Climate change, conflict and development – under discussion

This is a key year for climate change  policy, leading up to the summit in Copenhagen in December, which has the task of coming up with the “post-Kyoto” climate agreement. With the obscurantism of Bush replaced by the energy and commitment of the still new Obama administration, hopes are high though obstacles are many. As part of its preparations for the year ahead, on Thursday 12th the UK Foreign Office held a workshop at London School of Economics on climate security.

The terminology of “climate security” is not particularly comfortable for many people, partly because it has several subtly different meanings. For some people, climate security is about being secure from the effects of climate change, which means it’s mainly about reducing climate change as much as possible. That requires international cooperation to reduce carbon emissions. For some it is about being secure despite the effects of climate change; this implies a more go-it-alone national policy rather than the international cooperation necessitated by the first version. For others it is primarily about the impact of climate change on those who can be expected to carry the heaviest burden – that is to say, the poorest of the poor – which makes it a sub-set of the issue of development. And for a fourth group it is about the specific impact of climate change in exacerbating the risks of violent conflict, especially in poor countries, which makes it a sub-set of the combined issues of peace and development.

One of the things about this kind of workshop is that in the wrong circumstances it can get totally snagged on the terminological and definitional issues, and on another day it can hurdle past them, which is what happened at the LSE workshop after an initial confrontation with alternative versions of the issue. The basic topic of the workshop, as it turned out, was the link between climate change and insecurity of ordinary people, especially in poor countries. So in many ways, though the Foreign Office convened us, the approach that was taken was primarily about the relationship between peace and development. Britain’s national interest barely got mentioned – no need because everybody took it as read that this is one of those issues in which national and global interest are intertwined and spending time sorting out a specific national interest that is different from the general well-being just gets in the way.

There were people from government, academia, think-tanks and a handful of NGOs. We met and discussed against the background of the meeting of scientists in Copenhagen this week – part of the long-term preparation for the December summit – with headlines saying that sea-level rise and the destructive effect of climate change on forests are likely to be worse than previously foreseen. It is notable, in fact, that there is a generally growing sense of gloom about climate change, despite the optimism that Obama’s arrival on the scene has generated. It is now quite commonplace to reflect scepticism that global warming can be limited to an average 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial times, which has been the consensus target until now. Various well known climate commentators are disseminating more and more serious pictures of the consequences of inaction.

It is seems likely that this is a strategically generated sense of foreboding. There are plenty of people who argue that only fear will galvanise adequate action. I have blogged previously (Feb 26th: ‘Stern, climate change and “extended world war”‘) outlining my view that the fear tactic can get out of hand and be counter-productive. The LSE workshop was not dominated by this kind of argument, however, although it did get voiced a couple of times.

One of the key issues was the importance of getting away from environmental determinism in looking at the link between climate and insecurity. This is surely right. Climate change is a defining feature of our era; its impact is already being felt and it will be experienced more widely, more sharply and more visibly as years go by. But it is not the only thing that is happening. In my post of February 26th I set out a view about the causes of conflicts (and thus of insecurity) that insists that climate change must be looked at alongside other factors if you want to understand how conflicts come about and turn violent. It’s misleading to build arguments and policies on the basis that, in future, conflicts can be traced back to a single cause called climate change. Would that the world were so simple…

Climate change interacts with multpile factors – poverty, arbitrary and corrupt state power, inequality, legacies of war and colonialism, the malign influence of outside power, the battle of  ideologies, the greed and ambition of powerful groups and sometimes individuals. As it was put during the workshop, climate change is a stress multiplier. It makes risk and vulnerability to conflict worse – and it does precisely because it is inter-acting with all the other problems and not because it is a unique cause of trouble all by itself.

One advantage of approaching the issue in this way is that it is clear, as with development as a whole, that progress is not really possible without facing up to the question of how societies are organised in developing countries, and especially how power is portioned out. It may seem obvious but it is a point worth making, that you cannot discuss the consequences of climate change in a vacuum. The consequences will be felt by people who live in real societies. In some societies, the institutions of government will try to look after the citizens’ interests and make a good or bad job of it. In others, the institutions of government won’t even bother to try, but citizens themselves will be able to engage in looking after their own interests to some degree. And in others, the institutions of government will protect their own power by preventing citizens organising autonomously. So if rich country governments want to use their development policies to help people in poor countries adapt to face the effects of climate change, they need to take into account the way in which, in some countries, that effort will face political obstacles and aid will be diverted away from its intended beneficiaries by a corrupt elite. It is in these countries that the greatest risks of violent conflict and political instability are to be found, and in these countries that climate change will be a particularly dangerous stress multiplier.

Together with staying clear of one-dimensional views and policies, an issue that surfaced early and stayed with us through the day was that there is not a very good basis in evidence and experience for figuring out what governments, communities and international organisations must do. But the truth of the matter is that we cannot afford to be limited by this. Evidence and experience reflect what has and has not happened in the past. Climate change makes the future different from the past, so what has gone before is not the best guide about what will unfold ahead of us. Perhaps this would not be quite such a striking issue if the science of climate change were better developed. It is a field that – as the meetings in Copenhagen this week revealed yet again – is constantly throwing up new and more refined ways of understanding its subject. Climate change models still have country-size gaps in them; a huge amount of work is being done but the science of climate change remains in its infancy – and understanding the social, economic and political consequences is at an even earlier stage of development.

Now here is a tasty problem for government, which was perhaps one of the underlying reasons for holding the workshop. Policies and political stances normally derive some of their strength from being straightforward and clear. Their core needs to be expressed in a sentence or two at most. They need to identify a problem and specify a solution. But here we are, sitting and discussing climate change and insecurity, making it clear that explanations of the climate-insecurity link and policies to address it must be multi-dimensional, carefully nuanced, and built on foundations that contain some knowledge, some informed conjecture, some scenarios and some risk calculations. In other words, here we have an issue that urgently requires action and yet is characterised by uncertainty and complexity.

It will take a sustained, balanced and politically mature discussion to help our political leaders, policy-makers and those whose job it is to implement policy get to the right decisions. They will have to move out of their comfort zones to do it. Many have shown they are willing to do it. But they still need our help to make it work.

2 thoughts on “Climate change, conflict and development – under discussion

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