Climate Conflict

"How long can these people go on talking about the future as if climate change isn’t going to be part of it, let alone a determining factor?"  That is a question I often enough exasperatedly mutter to myself when listening to politicians or a variety of policy experts discussing the shape of the future with never a mention of the impacts of climate change.

book cover Behind the scenes it may not be as bad as it looks. Gwynne Dyer wrote his book Climate Wars partly because he discovered that climate-change scenarios were playing a large and increasing role in military planning processes. 

Chatham House associate fellow Cleo Paskal discussed the need for forward planning for the geopolitical impacts of climate change in her recent book Global Warring. Now the International Institute for Strategic Studies has produced a book by research fellow Jeffrey Mazo, Climate Conflict: How global warming threatens security and what to do about it. I notice incidentally that in his acknowledgements he thanks Cleo Paskal for discussions on climate and security.

He also thanks climatologist Michael Mann for comments on his first chapter. It included an up-to-date summary of the science,  depending on the IPCC AR4 reports but also acknowledging that, if anything, their projections underestimated the amount, rate and impact of anthropogenic climate change.

Although the book is largely directed to the likely impacts of climate change in the medium term, Mazo has no doubt that, without early and severe reductions in emissions, climate change will be disastrous for the global community in the second half of this century. Such a recognition strikes me as a necessary basis for serious engagement with policy questions.

However, although he hopes effective mitigation policies will be undertaken quickly, it is on the unavoidable effects in the next two to four decades that Mazo’s discussion centres.  In particular he focuses on state failure and internal conflict.

A brief historical survey looks at how climate has been implicated in the collapse of many previous cultures.  It’s a complex matter isolating the relative effects of climate change from other stresses undergone by societies in danger of collapse, but he detects it as a common contributing factor in many cases. He includes interesting reflections on the way in which adaptation can be part of the cultural toolkit of societies which value mobility and flexibility.

On the other hand some cultural values can work to make societies reluctant to abandon unsustainable lifestyles and prevail against rationality. He also notes that increased complexity in societies means increased fragility when systems finally fail, as in Easter Island and the Mayans, among others.  In our own time the wealthier industrial nations are much more resilient to climate shocks than less developed countries, but he posits that if they do reach the breaking point the collapse will be further and faster.

darfur geno

Darfur provides the first modern climate-change conflict.  Mazo examines this proposition carefully, paying attention to the variety of analyses that have been offered. He does not think it can be said that the conflict was caused by climate change, if ‘cause’ is meant as both a necessary and sufficient condition. His approach is rather to ask whether climate change has acted as an exacerbating factor or threat multiplier. Following through the various threads contributing to the conflict, many of them environmental, but also economic and governmental, he concludes that if one doesn’t take  a simplistic, reductionist view of causality it becomes apparent that anthropogenic climate change is a critical factor underlying the violence in Darfur.

From the Darfur model the book moves to a wider range of countries where climate change has the potential to affect stability and contribute to state failure. Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Sahel region in particular, is where the greatest number of already fragile states are also among the most vulnerable to climate change. Many other less fragile African countries are highly vulnerable but better placed for adaptation measures. The prospect is for increased volatility as a result of climate change for the most fragile states, and increased risk for more stable ones.

Mazo also nominates and discusses some countries outside Africa which are particularly vulnerable to climate change and the deleterious effects it might have on the stability of the state, among them North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  He notes the efforts Bangladesh has already made to reduce its vulnerability through a policy of deliberate protection of coastal mangrove forests, bucking the global trend of deforestation.  Selected for closer attention are two less fragile states which have emerged from instability in recent years but are likely to be challenged again by climate change effects. 

Colombia faces a high probability of the disappearance of its glaciers by 2035.  Projected temperature increases and changes in precipitation could disrupt water and power supplies to large segments of the population, reversing the country’s progress and making a return to violence more likely. Indonesia’s food security is at risk, with agricultural production under threat from likely increased flooding and drought. If the country remains relatively stable it should, with support, be able to adapt to climate change over the medium term. But other stresses within the nation may be heightened by the effects of climate change and lead to a reversal of Indonesia’s progress.

Climate change presents policymakers in the developed world with two different questions. One is how to respond  to acute crises with new or increased military or humanitarian interventions. The other is how to prevent chronic problems caused or exacerbated by climate change through adaptation funds and other forms of aid or support.

desertification The strategic implications are difficult to assess. Climate change is a threat multiplier, but not necessarily more so than the other causes or contributors to instability. However Mazo is clear that it is a new variable which must be taken into account in strategic assessments. And it is a very significant variable - strongly directional, accelerating and  irreversible on the time scales that current planning deals with. Among the points he discusses is the likely part to be played by militaries, not in fighting but in responding to humanitarian crises.

He observes that militaries are often the only institutions with the capacity to deploy rapidly in such responses and sees them facing increased demands as such crises intensify and multiply with the increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events, aggravated by sea level rise. He warns that cutbacks in this role will not only increase humanitarian problems but also result in a loss of prestige and soft power and even a negative reaction to a perceived uncaring West.

The book issues no clarion calls. But there’s no mistaking the underlying message of its careful and seemingly rather abstract low-key discussion. In effect it says to policymakers “You must take climate change seriously and integrate it fully into your understanding of what is happening in the world and into your planning to address global problems.”  About time too, one might add.

This review originally appeared on the Hot Topic website.

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  • Posted on July 23, 2010. Listed in:

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