glaciers. These and other variables can be addressed now in order to mitigate the risk of future conflicts.
Renegotiating Water, Avoiding Conflict
Uppsala University Professor Ashok Swain, who spoke via Skype, took a different tack than Lee, stating that the links between climate change and conflict lack proper research. He was concerned by the hard security linkages being made with climate change and called for further exploration.
But Swain identified one potential trouble spot: While interactions over shared river systems have been shown to be overwhelmingly cooperative rather than violent, he voiced concern that the changes brought by climate change are not encompassed in the scope of current water-sharing agreements, which could increase the likelihood of conflict, according to Swain.
In the same way that leasing agricultural abroad or negotiating a shared understanding of borders now could help mitigate conflict in the future, so could renegotiating and strengthening current water-sharing agreements to reflect the future effects of climate change.
Cooperation to ensure sustainable access to shared water sources will still be more likely than conflict, simply because it is more cost-effective. If, as Lee writes in his book, climate change will cause a society’s accumulated wealth to decline, then the cost of mitigating the negative effects of climate change by using force to secure a resource would be too high for any nation to pursue.
Photo: Cracked earth, from the lack of water and baked from the heat of the sun, forms a pattern in the Nature Reserve of Popenguine, Senegal. Courtesy United Nations.