Amid the growing number of reports warning that climate change could threaten national security, another potentially dangerous – but counterintuitive – dimension has been largely ignored. Could efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and lower our vulnerability to climate change inadvertently exacerbate existing conflicts – or create new ones?
The Wilson Center Policy Briefs are a series of short analyses of critical global issues facing the next administration that will run until inauguration day.
Seven billion people now live on Earth, only a dozen years after the global population hit six billion. But this milestone is not about sheer numbers. Demographic trends will significantly affect the planet’s resources and people’s security.
›August 17, 2012 // By Geoff Dabelko
I have a bit of news to share. After 15 years at the Wilson Center, I will be moving back to my home town of Athens, Ohio, next week. This fall I will become a professor at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, where I will serve as director of environmental studies and work in their campus-wide Consortium on Energy, Economics, and the Environment.
I am very pleased that I will continue working as a senior advisor to the Environmental Change and Security Program, as both the university and the Wilson Center are eager for me to stay connected on current projects and foster new collaborations. This new role will certainly evolve over time and I look forward to continuing to work with all of you from this different perch.
›March 27, 2012 // By Geoff DabelkoThe just-released unclassified National Intelligence Council report on water and security is a very positive contribution to understanding very complex and interconnected ecological, social, economic, and political issues.
The report was issued by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). But behind the assessment are many months of extensive consultations across government and with outside scholars and practitioners from myriad sectors. At the end of the day, and by definition, the authors adopt a U.S. security perspective. But the assessment’s utility should extend far beyond the security sector given the trends it identifies and the analysis it advances. Indeed, Secretary Hillary Clinton, who requested the assessment, launched it during her World Water Day speech last week.
NSB’s editor Schuyler Null hit on the report highlights earlier this week, but here are a few broader takeaways from the report that will quickly become a common point of reference in the water and security community:
Water cannot be viewed in isolation from other key issues such as energy and food. The report highlights the need to see these key issues as interconnected and intertwined and these connections can help explain how water and security linkages have key manifestations in other sectors. This finding implies that single sector approaches present potential shortcomings with very real security implications. In these ways, human security concerns constitute priorities for traditional security institutions in ways that cannot be dismissed as lower priorities.
Water security impacts national security. While conflict and traditional concerns of the security community are an expected feature of the report, the assessment also makes clear that trends in water and sanitation, or water and food, or water and energy, constitute fundamental challenges that rise to the level of security concerns as well. The presence of organized violence is not a necessary to constitute critical concerns for the stability and human security conditions of a group, community, country or region.
In essence, the intelligence community recognizes that it doesn’t need to “bleed to lead.” There are a number of security concerns that are not connected explicitly to organized violence.
The future may not look like the past regarding water and conflict between states. Scholarship by Aaron Wolf and colleagues has provided an evidence-based antidote to the appealing “water wars” frame that so dominates newspaper headlines and political speeches. The NIC assessment recognizes this research by affirming that states have not fought over water and in fact cooperation has occurred in many contexts even in the face of shared and at times scarce resources. Yet the assessment says the future may not look like the past beyond 10 years hence, when increased demand will test the institutional arrangements we have for sharing water and resolving water disputes.
The policy conclusion that the NIC cannot recommend (by law) but should be drawn by policymakers: invest much more energy and resources in the development of transboundary water institutions and dispute resolution mechanisms now rather than in 10 years.
Governments can occasionally look long-term. The U.S. government and its security institutions are at times able to carve out enough time to look seriously at long-term challenges. Such examples are few and far between. But the NIC’s other well-known product, the Global Trends report, looking a couple decades ahead every four years to coincide with new presidential administrations, is another notable exception.
The true challenge now becomes whether public and private sector actors across the development, diplomacy, and defense arenas will proactively act on these insights. The intelligence community cannot, it should be remembered, make policy recommendations. Their products are diagnostic and analytical, not policy prescriptive. It is up to the “consumers” of this intelligence assessment to act.
Photo Credit: “UN Peacekeepers Distribute Water and Food in Haiti,” courtesy of United Nations Photo.
›March 1, 2012 // By Geoff DabelkoAs Washington begins to assess the recent visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become president of China early next year, the search for ways to build confidence between the two powers is on the table yet again.
I say “yet again” because finding practical ways to build confidence was a theme after a similar high-level Chinese visit to Washington in 2009. The context then was a tense naval confrontation off China’s coast where Chinese vessels harassed a U.S. Navy eavesdropping ship. At the time, Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao said the nations’ militaries needed to find avenues to talk on a regular and ongoing basis.
Today, the context is the oft-cited pivot of U.S. security strategy towards the Pacific that has elevated politico-military dimensions alongside the dominant economic frame. While this heightened attention to the security sector may suggest less receptivity for military-to-military dialogue in some quarters, it is precisely the greater salience of security that should encourage more – rather than less – conversation.
