As we recently highlighted, a new issue of the academic journal Climatic Change titled “Climate and security: evidence, emerging risks, and a new agenda” has just been released. The lead editor of the report has also published an excellent summary on the New Security Beat, which includes a discussion of the four research challenges in this area of inquiry: understanding both conflict and peace potential, further developing explanatory models, re-embedding the issue of power into the discourse, and understanding the limitations of historical examples. This special issue helps to set the stage for the release of the IPCC’s new “human security” chapter on March 31. Together, these reports will play an important role in highlighting where the current state of inquiry is on the topic today, and in providing a clarion call for more research. But this is not your father’s research agenda. There is a unique urgency associated with climate change risks, and major outstanding uncertainties regarding those risks that give such a research agenda a particular importance. That same urgency also underscores the need to immediately advance policies that manage those uncertainties, rather than waiting for certainty before acting.
Why both more research and more robust policy action is necessary
While conflict studies have been around for a long time (see Thucydides), the current climate change phenomenon is a new beast to wrestle with – a unique and potentially existential risk to human security. An improved understanding of the nature and scale of climate-related risks to security, and a deeper exploration of how it is different than more traditional peace and security threats, will be of nearly immeasurable importance as the climate continues to change. Given the rapid rate and at times unprecedented nature of these changes, decision-makers in government will have to focus on simultaneously decreasing uncertainties through research while also preparing for multiple contingencies through robust and far-reaching policies.
Climate change has three particularly worrying characteristics that elevate the urgency of research on climate, security and conflict, and strengthen the case for comprehensive policies to manage these risks.
- Unprecedented rate of change: The climatic changes that we are starting to see, and are highly likely to continue to experience, are potentially unprecedented in the context of human civilization. For example, the melting of the ice in the Arctic is happening at a rate and scale largely unseen in human history, and it is not entirely clear what the repercussions of this melting will mean for either our climate, or our security. This is a significant and potentially highly dangerous unknown to live with. For example, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences looked at what abrupt change, as opposed to an often-assumed gradual change, could mean for governance institutions – concluding that we are significantly unprepared and in need of an “Abrupt Change Early Warning System.” Today, our so-called “ships of state” are entering uncharted waters, both literally and figuratively. In such a situation, increasing certainty through research, and managing uncertainty through sound policy are both necessary and critical to human welfare.
- Threat Multipier: Climate change is different from many other risks to peace and security due to its nature as a “multiplier” of many other known risks, as opposed to a direct, singular risk in and of itself. Climate change does not order soldiers to invade Black Sea peninsulas, it does not commission scientists to enrich uranium, and it does not register its grievances by blowing up innocent people. Rather, climate change adds stress to existing conditions on the ground – usually water, food and energy systems – which when stressed can potentially lead to instability, conflict, or in the historical case of water – cooperation. But given the aforementioned rate and nature of climatic changes, the historical record may not be an adequate instructor. Governments will need to invest in more and more foresight and planning exercises, such as the U.S. intelligence community’s Global Trends 2030, to better prepare for the many possible contingencies driven by the climate change “threat multiplier.” Furthermore, these climatic changes, and their influence on water, food and energy security, will need to be better incorporated into both peace and conflict research, and security risk assessments (as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in a recent policy directive).
- Significant uncertainty on the “how” and “when:” We know with a significant degree of certainty that extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, are likely to increase in severity and frequency due to climate change. We know that sea levels are going to rise, and are already rising. We know the Arctic, and many glaciers, are melting. We know that these changes will influence basic human needs: water, food, energy and even shelter. But many of the fine details of how and when these stresses and changes will manifest are still unknown (eg. How and when will ocean water inundate significant portions of Miami?).But these uncertainties should drive, rather than stall, action. We have sufficient information to begin preparing for these changes – much as we have sufficient information to prepare for other “intolerable” risks to security such as nuclear proliferation and international terrorism. But because history is an imperfect guide, we need to be careful. As the recent special issue of Climatic Change notes, well-meaning solutions can potentially lead to serious unintended consequences. This is an important point, especially as changes will have to be made in a very short period of time (relative to civilization-wide changes in the past, including industrialization) in order to adequately mitigate the risks associated with drastic changes in the climate. Done well, solutions can increase opportunities for peace, and this should be the gold standard. But caution should certainly not stand in the way of the urgent need for action. A failure to act due to remaining uncertainties would not only be irresponsible, it would fly in the face of how humans have successfully managed uncertainty for ages. Given the information available to us, we have usually planned for the worst, and hoped (and tried) for the best.
In summary, more research is needed for reducing uncertainty about the possible security and conflict implications of climate change, and increasing understanding of the “how and when” of climate risks. This will be critical not just for developing sound science, but for developing sound policy as well. But given the nature and scale of the climate threat, this search for greater certainty should not make us lose sight of the wisdom and necessity of acting without perfect certainty. We have enough information about climate change to justify the advancement and application of a broad range of policies to prepare for and mitigate its possible implications for sub-national, national and international security – including conflict. In other words, we’ll need to manage uncertainty in our actions, rather than wait for certainty to act. But additional research will help limit the margin of policy error and account for potential unintended consequences.