Climate change, security and development

The problem about the climate change issue – one problem among many – is that political leaders and ordinary citizens alike, as well as institutions large and small in all walks of life, have to act on it before we know everything there is to be known about it. So a lot of the argument comes down to risk. One of the key risks is increased insecurity and violent conflict. As we trace this risk, how should it shape the response we want on climate change from governments and ourselves?

The important thing to understand here is that different issues interact with each other.  It has been a big step forward in international awareness that the issue of linkages between climate change and conflict has risen up the international agenda; I have summarised some of the reasons why this matters so much in an article posted on on the al-Jazeera web-site. At the same time, I have been uncomfortably conscious for a while of four possible temptations or pitfalls in this line of argument, all arising out of difficulties there often are in analysing and designing policy responses for multi-layered, multi-dimensional problems..  

  • One temptation is to simplify the linkage into cause and effect, as in the expression “climate war” or “water wars”. But no conflict has a single cause. I will return to this issue in future posts.
  • A second one is to exaggerate the issue with terrifying scenarios that are backed by little evidence and not much logic; extreme arguments get a lot of attention, including critical attention, which will usually expose the logical and evidential weaknesses pretty quickly. The errors of exaggerated cases for action on climate change are then used by a small group of determined and energetic climate deniers to discredit much more solid and temperate arguments.
  • A third potential pitfall is that the argument gets pigeon-holed on the logic that if there are security problems arising from conflict change, then security forces (i.e., the military) should deal with them. This would lead to a form of response that would masterfully combine high cost and low impact. Security issues that arise out of climate change must be addressed by measures that address climate change so as to prevent insecurity increasing. These are wholly unlikely to be military measures. Rejecting this distraction, the argument about the climate/conflict linkage has focused onto the importance of adapting to the consequences of climate change, understanding the full ramifications of those consequences and therefore acknowledging adaptation as a social process rather than just a matter of piling up the sandbags. International Alert made a strong start on this argument two years ago with A Climate of Conflict and we have another report in preparation now that takes the argument a bit further.
  • And the fourth temptation to resist, which is endemic to thinking about such a big, complex and important issue as climate change, is that people slip into thinking about climate change as if it’s the only thing going on in the world. And of course it’s not. So it is not the only influence on people’s behaviour, or on how societies develop, or on how politics shift, or, by the same logic, on whether there is a conflict and, if so, whether the conflict turns violent.

The London-based IPPR issued a report last year on UK national security produced by an independent non-party commission, Shared Responsibilities; its starting point was that in a world characterised by economic globalisation and the diffusion of power, climate change, poverty and inequality exacerbate the problems of political instability and the fragility of state institutions in poor countries and thus contribute to violent conflict.

This is the right direction of analysis. As climate change adds to the burdens that the world faces, its most severe impact will be on the poor – on impoverished people living in impoverished countries. Many who are poor in rich countries will be protected by the wealth of the country (poor Dutch and rich ones alike benefit from Dutch sea protection, for example). And in developing countries, the rich will always do better than the poor. So the impact of climate change is hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

The IPPR linkage of climate change, poverty and inequality with conflict risk, political fragility and instability directs our attention towards vulnerability and its role in fuelling conflict. And the vulnerability we are talking about is shaped not just by climate change but by the intractability of underdevelopment:

  • the persistence of poverty and of insecure livelihoods,
  • the lack of good economic infrastructure such as roads and communications, clean water and sanitation,
  • and of good social infrastructure such as health services, education and social welfare systems,
  • the difficulty of getting a foothold in the world market,
  • as well as the fragility of state institutions and the instability of political arrangements,
  • the effects of recent armed conflict and the threat of looming violence.

Climate change adds further ingredients to an already toxic brew. A recent Swedish EU Presidency conference took a good look at the way the development, climate and peace issues mix together.

The physical effects of climate change vary from region to region and depending on how much average temperature increases. There are several unknowns in there (though there’s a very useful guide just out from the UK government on what are foreseen as effects of a 4 degree rise in average temperature) and they are increased when one moves from natural effects to the human and social impact. If the natural science is still unfolding, the social science of climate change has barely got started.

But in most regions the effects of climate change even at around 2 degrees average warming will combine to make some human habitat less habitable. That will play upon the multi-layered vulnerability of ordinary people and communities, damage the resource base of the life they make together, potentially weakening confidence in both social institutions and in political authority. In these circumstances urgent grievance and sharpening micro-conflict can be expected.

The risk is greater and the conflicts are likely to be more intense if particular groups – ethnic, caste, religious, regional – lose out in the share-out of a tighter resource base while other groups do better. Unfortunately, though, as resources tighten, one classic way of organising their management and distribution is precisely for social and political elites to rely on identity groups to do so. That is a repetitively present mechanism for unintentionally transforming resource issues into group conflicts.

As these conflicts increase, while poverty and the other issues of underdevelopment persist, and the consequences of climate change continue to play out, can the state protect its citizens? Does it want to?

If it does or cannot look after the welfare of its citizens it sacrifices its legitimacy and when, as may happen, there is a challenge to the authority of the state – or, more precisely, to the hold that a particular coalition of elite groups has on the levers of state power – when that happens, the challengers for power have a pool of recruits who can be mobilised whether for politics or violent conflict. And the challengers face a state whose capacity, never great to begin with, is being steadily diminished by the effects of climate change, rising levels of poverty, increasing threats to basic law and order and so on.

In principle the state in a developing country should be organising itself to adapt to the pressure of climate change and manage conflicts peacefully. But climate change and conflicts alike absorb state resources and capacity. That is the vicious circle: where state institutions are fragile, climate change both places heavier demands on state capacity and simultaneously diminishes that capacity.

What this all adds up to for thinking about response to climate change can be simply stated as follows:

  • Policies on climate change are incomplete if they do not address development and peace issues.
  • All three issues have to be joined up both in analysis and in policy response because they are joined up in reality.

I will go further into these issues in subsequent posts on the pathway of risk and the politics of adaptation.

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