Back in 2009, the U.S. Army War College’s Kent Butts and I suggested in The Christian Science Monitor that natural disasters and climate change adaptation posed mutual threats for both militaries and that efforts to address these threats could form the basis for such trust-building exchanges. Such engagement is not a silver bullet, nor should it downgrade the importance of other bilateral issues. But the very nature of environmental issues as shared problems, makes them able to serve as building blocks for wider cooperation.
While some may find our piece quaint in the wake of the emerging zero-sum frame for U.S.-China relations, the U.S. military in fact has a long history of using environmental dialogue as a means to building confidence – including with the People’s Liberation Army. And now more than ever is the time to see such dialogues as lifelines for open communication.
As we wrote in 2009:
Environmental collaboration is unlikely to hit politically sensitive buttons, and thus offers great potential to deepen dialogue and cooperation. Military-to-military dialogue can facilitate the sharing of best practices on a range of environmental security issues. It can help both nations and their regional partners prepare for natural disasters – which are expected to intensify in a warming world – and improve the ability of civilian agencies and militaries to adapt to the impacts of climate change. It can also develop personal relationships that can provide deeper understanding in times of crisis.Read the full piece on The Christian Science Monitor.
For nearly two decades, the U.S. military has used environmental engagement as a key strategy to reduce tensions and improve relations with both adversaries and friends. In the wake of the cold war, the U.S. collaborated with Russia by jointly assessing the threats from radioactive waste in northwestern Russia. In the 1990s, U.S. Central Command conducted exercises with the newly independent Central Asian republics to address natural disasters and the environmental legacy of the Soviet era. In 2001, Gen. Tommy Franks, then commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee, “While environmental factors can easily trigger conflict, cooperation on these issues can promote regional stability and contribute to the ongoing process of conflict resolution.”
Sources: The Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, The White House.
Photo Credit: The amphibious transport dock ship USS Denver, courtesy of U.S. Pacific Command.
›February 1, 2012 // By Geoff DabelkoThe original version of this article first appeared in the “Scientist’s Soapbox” column of Momentum magazine’s special issue on “what would it take” to craft solutions to some of the Earth’s toughest challenges.
People living in the most biodiverse areas of the world tend to be poor, isolated, and dependent on natural resources. They often lack reliable access to alternative livelihoods and health services and thus can place stress on these ecologically unique regions.
Conservation efforts will merely slow habitat loss if they don’t fundamentally address the living conditions of the human residents as well as the flora and fauna. But programs to assist these communities have commonly focused on one problem at a time, reflecting the interests of the funders: Environmental groups focus on conservation, while health organizations concentrate on disease. We must ask whether investments to protect biologically rich areas are effective and sustainable if they don’t respond to the many needs of the people who live there.
But the problems faced by people in these remote areas don’t fit our traditional sectors. The way we disburse our funds, divide our bureaucracies, demarcate our disciplines, and measure success ignores the reality of intersecting needs. Such stovepiping can disrespect the communities’ scarce resources, especially their time. It can waste development aid on duplicate supplies and staff. And it can lead us to miss how the solution to one problem (e.g., providing antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS) can be undercut by another (e.g., lacking access to safe water with which to take the pills).
So, what would it take to help particularly vulnerable populations while protecting particularly important ecological systems?
We need to strategically target our help by addressing HELP – health, environment, livelihoods, and population – through a truly integrated approach to sustainable development in these areas. Evidence suggests tackling problems concurrently can be more efficient and effective. Key donors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development are increasingly prioritizing integrated responses, providing some funding for sustainable development innovators and supporting evaluation of the results. But we need more evidence that these efforts can achieve results that match or exceed the outcomes of single-sector projects. To rigorously test this approach, more projects must be funded, implemented and analyzed, over longer periods of time and at bigger scales.
Ethiopia, Nepal, Madagascar, Rwanda, the Philippines, and Uganda – suggest that the HELP approach offers greater benefits than traditional programs.
In the Philippines, for example, the PATH Foundation Philippines’ Integrated Population and Coastal Resource Management (IPOPCORM) program addresses pressing needs for both family planning services and sustainable environmental stewardship in densely populated coastal communities, where local fisheries have been depleted because of increased demand for food. IPOPCORM helps create marine protected areas and promotes alternative economic livelihoods such as seaweed harvesting, thus allowing critical local fish stocks to recover. Concurrently, the initiative mitigates human-induced pressures on the environment and lowers the vulnerability of this underserved population by providing voluntary family planning services. Since its launch in 2001, the IPOPCORM program’s approach has yielded measurable benefits, simultaneously reducing program costs and improving health and environmental outcomes – and outperforming compartmentalized, side-by-side sector interventions.
How can we bring HELP to biodiversity-rich communities? First, we can encourage scholars, practitioners, and policy-makers to step outside their stovepipes by producing and distributing manuals, for example, based on lessons learned from existing cross-disciplinary projects. Second, we must bridge the gap between analysis and field-based programs by developing new metrics that better assess the impact of integrated programs. Third, we must open up bureaucratic funding structures by demonstrating not only the short-term savings but also the synergies that bolster long-term sustainability.
