Fire needs oxygen to burn. When a fire starts inside a building, the floors, ceilings, walls, doors, and windows can constrict the flow of air. Breaking in to fight the fire thus carries the risk of opening a new airway. If that happens, a smoldering fire can expand explosively, bursting into roaring flames as it sucks air in through the new passageway. This sudden inrush of air to fuel a burst of fire has a name: backdraft.
As President Obama readies a new road map for addressing climate change in the United States, experts warn that poorly designed and implemented initiatives, especially in already-fragile parts of the world, could unintentionally provoke conflicts, rather than diffuse them.
“As we respond to climate change, we need to go in with our eyes open,” explained Geoff Dabelko, senior advisor for ECSP and director of environmental studies at Ohio University, in a recent episode of Dialogue at the Wilson Center. “There are ways we can do this well, and ways we can do this poorly.”
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?
›“What are the conflicts or risks associated with response to climate change?” asked ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko at the Wilson Center on July 18. “How we respond to climate change may or may not contribute to conflict,” he said, but “at the end of the day, we need to do no harm.”
Dabelko was joined by Christian Webersik, associate professor at the University of Agder, Norway, and Dennis Taenzler, senior project manager at adelphi, to discuss how responses to climate change may lead to new conflict. As we think about adopting biofuels, solar and nuclear energy options, and geoengineering, “we have to do it with our eyes open,” Dabelko said.
The Ripple Effects of Climate Change
We are “both the victims and agents” of climate change, Webersik said. We are affected by it, but we are also responding to it, through adaptation and mitigation efforts, geoengineering proposals, and emissions avoidance. “These strategies themselves have ripple-on effects,” he said. For example, the fuel-food crisis in 2008, in which higher demand for biofuels led to more competition over arable land and increases in food prices, contributed to riots and political instability in some places.
Webersik also touched on both the opportunities and risks of carbon capture and storage technology. Forty-five percent of carbon emissions in the United States come from coal, he said. Capturing CO2 from those plants could reduce emissions; however, “carbon capture needs to be close,” he said, which introduces the risk of these high-pressure facilities accidentally erupting (as happens naturally – and dangerously – in places like Lake Nyos, Cameroon). This underdeveloped and expensive technology has yet to be widely deployed.
Another climate mitigation strategy, nuclear energy expansion, poses not only accident risks but also conflict risks via the proliferation of nuclear information and fuel, said Webersik.
Forests as Cause for Conflict and Cooperation
Taenzler presented two divergent views on our world’s forests. On one hand, these remote and often disputed lands have been home to many clashes over resources, which are sometimes further fueled by timber revenues. On the other hand, forests also present “sustainable opportunities,” he said. “One-point-two billion people depend on forests for income and livelihood.”
Managing these complex socioeconomic systems the right way is an important avenue for ensuring environmental sustainability. Taenzler stressed this facet of forest management, pointing to a World Bank figure that 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and forest degradation.
REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation – has been implemented by several institutions to stimulate action on forest management and provide payment for ecoservices. Since the 2007 UNFCCC meeting in Bali, REDD programs have been adopted by the World Bank, the UN, and Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative to help manage forest resources and prevent emissions. Specifically, the program develops assessment tools to measure carbon emissions and supports the indigenous people whose lives depend on the forest. Taenzler highlighted the many benefits of adopting a REDD strategy as the pathway for managing global forests, including “generating new opportunities for incomes, creating forest monitoring structures, building government institutions, and fostering cooperation as opposed to large-scale logging, mining, and exploitation.”
But Taenzler also addressed the potential negative effects of the program: “Further marginalization of forest-dwelling communities, increased corruption leading to unequal benefit sharing, and legal clashes stemming from unclear carbon ownership” are all possible risks from adopting REDD on a greater scale.
Managing and Mitigating
To minimize the conflict from climate change responses in the energy sector, Webersik called for a focus “away from corn and sugarcane” and on to second generation biofuels, such as algae grown in salt water and residue from the logging industry. He also stressed the need to experiment with carbon capture and storage and new energy efficiency techniques. “Climate change is a reality. Let’s get our focus back on adaptation and reducing the vulnerabilities in countries and increasing their resilience. This is also an opportunity to bring together the disaster community.”
