The year of the twin crises

This is the year when we face the reality of a dark horizon for global security. War in Ukraine since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its not-so-stealthy takeover of parts of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has escalated with the Russian invasion in February. Meanwhile, confrontation between China and the USA over Taiwan has intensified and there are approximately 50 other active armed conflicts worldwide.

At the same time, in case anybody has forgotten, this is the year of climate change – the worst heatwave on record in China, a once in 500 years drought in Europe, complete with the re-emergence of hunger stones in major rivers for the first time in centuries, drought and record heat in India, massive flooding in Pakistan, drought and surging food insecurity in the Horn of Africa

The twin crises of security and the environment add up to a planetary emergency. The heavy events of 2022 on both the security and the environmental sides of the equation are symptoms of deep, underlying problems. The further problem is that the two crises are linked: each feeds the other.

And behind them is a third problem, in that governments and international organisations alike lack adequate mechanisms and instruments for addressing these environmental and security challenges.

Laying out the evidence, analysing the trends and causes, and identifying what to do about it all is the subject of SIPRI’s report, Environment of Peace: Security in a new era of risk, published in May.

Report, reception and reflections

When we launched the report, the outreach team at SIPRI pushed it out to global media. We picked up somewhere around 3,500 news reports in different media round the world. What was interesting was that most of these hits were via defence and security correspondents, not the environmental and climate change journalists. That would partly be due to SIPRI’s core credibility lying with the defence and security crowd. In addition, I have the impression, which several of my colleagues and counterparts who also look at the intersection of environmental and security issues also report, that the environmental community has a great deal more difficulty with thinking about security issues than the security crowd has with thinking about the environment. I still encounter people who run from the security implications of their environmental concerns, throwing the dreaded boo-word ‘securitisation’ over their shoulders.

The simple fact is that the natural foundations on which all societies and our collective life are built is at risk from climate change, the degradation of the biosphere, air pollution and more. In places where the natural foundations are particularly unstable, it should be no surprise if, as food and livelihood security decline, there is increasing social upheaval, political instability. These can and do generate disputes and conflicts, which, if not well managed, may turn violent. In some cases, because of other factors as well such as engrained inequality, unresponsive and repressive government, and ethnic or national grievance, these may escalate into open armed conflict.

This pathway from environmental change to armed conflict is not inevitable and is shaped by other factors than the environment alone. That means there are multiple opportunities for appropriate parties – community leaders, provincial leadership, national government, regional organisations – to step in and cool things down.

But nor is this pathway difficult to understand. Fifteen years ago when I started writing about this, there was a lot of pushback from academics and others who said there was not enough evidence. Just a hypothesis, they said. They looked back over 50 to 60 years of armed conflict, didn’t see a strong environmental or climate signal, and concluded there’s no problem. But the point is that the unfolding consequences of environmental deterioration, with climate change at the forefront in this regard, mean that the future will be different from the past. Today, the evidence is steadily building. Six of the ten largest UN peace operations are in countries hit hard by climate change. It is impossible to leave nature out of a full explanation of the background to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

The link between climate change and insecurity is clear and getting clearer. It’s not rocket science. And while it’s scary, the scarier thing is when well-intentioned people run away from it because that means that any and all policies and actions they propose for addressing the problem will be incomplete and ineffective.

Thinking about the twin crises

The planetary emergency deepens and sharpens as each year goes by without decisive actions being taken to mitigate it. Communities across the world are already suffering the consequences of climate change and other kinds of environmental deterioration as well as deepening insecurity, both separately and in combination. But these problems of today could turn out to be merely the early stages of a growing global malady. We have some serious action to take to avert the worst that may be yet to come. And some serious thinking to do first. But quick.

The twin crises of the environment and security are linked in multiple ways. The frustrating thing is that this has long been understood. If you don’t believe me, go back to a 1977 Worldwatch Institute paper that looked at the challenge to peace and stability of a changing climate. Or a 1989 article in Foreign Affairs by Jessica Mathews. Or a 1990 article in The RUSI Journal (that’s to say, the journal of the Royal United Services Institute) by Neville Brown.

The SIPRI report Environment of Peace explores the linkages. Some of them are subtle while others could hardly be clearer. With more than 80 per cent of UN peace operations personnel deployed in countries that are highly vulnerable to climate change, the need to take the impact of climate change into account in their work is pretty obvious. Perhaps more subtle and elusive is the dampening and disabling effect of insecurity and confrontational politics on the prospects of agreeing on measures to slow down climate change and protect the environment. Not that it was ever easy because of the role of vested interest and competing policy priorities – but toxic geopolitics makes it that much harder.

In forthcoming posts on this blog, publishing with more frequency than in recent times (promise), I am going to set out some of this terrain. In essence, with some re-writing here and there, I will be offering bite-sized pieces of Part I of the scientific study that lies behind the policy report, Environment of Piece.

The thinking problem

To my mind, a key problem is the way many people think about these issues and how they are linked. One part of this problem lies in a way of thinking that both reflects and is reflected in the model of economic development since the industrial revolution began – a model that is essentially predatory upon nature, including predatory on most people. In a little over two centuries , economic growth has drained natural resources and been increasingly destructive for the natural environment. This has generated enormous profits for some and economic opportunity and improvement for many – notwithstanding all the inequality, poverty and deprivation in the world, seen in historical perspective, progress is real. I will come back to that point.

BUT – progress has imposed an unsustainable burden on nature and, in turn, upon us. Thinking about the human interaction with nature needs to recognise that, as humans, whatever our many differences, we are all also a part of nature. Human beings are part of the biosphere. That is an old insight that modernity has obscured; we need to get back to it.

A second aspect of the thinking problem is that we need some new ideas about security, new compared to the norm in much of the world for at least two centuries and, in some accounts, for more than two millennia. State and national self-interest, understood in terms of power, form too shallow and narrow a foundation on which to base international policy in a world challenged by far-reaching environmental crisis. Sustainability and cooperation have to move to the forefront.

In the end, the challenges to well-being, peace and security that come from political rivalries are real and profound, yet they are ultimately less significant than the challenges to well-being, peace and security that come from the environmental crisis our predominant model of economic development has produced.

This is the terrain I aim to explore in forthcoming posts. It’s basically a story of connectedness in the sense that:

  • The biosphere is a network of interdependent fauna and flora of which we humans are a part and on which we fully depend;
  • The inter-connectedness of the biosphere means that, where human activity has been damaging, negative consequences may cascade together;
  • Similarly, the security space is characterised by inter-connected elements that link human security and well-being with political stability within and between states;
  • To limit and reverse the damage done to the biosphere so that people may thrive will require cooperative action between groups and between states that are currently adversaries;
  • Thus, two spaces – security and the biosphere – that are each characterised by complex inter-connections are also connected to each other.

One thought on “The year of the twin crises

  1. Pingback: Indicators of our current insecurity | Dan Smith's blog

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