In Quest to Understand Climate Change and Conflict, Avoid SimplificationMarch 18, 2014 By François Gemenne
As the war in Syria shows no signs of letting up, a recent article in Middle Eastern Studies put forward the hypothesis that the brutal conflict was triggered by government mismanagement of the country’s recent drought, which lasted from 2006 to 2010. It’s a story we’ve heard before.
Over the past few years, climate change has been increasingly portrayed as a threat to security and stability across the world. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the war in Darfur as “arising at least in part from climate change” in 2007, and the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore were awarded the Nobel Prize – not for physics, but for peace.
I recently co-edited a special issue of Climatic Change, alongside Jon Barnett, Neil Adger, and Geoff Dabelko, in which we sought to review the recent history of climate change and conflict work published by NGOs, think-tanks and advocacy groups – the so-called “grey literature” – and highlight aspects of the nexus that had been under-researched and overshadowed so far.
Focus on Root Causes
Debate on the human security dimensions of climate change has often been cast from a deterministic perspective, where global warming will automatically translate into mass migrations, competition for resources and land, and ultimately conflict and devastation. There are two problems with this rhetoric.The IPCC and Al Gore were awarded the Nobel Prize not for physics, but for peace
First, it risks skewing responses by states towards defensive measures and reinforcing external borders rather than addressing the root causes of the problem. When climate change was first presented as an issue for the UN Security Council to take up in 2007 (by the United Kingdom), many countries – and especially developing countries – stood against the idea, insisting it was a matter of sustainable development rather than security.
Second, claims about the impacts of climate change on conflict are insufficiently supported by scientific evidence. There are many ways by which climate change will and indeed likely already is affecting the security of populations; the IPCC recently acknowledged this through the addition of a chapter looking specifically at human security in the Fifth Assessment Report, to be released later this month. But most of the literature on the climate-conflict links, so far, has been published in the form of policy briefs or reports by NGOs, think tanks, and government agencies. And though these works have done a great job convincing the national security community that climate change will lead to conflict, they haven’t been able to provide equally convincing explanations as to why and how this might happen.
As a result, though strong statistical correlations have been observed between climate anomalies and violent conflicts, the causality for such correlations has triggered virulent debates and controversies, especially (but not only) between quantitative and qualitative studies, as argued in a recent paper by Andrew Solow.
Engage the Social Sciences
In the introduction to this special issue of Climatic Change we argue, broadly, that attempts to understand the links between climate change and violent conflict have been accompanied by insufficient engagement of the social sciences, in particular with regard to the power imbalances associated with (and sometimes created by) climate change.
Four challenges are highlighted in particular:
These are important questions to answer – if only to prevent a self-fulfilling prophecy
- First, researchers working on this nexus need to better understand not only what causes competition and conflict, but also peace and cooperation. This will allow us to design policies that foster and support cooperation, rather than just minimize risks through security responses.
- We should also seek to develop explanatory models to reflect on the observed correlation between climate anomalies and conflicts. Too often we imply causality from correlation, and yet we still lack plausible models and theories for how and why certain results actually occur. This will require a greater engagement with the social sciences.
- There’s a need to re-embed the issue of power into the discourse on climate and conflict. At the end of the day, vulnerability is a function of power and we need to take this into account if we want to stand a good chance of understanding how climate variables interact with the components of human security.
- Finally, as I highlighted in a previous guest post, there’s only so much we can learn from the past. Yet most of what we “know” about the interactions between climate variables and security problems derives from past observations. With the possibility that global temperatures might increase by four degrees (or more) by the end of the century, there is a risk that we might reach tipping points that fundamentally change the way climate and security interact with each other.
These neglected issues constitute new challenges and should form the basis of a new research agenda. Hopefully the special issue will be a step towards better understanding how climate and security mutually influence each other and how policies can facilitate positive outcomes for these interactions.
If we’re to avoid a future of devastated homes, land, and infrastructure and more frequent terrorist attacks, which the U.S. Department of Defense’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review warned of only this month, these are important questions to answer – if only to prevent a self-fulfilling prophecy.
François Gemenne is a research fellow in political science with the University of Versailles (CEARC) and the University of Liège (CEDEM). He teaches the geopolitics of climate change at Sciences Po Paris and the Free University of Brussels, and recently guest-edited a special issue of Climatic Change with Neil Adger, Jon Barnett, and Geoff Dabelko.
Sources: Carbon and Climate Law Review, Climatic Change, Helix Climate, Middle Eastern Studies, Nature, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The Washington Post.
Photo Credit: A child holds up bullets in Darfur, 2011, courtesy of Albert Gonzalez Farran/UN Photo.