Similarly, “there is a need for a conflict-sensitive approach when implementing REDD,” said Taenzler. “We need to focus on clarifying ownership and legal issues, installing transparent forms of benefit sharing, and ensuring international support for capacity building and REDD-readiness.”
“We need much greater fluency and cooperation across communities and disciplines, much greater flexibility in program design and communication across offices,” said Dabelko. “Back up at the 30,000 foot view, [we need to] avoid the hyperbole in either direction that either the sky is falling or that there is no problem at all, which can set back the policy discussion.”
Sources: The New York Times, World Bank.
Photo Credit: “Indonesia Pristine Forests,” courtesy of flickr user Greenpeace Southeast Asia | Philippines.
›policy, and defense are awakening to the threats of rising sea levels, stronger storms, and record temperatures, debate continues over the means and extent of adaptation and mitigation programs. In a world of possibilities, how to decide which paddle to use to navigate uncertain waters?
A report from E3G titled, Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security, contends that a more rigorous risk management approach is needed to deal with the security implications of climate change, and cues should be taken from the risk management approach of the national security community. Risk management, while not a “panacea” for divisive climate change politics, “provides a way to frame these debates around a careful consideration of all the available information.”
The report calls for a three-tier, “ABC” framework for international planning:
1) Aim to stay below 2°C (3.6°F) of warmingAuthors Nick Mabey, Jay Gulledge, Bernard Finel, and Katherine Silverthorne write, “Absolutes are a rarity in national security and decisions are generally a matter of managing and balancing various forms of risk.” Climate change adaptation and mitigation, they say, is no different. “There are multiple levels of uncertainty involved in addressing and planning for climate change…such as how much global temperatures will rise, what the impact of more rapid regional climate change will be, and how effective countries will be in agreeing to and implementing adaptation and emissions reduction plans?”
2) Build and budget assuming 3-4°C (5.4-7.2°F) of warming
3) Contingency plan for 5-7°C (9-12.6°F) of warming
The security community “need[s] to go out and tell leaders that they will not be able to guarantee security in a world where we don’t control climate change, and that controlling climate change means radical changes – not just more incremental progress,” argued Mabey, the Founding Director and Chief Executive of E3G, in a video interview with ECSP in May 2009.
Preparing for the effects of climate change is certainly a daunting task given the complexity and scope of the system – the entire planet. It is therefore important to gather as much information as possible and to “look in the dark spaces” of our knowledge gap.
But, “uncertainty per se cannot be a barrier to action,” write Mabey et al. “Uncertainty doesn’t mean we know nothing, just that we do not know precisely what the future may hold. Risk management is both an art and a science. It depends on using the best data possible, but also being aware of what we do not know and cannot know.”
Sources: E3G, USA Today, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Photo Credit: “Messing about on the river!” courtesy of flickr user Pondspider.
“Climate change and our energy future are issues that are really front and center in our policy debates and public debates,” said ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko in this collection of interviews from New Security Beat’s Backdraft series. “One specific set of questions within this larger debate is about how climate change connects to a broader security set of questions. In that context we have a lot of questions and a lot of concerns – [and] potentially some opportunities.”
›“Copenhagen was many things to many people,” said Chatham House’s Cleo Paskal, in a video interview with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, but “what was very clear was that India, specifically, was playing quite a strong, clear role in deciding how alignments would be working.” We spoke to Paskal following her presentation at a recent Wilson Center event.
“I think [Copenhagen] was a bit of a litmus test for how geopolitics stand currently, and what’s clear is that unless India is treated more as an equal strategic, long-term partner of the West, it will find other alliances that are more conducive to what it perceives as state security and its national interests,” said Paskal. She argued that India’s future steps will also heavily influence Brazil and South Africa, and may impact the ability of the West to act unilaterally.
“If the U.S.-India relationship grows, you’ll start to see more movement in areas like Copenhagen or the WTO or things like that,” says Paskal, but “if [the U.S.-India relationship] starts to break down…you might start to see a growing relationship with China.”
Stay tuned to the New Security Beat for more in our series on “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Adaptation and Mitigation.”
We must do more than simply take our current understanding of climate-change risk and extrapolate it into the future, asserted Chad Briggs of the Berlin-based Adelphi Research in a video interview with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.
Join the Conversation
- Insights from a National Dialogue on Climate Change, Energy, and Security Wednesday, October 21, 2015
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