Stern, climate change and “extended world war”

First the Huffington Post and then Fox News have both published a story containing some garish remarks by Nicholas Stern about “extended world war” as a consequence of climate change. The report feels as though, even if accurate, the remarks were taken sharply out of context because alarmism is not Stern’s usual currency. But the real concern is that it’s not helpful to depict the link between climate change and conflict in that way.

Nicholas Stern is the economist who led a major review for the UK government on the economics of climate change – the Stern Review published in late 2006. He does not hold back when writing and talking about the effects of global warming, but his message is usually positive and can-do. It’s a surprise to read an over-the-top jeremiad being attributed to him.

The report is about a talk given to a small and select group that was in Cape Town en route to the Antarctic. It came out two days earlier in the Huffington Post than on Fox’s web-site (“Fox News: Fair & Balanced,” as it wittily describes itself). It is word-for-word the same in both but is by-lined differently, carrying a reporter’s by-line in Huffington and Associated Press in Fox.

The report, if accurate, is concerning: I would hate to think that this is how one of the most effective and high profile advocates of a rational approach and a radical policy on climate change is going to be arguing his case from now on. It seems to me to be both intellectually unsustainable and miscalculated as a communications/advocacy strategy.

The link between climate change and violent conflict is at once straightforward and subtle – straightforward because there is a link, and subtle because depicting it with a simple cause and effect approach is unconvincing.

One of the problems of discussing the climate-conflict link is that there is very little empirical evidence that shows its reality. To gauge the problem, we need to use some imagination because the future will be different from the past, so the empirical record is a poor guide to future risks. Accordingly, thinking about the link requires us to take what evidence there is and build well-grounded speculation on that foundation. So we start with the empirical record but must go a lot further, and there are some highly suggestive cases in the Sahara/Sahel belt in Africa and in the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system in South Asia. There are many suggestive parallels with other changes in the natural environment and their social, political and conflict impact. There is above all the very suggestive case of Darfur, but to describe that as “a climate change conflict” is to ignore much of the complex causation of that crime and tragedy.

It might help to start with some basics. In general terms, armed conflicts do not have single causes. A number of factors interact together to cause and start a war. The behaviour of individuals and of institutions in triggering war is as important as the long term root causes that may lie in the economic system, the system of power, the natural environment, the legacy of history and the potentially explosive politics of identity. These long term factors alone do not cause war. Take the example of poverty: it is a well-established fact that civil war is more common in poor countries today than in rich ones. The link between poverty and conflict is clear and widely accepted. But many poor countries have not experienced civil war while richer ones have. Poverty makes a country more vulnerable to civil war – more at risk of it – but does not make civil war inevitable. It takes mobilisation by political actors for there to be war, and they are by no means always themselves motivated by poverty, though they may be leading poor people into war. Further, poverty may not be the only long term factor to consider: people may be mobilised to fight, for example, not just because they are poor but also because they are of one national, ethnic or tribal group, mobilised to fight against another that is seen (or can be depicted) as a threat.

In short, the long-term causes of armed conflict interact with each other in different combinations, and it takes political action to set off the explosion into war. It is the same with climate change and conflict.

Thus, the link between climate change and conflict is best understood by exploring what A Climate of Conflict, a report by International Alert, called the “knock-on consequences” of global warming, also “the consequences of consequences.” Global warming is affecting the climate, which is affecting the social reality of many countries, interacting with other features of some countries’ social and economic landscapes to heighten the risk of conflict. Not surprisingly, this risk is particularly identifiable in poor, badly governed countries, especially ones with current or recent experience of war. The report identified 46 countries where the risk of violent conflict was evident and a further 56 in which there was a risk of political instability rather than all-out violent conflict.

This is a serious prospect. It says that countries in which 4 billion people currently live face serious climate-related political and conflict risks. But it is not a doomsday scenario and it relates the climate impact to other social, economic and political realities. It therefore offers a different discourse from one that posits extended world war as, to judge by the report in Fox and Huffington, an inevitable result of mass migration that would itself inevitably ensue from unrestrained global warming.

There are good reasons for looking at the worst possible case. If reported accurately, Nicholas Stern was speaking to a small group about what would happen if global warming went far beyond the 2 degrees centigrade increase that the global scientific-political consensus has us aiming for by 2050 on the basis of 50 per cent reductions in global carbon emissions. Facing up to the worst possible outcome clarifies the consequences of inaction. It is a good mind-clearing exercise. But there are several problems, and they make arguments based on the worst possible a weak mode of public communication, despite their short-term wow effect.

The first problem is simple: worst possible and best possible are by definition least likely outcomes. That point occurs to many people and the argument therefore risks being dismissed as hyperbole.

The second problem is that the scenario deals in inevitability. That’s misleading. In the chain of consequences of consequences, there are many places where it is possible for political, social and economic action to affect outcomes. Large scale migration is agreed by many to be a likely consequence if climate change makes human habitats less habitable, but migration does not always and inevitably lead to violence. It is more complex but more sustainable to argue about risk and uncertainty than inevitability.

Thirdly, extreme scenarios and the whiff of inevitability tend to be disabling and disempowering. If this is our last chance of heading off Armageddon, what happens if the Copenhagen climate summit in September is less successful than it should be? Give up? I am all in favour of working flat out to get a great agreement in Copenhagen. But I am all in favour of continuing to work flat out if it doesn’t work because not all the main political players can bring themselves to agree.

And finally, this kind of argument confuses things by focusing solely on one issue. It is clear that climate change is a defining issue of our age, but it is not the only thing going on, and not the only factor behind armed conflicts and humanitarian disasters. Indeed, by being over-excited and alarmist, this kind of argument misses the point, for the real peril lies not in climate change alone, but in the interaction between the effects of climate change and the other problems the world faces.

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