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Climate-Security: A Reality, Not a Narrative

This blog is also featured on the humanitarian news site, AlertNet

AlertNet posted an interesting piece yesterday titled “Climate Conversations – Climate-security as agent provocateur.” The author, Katie Harris of the London-based Overseas Development Institute, rightly calls for “nuance” in making the case for the potential security and conflict implications of climate change. The essence of the article is that though the “frame” or “narrative” of climate-security may have generated increased interest and action from the world’s policy-makers, it can be dangerous if done poorly. We couldn’t agree more. Also, as Harris states, “for those who want to identify the possible connections between a changing climate and the potential for increased violent conflict, nuance is key…” Indeed it is! However, despite these wise words of caution, the article omits a couple key points that may address some of the author’s concerns, including the significant evolution of climate and security scholarship in recent years, and how climate-security is actually defined in this space, specifically in relation to conflict.

First, the climate and security discourse is evolving. More and more is being done to tease out the connections between climate change, security and conflict as additional regional and local climate data become available. There are too many reports to list here, but a number of recent studies from Busby et al., Hsiang et al., Mabey et al.,  Werz & Conley, and an entire special issue from the Journal of Peace Research, come to mind. In this work, “the security implications of climate change” is no mere frame, but a well-analyzed reality and probability, which factor in a number of specific human variables in particular conflict-ridden and conflict-prone regions of the world, such as the Sahel and Central Asia. While more needs to be done to better incorporate non-environmental variables into such assessments (such as the numerous locale-specific social, political and economic drivers of conflict), the field has come a long way since the phrase “climate change is a security threat” was uttered late last century.

Second, the article repeats a common misconception about the climate-security discourse which we would be remiss to not address (and which we discussed in a previous blog response to an AlertNet piece). Harris states:

In many parts of the world that have had the ‘climate-security’ spotlight shone on them, climate change is unlikely to be the biggest thing affecting their immediate security. I’m referring specifically to those places currently experiencing violent conflict.

This is a perfectly reasonable statement. However, the serious scholars and practitioners in the climate-security sphere rarely, if ever, refer to climate change as “the biggest thing affecting the immediate security” of people in countries experiencing, or likely to experience, conflict. In most cases, climate change is treated as one serious variable among many, often defined as a “threat multliplier” or “accelerant of instability.” In other words, the discourse is indeed sensitive to the other drivers of conflict, despite Harris’ assertion that climate-security is not “conflict sensitive.” Among those who are serious about exploring the connections, climate change is a phenomenon that in many cases may exacerbate the current tensions that lead to conflict, whether it is resource scarcity, economic disparity, population mobility, or poor governance. Climate change is not an independent variable looming out there on its own (a recent panel discussion hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center fleshes out this concept brilliantly).

In this context, the assertion that climate change may be a security risk is not an alarmist tactic, by any means. It is the exploration of a very probable reality. And fully exploring this risk is a necessary prerequisite for developing solutions. As Harris states:

The climate-security narrative continues to be pushed forward in 2012, without enough focus on the opportunities for collaboration, cooperation and negotiation that are vital to avoid the very doomsday scenarios that are being promoted.

Once again, agreed. But in order to focus on opportunities for cooperation, it is important to fully flesh out the climate-security risks that such cooperation must address in order to avoid these so-called “doomsday scenarios.” Continued research on the climate-security nexus, more work on further incorporating the non-environmental drivers of conflict into climate-security studies, and a continued promotion of the excellent work that has already been done, will be key for devising the smart and “conflict sensitive” solutions that Harris is calling for. Nuance is, indeed, key.

In short, we should not let the occasionally irresponsible use of the climate-security “frame” discredit the responsible scholarship addressing the climate-security “reality.” Harris’ article should be seen as a call to do more in this space, not less.


Update: See Katie Harris’ thoughtful response to this post below.

1 Comment

  1. Katie Harris says:

    Thank you for your response to the recent piece titled ‘Climate security as agent provocateur’. I found your comments really useful. There are a couple of points which I’d like to expand on which will hopefully address some of your concerns.

    Your first point about the development of climate and security discourse is indeed true. The special issue from the Journal of Peace Research is a welcome addition to the literature as are many of the reports you list. I would still argue, as I’m sure you would agree, that overall there remains a severe lack of investment into in-depth, comparable, empirical research on this topic; not least because of the scale of climate change and the overlaps with areas affected by conflict and fragility. My rather crude comparison of indices of failed states and climate vulnerability highlight this point in a blog during the Durban CoP.

    Your second point touches on one of the very reasons why I wrote the piece. As you say, those looking seriously at the issue of climate-security realise the nuances involved and are cautious in their statements. It is not however ‘serious scholars’ as you put it, that are making the headlines, taking the policy decisions or critical engagements overseas on this issue. There is a disconnect between actors working on and thinking about climate-security. This is not surprising. For all issues there are a range of voices engaging in debate, each with their own lens, view and mandate to act. What is needed is space to explore the topic, in context-specific ways. This would help to address one of my main concerns that current literature (which does embrace nuance) does not seem to be filtering into or influencing mainstream conversations on climate security, be these through the media, public facing of various government foreign departments, social commentators or indeed some agencies.

    And as an aid to this, I believe we need a more thorough look at the methodologies being employed to make connections of causality. For example I am critical of national ‘hot spot’ mappings which plot changes in the climate (often restricted to temperature) and occurrences of violent events. This is perhaps best saved for another conversation!

    Finally, I agree that in most cases terms such as ‘threat multiplier’ are used to describe the role of climate change in conflict dynamics; however this term can be used in a number of different ways. It is also often the case that the conflict context (in which climate change is referred to as a threat multiplier) often comes second to the analysis of the role of climate change. I wonder whether a subtle shift in balance is needed? Again, not because I am denying the likelihood of security threats that could arise from a changing climate, but because the dominance of climate change (over and above other factors in a conflict analysis) can deter those working on issues of conflict and security on-the-ground from engaging with the issue. My experience with those working in the field shows that many believe the debates are too far removed from the nuances of conflict dynamics that they are used to dealing with. The assertion that Darfur is the first ‘climate war’ is a case in point. Thankfully, there are more reasoned arguments being made to counter the narrative that Darfur is a ‘climate war’. And, as Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell point out, there are many of us who are promoting a more nuanced-view of the interconnections between climate change and conflict dynamics.

    I agree with your comment that ‘more needs to be done to better incorporate non-environmental variables into such assessments’. I would also say that the conflict and fragility cadre need to better take account of climate change. Reflecting on my experience with agencies that focus on conflict prevention and peace building also leads me to emphasise the need for conflict sensitivity. And in many respects equal attention needs to be paid to the opportunities that a changing climate could present for conflict prevention – if given the space and harnessed appropriately.

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