The Climate Security Conundrum

By Keith Kloor
May 6, 2010 5:15 PMNov 20, 2019 2:38 AM


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The issue of climate security, which a number of experts discussed on this thread, is gaining prominence in U.S. policy and political circles. But as I wrote in this story last November, "a sense of urgency has been building in military and intelligence circles around the world" too. Climate security has also leaped to the top of think tank agendas in the U.S. (see here, here, and here) and in the U.K., where Jeffrey Mazo studies the security and policy implications of climate change at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Mazo has just published a book, Climate Conflict: How global warming threatens security and what to do about it. In the introduction, he writes:

The scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the climate is changing in response to global warming. In the past, climate change has affected the stability of societies, nations and civilisations, so the historically unprecedented change scientists are observing raises the spectre of increasing and accelerating social, geopolitical and economic disruption over the rest of this century and beyond.

Yesterday, I conducted a short Q & A with Mazo via email. Q: In your new book, you devote a chapter to cases in prehistory where climate change contributed to a state's downfall. You conclude:

It is clear that climate change does not always lead to contraction or collapse, and that contraction or collapse can occur in the absence of climate change. But climate cannot be ignored, since instances of climate change have challenged cultures throughout history. The way they met that challenge as much as the nature of the challenge itself provides a mirror for the security challenges posed by unprecedented warming we now face.

So is there one particular historical mirror that we should be looking into, one shining example of a society that successfully met the challenges posed by climate change? JM: There really isn't one shining example, since every circumstance is unique. It's the common threads that run through widely varying examples that teach us valuable lessons. And, in a sense, it's sort of the opposite of Tolstoy's dictum that "˜happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'. Nations and cultures tend to fail in the face of climate change in similar ways, but the successes are all different. And it's paired examples of different responses to the same circumstances like the Inuit and the Norse in medieval Greenland, or modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or drought in the American West in the 1800s, the 1930s and the 1950s, that are most revealing. What they tell us is that the relative ability of different societies to adapt is the most important factor. In part that's a question of what a society can afford to do, but most crucially it's a question of whether a society or political system is flexible enough to make necessary changes, and fast enough, to cope with climate shocks. We're rich enough in the West, and in the industrialised world as a whole, to cope, at least in the medium term. Whether we've got the flexibility is another story. But in the short to medium term, it is the poorest and least developed countries that fall short on both grounds, and where we can expect security challenges to increase. Q: In recent years Darfur has been held up as a cautionary tale of climate change and ethnic conflict. In a 2007 Washington Post op-ed, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote:

Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.

But some environmental security experts say it is oversimplistic and even historically inaccurate to blame the Darfur conflict on climate change or resource scarcity. In your book, you devote a chapter to Darfur. What's your take on this? JM: I think the disagreement among environmental security experts on this point is merely a difference of emphasis and perspective. The Darfur conflict was not caused by climate change, if you mean that climate change was both a necessary and a sufficient condition. But in fact, in the case of Darfur, the further one gets from a simplistic, reductionist view of causality the more climate change (and probably greenhouse-induced climate change) is a critical factor underlying the violence. If we are asking "˜what caused the Darfur conflict' (or any other conflict), this entails an examination of the relative contributions of different factors, and whether they are deterministic or predictive. There can be any number of equally valid answers, some of which have more relevance to finding solutions, or apportioning moral blame. But if the question is whether climate change can cause (or contribute to conflict), Darfur can be readily adduced as evidence. To say that other factors were equally, or even more, important politically or morally is not to deny that Darfur was in this particular sense a climate-change conflict. Ban Ki Moon's interpretation of the causes of the Darfur fighting was in fact more nuanced than some critics have given him credit for. Q: Given how difficult it is to disentangle political, cultural, and environemntal factors, how can we best assess climate change as a legitimate security issue? JM: I think there are two ways to answer this. One is to look at the long-term, dangerous, even potential catastrophic impacts of climate change as an existential security threat that justifies the sorts of actions outside the security sphere that will be necessary to avoid those impacts. In other words, we need to avoid the security threat, so we need to mitigate emissions and move to a low carbon economy as quickly as possible. This is something I don't really look at in my book, which focuses on the short to medium term. Over the next thirty years or so, which is the usual horizon for defence and security planning, the impacts will, as you say, be difficult to disentangle from political and cultural factors, especially given the relatively modest degree of climate change we expect over this period. In the medium term the trend will be more 'more of the same'--an incremental, quantitative change in things like civil unrest, violence and civil wars - rather than qualitatively new threats like resource wars and maritime border changes (from sea level rise) and land border changes, from melting glaciers. And though we can be confident that the security threats will increase in the aggregate, precisely where and when they will manifest is impossible to predict.

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