Insecurity, the Anthropocene & nature’s tipping points

Each February, leaders, policy-makers, thinkers and practitioners in the field of security, broadly defined, get together at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich for a three day international conference. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, Germany’s then Chancellor, Angela Merkel, opened her speech by reflecting on the world’s entry into a new geochronological age – the Anthropocene Epoch. 

She explained, “This means that we are living in an age in which humankind’s traces penetrate so deeply into the Earth that future generations will regard it as an entire age created by humans.” She briefly touched on different human impacts on the environment and then said, “All of this has implications for global security and for the issues that are being discussed right here, right now.”

Right here, right now, too right.

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The Great Acceleration

You know, it is easy to understand how it gets to be a drag, having to think about things in new and different ways.

If you have been working on international development over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War, in a government, or inter-governmental agencies, or non-governmental organisations, or switching among them, you will know what I mean. First there was development, then you had to add gender and human rights, then environment, and then conflict and peace. Wouldn’t it be great to get back to working just on development? And those folk over there could work on environment or gender or peace and conflict if they want and, you know, just get on with stuff.

Likewise, there are complaints and doubts within the humanitarian community about how their work is complicated by the people who want them to think about development and peace as well as simply meeting immediate human needs.

But watch out. As they say, people who are wise: be careful what you wish for.

In various governments among the traditional donors of international development assistance, things are beginning to unfold that could lead to a distinct narrowing of focus, leaving much of development and peace out of the picture and concentrating on meeting humanitarian emergencies.

This blog post is about one reason – an environmental reason – why that is deeply problematic, why it is essential to grasp the nettle and think about the full range of problems that confront peace and development today. Just one reason among several. The argument swings on the big changes in human impact on the environment that have unfolded since about 1950.

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2022: the pear-shaped year

I hope my levity does not make it seem as if I am dismissing the human reality of the horrors we have witnessed in 2022 or downplaying the seriousness of the events and their implications. But it is the way I express my assessment of the year in a brief interview filmed and disseminated as part of SIPRI’s Peace Points series.

It has been a year of war, crisis, the impact of climate change, growing hunger in poorer countries, and increased cost of living everywhere – rich and poor countries alike. And it came on the back of three years of pandemic for most of the world and a fourth year for China.

There is no point in sugaring the pill. The upshot is that this has been a bad year for peace and security . The only way we can figure out how to deal with all of that is to face it head-on with eyes open. Here’s the film.

The bright spot is that more people are paying attention. That’s the starting point for something better.

Environment of Peace: the research report in full

In the last couple of months I have been writing and posting articles based on the material assembled for the policy report, Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk that SIPRI published in May and first launched at the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Now, with not a little sigh of relief combined with a real sense of achievement, SIPRI has published the research on which the policy report is based.

It is published in four parts.

  • Part 1, which I had the honour of being the lead author for, is entitled ‘Elements of a Planetary Emergency’.
  • Part 2, led by Cedric de Coning, is ‘Security Risks of Environmental Crises’.
  • Part 3, led by Geoff Dabelko, is ‘Navigating a Just and Peaceful Transition’.
  • And Part 4, led by Melvis Ndiloseh and Hafsa Maalim, is ‘Enabling an Environment of Peace’.

It’s a pretty chunky read – 277 pages and, for those who like to keep count, 1648 endnotes with the supporting references. The five lead authors were backed by a team of about 30 researchers and guided by an international advisory panel.

At the close of 2022, perhaps some of us risk feeling overwhelmed. It is crisis, crisis, crisis all over the place: hunger, biodiversity, energy, economy, supply chains, mental health, security, migration, cost of living and climate. If we manage not to turn away from all of them, it is all too tempting to focus on one or two, either as the magic key for solving the whole lot, or because that’s all the mind can handle.

The uncomfortable fact is that these crises are connected and interacting. The aim of the Environment of Peace initiative that SIPRI set going in 2020 is to understand and explain how those interconnections work, and show how knowing about them can be turned to advantage as we find inter-connected solutions.

Probably the full research report is not everybody’s cup of green tea. But the policy report could be. I didn’t have a hand in writing it so I can contentedly say it is extremely well written and clearly presented and super-well worth the read. And for those who want to explore more deeply or check out the underlying evidence and analytical foundations, the full research report is there for you.

Between two COPs

It is well established that, worldwide, there is an unfolding, escalating, multi-factor environmental crisis. It is seen in the loss of biodiversity and of biomass, massive changes in the use of land, air pollution, chemical pollution, plastics pollution and climate change. It has effects on health, food security, livelihoods, social and political stability, conflicts and the ability to handle them.

There is no real empirical argument left about any of this. It is getting something done to arrest the slide that is hard.

Two main international agreements attempt to address the environmental crisis: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. There was a Conference of Parties (COP) – a kind of health check – for the climate convention at the start of November, and there will be one on the Biodiversity Convention in December.

So right now we are between two COPs.

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The idea of security

2022: the year of insecurity – Ukraine, Taiwan, Ethiopia, happening against a background, as my last blog post set out, of record military spending, with refugee numbers already at a record high. It is tempting to think that this means we need to junk woolly thoughts about human security and suchlike and get back to old-style basics, in which security lies in a strong defence, in power, to be blunt, and more of it than any adversary has. It’s what is called realism in the study of international relations and the realist temptation today seems strong.

It is the direction in which the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the confrontation between China and the USA over Taiwan seem to be pushing us. A return to realism, hardening up NATO against Russia, though it’s worth acknowledging that the demand to get Western policy ‘back to realism’ is a long-standing idea . But why ever and whenever, it’s all about recognising that, if you get into trouble, only the exertion of power will get you out and that’s how it’s been for thousands of years.

Mm-hmm, except that 2022 is also the year of climate change: drought in China and Europe, floods in Pakistan, both in the Horn of Africa, unfolding in a context of several other aspects of serious environmental deterioration, as my last blog post also set out.

And since this means that the mix of challenges on today’s security horizon is not only complex and worrisome but also unprecedented, it suggests there is a need to think hard about what we mean by security – the security of whom or what, and against what – and, indeed, to be ready to rethink.

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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.

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2022: looking back, looking forward

“What is the state of the world?” my colleague asks as we enter 2022. I’m still not sure whether to count my answer as optimistic or pessimistic.

While the years from 2015 to 2019 were marked by a distinct worsening in world security – which I traced each year in the Introduction to the annual SIPRI Yearbook – it was different in 2020. That was the year when things didn’t get worse.

All right – now, how to characterise 2021? That was the year when things didn’t get better.

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Compound risk, response and prevention: learning to act where problems intersect

The Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development is co-convened annually by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which I have the honour to lead, and Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This year ‘s Forum was held in early May. Like the 2020 edition, it was online. The theme was Promoting Peace in the Age of Compound Risk.

The Forum was big. This post offers some summary reflections about what was discussed and what those discussions tell us about the way ahead.

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Progress – really? Really

On 8 October the 10th edition of my State of the World Atlas is published. It’s a big picture book with graphic presentation of statistics and trends worldwide. And the biggest of the big picture questions is, “Is progress real?” Short answer: yes. 

Yes, I know. Look outside and it’s not pretty. During the last five years we have seen global geopolitics go from sour to toxic, unravelling nuclear arms control, and reducing the appetite for international cooperation to address problems that can only be solved by working together.  The number of armed conflicts is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. Global military spending and the trade in major weapons are both at 30-year highs as well. The impact of climate change is increasing and increasingly dangerous. And on top of that there is the pandemic with its human, social, cultural and economic consequences. Can we still believe in progress? Really?

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