“I don’t know of an armed conflict that has got a single cause,” said International Alert Secretary General Dan Smith at an event sponsored by the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program on June 10, 2009. “Our argument is simply that climate change adds another major variable into that mix.” Smith was joined by Shruti Mehrotra, a senior consultant to International Alert on climate change, for a nuanced discussion of climate change’s potential impacts on global stability.
The Netherlands and Bangladesh: Capacity Matters
Both the Netherlands and Bangladesh are low-lying coastal countries vulnerable to sea-level rise and extreme weather events. Yet the Netherlands is “a wealthy country with stable government that’s transparent and accountable to the people,” said Smith. “A country like Bangladesh which is poor, which has got democracy but it’s a very iffy democracy—it’s really still in a state of transition—and which does not itself have the resources to handle those problems” could experience “great social pressure as a consequence of climate change,” he said.
Cascading Impacts: Water, Food, Livelihoods
Four hundred million people depend on the glacier-fed Ganges-Brahmaputra river system for water, food, and industry, said Smith. “A very large number of people’s livelihoods are going to be affected if water management in the Ganges-Brahmaputra area is not adequate to the task” of adapting to changing precipitation patterns and melting glaciers.
Seventy percent of Peruvians depend on glacial runoff for their water needs, according to Smith. But the Andean glaciers will essentially melt and disappear by 2015, meaning that an initial excess of water will be followed by a terrible deficit, said Smith. The impacts on Peruvian society will largely depend on how well the government, the private sector, and civil society mobilize to manage their water supply.
Scarce Resources: Migration and Conflict
Scarcer resources may lead to mass migration and conflict, said Smith, but he urged the audience to be wary of the “factoids and guesstimates being thrown around about how many people will migrate under the pressure of climate change.”
People sometimes move to avoid conflict, but “very often, unwittingly, they become the vector of conflict themselves,” said Smith. Most climate-induced migration is likely to be within a country or within a region, so “a lot of that migration is going to be people moving from areas which are no longer viable to areas which are barely viable—indeed, where their arrival threatens the viability of the area into which they’re moving,” he said.
No matter what happens at the December 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, people will need to adapt to the changes already underway in the climate system. But if adaptation is seen as a purely technical process, it will fail, said Smith. It is a cultural process that will only work if people have the chance to express their opinions and misgivings—and then buy into it.
“Most of development discourse is not being taken into account in these environmental negotiations,” said Mehrotra. Most climate negotiators are climate scientists or diplomats, not development practitioners. But in low-income countries, climate change will primarily be a development issue. “There is a potential that huge amounts of money will be put into this [adaptation], using a way of thinking about development from the 1970s,” warned Mehrotra.
Photos: Dan Smith and Shruti Mehrotra. Courtesy of David Hawxhurst and the Wilson Center.