The challenges are significant, but I see promising new opportunities for overcoming them. For example, the new Pathfinder International-led projects around Lake Victoria in Uganda and Kenya mark the entry of a respected health organization into the environmental arena and the return of a leading private funder – the MacArthur Foundation – to HELP programs. With some of Africa’s highest population densities, poverty, ethnic diversity, and biodiversity, the Great Lakes region is one of the most volatile intersections of human development and environmental change.
Through these and other community-based, integrated projects, we can truly help people and the planet at the same time.
Photo Credit: “Boy on road east of Addis,” courtesy of Geoff Dabelko/Wilson Center.
›October 31, 2011 // By Geoff DabelkoSeven billion people now live on earth, only a dozen years after global population hit six billion. But the seven billion milestone is not about sheer numbers: Demographic trends will significantly impact the planet’s resources and peoples’ security.
Growing populations stress dwindling natural resource supplies while high levels of consumption in both developed countries and emerging economies drive up carbon emissions and deplete the planet’s resources. And neglected “youth bulges” could bolster extremism in fragile states like Somalia and destabilize nascent democracies like Egypt.
Here are seven ways seven billion people affect the planet, according to recent research:
Security: Nearly 90 percent of countries with very young and youthful populations had undemocratic governments at the end of the 20th century. Eighty percent of all new civil conflicts between 1970 and 2007 occurred in countries where at least 60 percent of the population is under age 30, says demographer Elizabeth Leahy Madsen. According to research by demographer Richard Cincotta, these countries may achieve democracy, but are less likely to sustain it.
- Richard Cincotta: Tunisia Predicted: Demography and the Probability of Liberal Democracy in the Greater Middle East
- Elizabeth Leahy Madsen: Demographic Security 101
1.8 billion people will be living in countries with water scarcity, and fully two-thirds will be living in conditions of water stress. People are using groundwater faster than it can be naturally replenished, putting us in danger of “peak water,” says MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Peter Gleick. “We cannot talk about water without also understanding the enormously important role of population dynamics and population growth.”
- Peter Gleick: Population Dynamics Key to Sustainable Water Solutions
- Elizabeth Leahy Madsen: How Did We Arrive at 7 Billion – and Where Do We Go From Here? [Part One] [Part Two]
There are no quick solutions to these seven problems. But meeting the unmet need for contraception of more than 200 million women is an effective and inexpensive way to start.
Sources: Population Action International, UN, World Health Organization.
Image Credit: Used with permission courtesy of Scott Woods, The University of Western Ontario.
›October 12, 2011 // By Geoff DabelkoJon Foley of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is a food security rock star, plain and simple. And he deserves that lofty status in part because he explains our complex 21st century agriculture challenges in such a clear and accessible fashion. See him present (like in the TEDx video above), and you are left wishing all scientists would drop in on the “how to make your work understandable” class that Foley must have aced.
Foley brought that clarity of presentation, mixed with self-deprecating humor, to this past week’s inaugural South by Southwest (SXSW) Eco conference in Austin, Texas. Foley said we must meet three big challenges in the realm of agriculture:
- Feeding the population today: One in seven of the world’s seven billion people do not know where their next meal is coming from.
- Feeding the future population: The planet is expected to reach more than nine billion people in just 39 years (and may still continue to grow beyond nine billion, rather than leveling off as expected until recently).
- Farming the planet sustainably: We are a long way from achieving sustainable agriculture, given overuse of fertilizers, soil erosion and degradation, deforestation (leading to loss of biodiversity), and energy-intensive practices (producing excessive carbon emissions).
But Foley and his colleagues retain their scientific union cards while suggesting specific ways the world might meet the three food security goals listed above. In what must be considered the academic equivalent of a walk-off grand slam, they will be featured as next week’s cover story in Nature and a more accessible derivative in the November issue of Scientific American.
“Today, humans are farming more of the planet than ever, with higher resource intensity and staggering environmental impacts, while diverting an increasing fraction of crops to animals, biofuels and other nonfood uses,” Foley et al. write in Nature. “Meanwhile, almost a billion people are chronically hungry. This must not continue: the requirements of current and future generations demand that we transform agriculture to meet the twin challenges of food security and environmental sustainability.”
Their four-step plan in brief:
- Slow agricultural expansion to stop deforestation and the huge ecological cost that stems from expanding into new lands, often to grow animal feed rather than food for direct human consumption.
- Grow more food on the acres currently under cultivation. The attention, resources, and innovation applied to the best-producing farms need to also be turned on the least productive farms, where rates as low as 20 percent of potential yields are the norm.
- Improve the resource efficiency of agriculture, through better water use, for example. Places like India, where the energy to pump groundwater is effectively free, are very inefficient in the use of water per calorie grown.
- Close “diet gaps,” where only 60 percent of what is grown is actually for human consumption (the rest for animals and fuel), and reduce food waste, whether it is spoilage on the way to market or the excesses of a food industry that leaves so much uneaten.
Video Credit: “TEDxTC – Jonathan Foley – The Other Inconvenient Truth,” courtesy of Youtube user TEDxTalks.
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