The heated back-and-forth over climate conflict in the blogosphere
and popular press prompts the questions: In the debate over the security threat of a warming planet, who is spewing the hot air? Does climate change precipitate conflict, and if so, who is most at risk?
In Climate Conflict: How Global Warming Threatens Security and What to Do About It
, Jeffrey Mazo
unabashedly argues that weak–but not yet failed–states are at the greatest risk of climate-driven conflict. Packed into only 166 pages, the book takes readers on a crash course through climate science; 10,000 years of human-environmental history; case studies of the pre-modern South Pacific
and modern-day Colombia, Indonesia, and Darfur; and analysis of geopolitical instability and stressors. This tour d’horizon
all builds up to one point: Global warming and climate change threaten our security.
Key to Mazo’s work is the important but oft-overlooked insight that it is not the magnitude of climate change, but the difference between the rate of climate change and a society’s ability to adapt that threatens stability. He also confronts the all-too-common assertion that accepting climate change as a threat multiplier absolves individuals of culpability, and is explicit that intrastate–rather than interstate–conflict is the norm.
The Weakest Are Not the Greatest Threat
Mazo weaves threads of non-traditional and human security throughout the text, asserting that “there is no real contradiction between humanitarian and security goals” (pg. 132). However, his primary concern is the security of the nation-state and the international system. He argues that the next two to four decades are the most relevant time for strategic planning.
Within this context, Mazo claims global warming’s central security challenge will be the threat it poses to stability in states that are either unable or unwilling to adapt. Few will be surprised, therefore, when he says weak, fragile, and failing states appear the most vulnerable.
Mazo suggests that already fragile or failed states lying in climate-sensitive areas–namely a handful of states in sub-Saharan Africa, plus Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan–are the most likely to experience increased volatility as a result of warming-induced climate change. Yet he departs from received wisdom when he suggests that global warming’s greatest threat to international security is actually how it will impact more resilient states like Burkina Faso, Colombia, and Indonesia.
Precisely because they are less at risk, the onset of instability in these states would have a greater impact. Exacerbating conflict or instability in a fragile or failed state, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, would not ripple through the international security framework in dramatically new ways. But the results of new conflict or instability in relatively stable states, such as Colombia, would. Mazo believes that the greater quantitative and qualitative impact of conflict in more resilient states renders them greater areas of concern.
Climate Factor Is One of Many
In no instance will climate change be the sole factor in conflict or state collapse. In already fragile or failed states, such as Sudan, instability is the product of a complex range of factors–political, social, and economic–many of which are non-environmental. “No single factor is necessary or sufficient,” writes Mazo (p. 126).
As it becomes increasingly pronounced, climate change may play a larger role in contributing toward volatility and instability. It is unlikely, however, to precipitate conflict where other risk factors do not already exist.
Adaptation Is Key
To address the threat to otherwise stable countries, Mazo advocates improving their latent capacity for adaptation. Good governance, rule of law, education, economic development: each is a key factor in a state’s ability to adapt. Variations across these factors may explain why death tolls from natural disasters in Bangladesh have fallen in recent years while those in Burma have risen.
Adaptation efforts should prioritize weak or recovering states that “have proved able to cope but are at particular risk,” Mazo writes (p. 133). Failing or failed states are either too susceptible to other conflict factors or too far advanced along the path of instability for adaptation to be of use to forestalling threats to international security. His argument is not to consign those in the most dire circumstances to a perpetual state of misery but, from a security perspective, to focus constrained resources on states where they will have the greatest impact. In states with the capacity to effectively absorb inflows, adaptation can preempt conflict, not simply reduce it.
Mazo does not ignore mitigation, and recognizes that it works in tandem with adaptation: Mitigation “is the only way of avoiding the most dire consequences of global warming, which would exceed the capacity of individuals, nations or the international system to adapt,” he notes (p. 124). Nevertheless, he argues that mitigation strategies “take much longer to bear fruit,” and that a certain amount of warming in the short- to medium-term is inevitable (p. 133). Against this warming, resilient adaptation is our best defense.
Case in Point: Indonesia
One otherwise stable state whose stability is threatened by climate change is Indonesia. Having suffered political and social unrest following the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and sectarian violence following Timor Leste’s independence in 1999, Indonesia avoided both failure and collapse to emerge as a flawed but vibrant democracy and Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
Indonesia is now home to the largest Muslim population in the world and is a key to regional security, yet its success “is potentially threatened by climate change,” writes Mazo; “food insecurity will be the greatest risk” (pg. 116).
Annual mean temperatures in Indonesia rose by 0.3°C between 1990 and 2005, and are predicted to rise an additional 0.36-0.47°C by 2020. The rainy seasons will shorten, increasing the risk of either flooding or drought. El Nino weather patterns–which in 1997 damaged over 400,000 hectares of rice and coffee, cocoa, and rubber cash crops–are expected to become more extreme and frequent in the future.
Climate change will further widen the substantial wealth gap between Indonesia’s rich and poor and, when it has differential impacts in different regions, “could lead to a revival of separatism” (pg. 117). While Mazo says threats from climate change will not be enough to push Indonesia into instability by themselves, he warns that if other destabilizing factors begin to emerge, “the added stress of climate change could accelerate the trend” (pg. 117).
Short and Sweet
Unlike some popular commentators on climate and security, Mazo does not confound brevity with hyperbole. While its concise format best lends itself to policymakers, students, and curious readers who are short on time, Climate Conflict’s content and its compendium of more than 320 citations make it deserving of a spot on everyone’s bookshelf.