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Keynote: the Security Implications of Climate Change in Fragile States

In this speech at the Climate Change and Security: Fragile State Conference, Stéphane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, points out the connections between climate change and fragility, drawing on specific country examples. He stresses the need for integrated actions and the potential of Canada.

March 30, 2016 - Ottawa, Ontario

Ladies and gentlemen, to speak in front of you about climate change as a risk amplifier for security is quite a challenge. After all, you are among the best experts that the United States and Canada have produced on this crucial issue. So I will not pretend to teach you anything; my objective is rather to reassure you that as a minister, I am fully seized with how critical the topic of this conference is for humankind.

Critical? Certainly. But how many people really know? For most, conflict and unrest have nothing to do with climate change. Yet look at the facts.

Five years ago, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians filled Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, they were not shouting “climate change.” They shouted “down with injustice, corruption and poverty.” But the motto on the square was “bread, freedom, social equality.”

Bread. It accounts for almost 40 percent of the Egyptian diet. And food accounts for roughly 40 percent of Egyptians’ household budget. With serious land and water scarcity issues, the country cannot produce enough wheat for domestic demand. Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer.

In the winter of 2010 and 2011, China – the world’s second-largest wheat producer – was struck by a “once-in-a-century” drought. At the same time, wheat production in Russia, Ukraine, Australia, Pakistan and Canada also fell dramatically due to drought, wildfires, floods and abnormal weather.

With global wheat supplies down and protectionist measures up, the Egyptian government failed to balance its massive subsidies, and market prices shot up. At the time of the uprisings in early 2011, food prices had increased by 20 percent, and 40 million Egyptians—about half of the population—were receiving food rations.

Or look at Syria. The 2007-2010 drought in Syria was the worst drought on record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centres. A United Nations Development Programme report found that nearly 75 percent of farmers in northeastern Syria experienced total crop failure and herders lost 85 percent of their livestock. Another United Nations report found that more than 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihoods as a result of the droughts.

This environmental disaster and resultant migration put significant strain on Syria’s economically and water-stressed cities. Displaced farmers had to compete for jobs, housing and services.

Egypt, Syria, the list goes on: 14 of the world’s 33 most water‑stressed countries are in the Middle East and North Africa.

Climate change did not cause the Syrian civil war; climate change did not cause the Arab Spring; climate change did not cause the Egyptian uprising. The cause of the political turmoil was multi-faceted, with a democratic deficit playing the leading role. But climate change amplified the risks. It exacerbates droughts and other disruptive natural phenomena. It is undeniable that the food prices spike had a catalytic effect in Egypt, and we know that climate change will render this kind of situation more salient and more frequent.

Climate change is a risk amplifier for security, indeed.

A recent G7 report called A New Climate for Peace, identifies seven ways in which climate change plays a role as a risk multiplier in fragile states. Let me sum them up in my own way.

First, increased risk of conflicts over natural resources. Our high commissioner to Kenya, David Angell, was recently in Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with the UN Environment Programme executive director. There, he encountered first-hand the competing and often violent actions of armed groups, including even the state and local businesses—all of them vying for control of scarce climate-related resources, such as hydroelectric power generation and forest conservation.

Somalia is also a case in point. As a result of frequent droughts, civil war and disrupted livelihoods, pastoralist communities in Somalia increasingly turn to charcoal production as an alternative source of income. Charcoal production in Somalia not only causes significant deforestation, environmental degradation and communal conflict, it also provides steady revenues for rebel groups, such as al-Shabaab, which control the distribution of this resource. Yet, at a recent international summit on Somalia that I attended in Istanbul, potential permanent lack of water as a cause of tension was hardly mentioned.

Second, increased risk of migration crises. Fragile states are disproportionately dependent on natural resources for their livelihood, and climate change can change the calculus of how people survive, forcing them to consider migration as a coping tool. Migration in turn creates new challenges.

Third, natural disasters are a particular risk to fragile and conflict-affected states. Between 1980 and 2011, natural disasters are estimated to have caused over 3.3 million deaths and cost more than $1.2 trillion. A state’s capacity to reduce or respond to natural disasters can be the difference between peace and violence.

Fourth, climate change is highly likely to decrease yields and disrupt food production on a planet with a population approaching eight billion people.

Fifth, water management disputes. Historically, water disputes are resolved diplomatically. In fact, through mediation they have proven to be a source of peace- and confidence-building. However, that may change because most water agreements fall short on dealing with climate challenges such as flood management, water flow and volume for hydro generation, agriculture and human consumption.

Sixth, rising sea levels. There is a heightened risk of sea-level rise and coastal degradation, further increasing migration and the disruption of livelihoods and the economy, and contaminating freshwater along the coasts. Some 147 to 216 million people live on land that will be below sea level or regular flood levels by the end of the century.

Finally, to add to all of this, the unintended negative consequences of some climate policies and programs. A classic example is addressing water shortages through irrigation improvements, to the disadvantage of communities downstream, without a keen attention to a conflict-sensitive approach.

Climate change will not create these conflicts, but it is very likely to multiply them.

We need action. And action in an integrated way. Addressing climate change in fragile states requires us to move out of our professional comfort zones, the silos within which we each often work, and focus on truly interagency, cross-sectoral and multilateral efforts.

And this is true for ministers as well. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked all his ministers to work together on this issue, not only the environment and climate change minister, the Honourable Catherine McKenna, but also the international development minister, the defence minister, the public safety minister, the foreign affairs minister and in fact, the whole cabinet.

This holistic approach is what we need within our countries, but also between countries. We cannot work in isolation. When they met in Washington, Prime Minister Trudeau and President Barack Obama recognized the particular impact of climate change on countries already dealing with conflict and fragility. The leaders committed to addressing the intersection of climate change and security as an issue for foreign, defence and development policies.

That is the right approach. That is the way for developed countries to engage fragile states on adapting to climate change now, before they fall into chaos and become failed states. As the rest of the world marches forward with adapting to climate change, we should not leave fragile states behind.

I am convinced that Canada has a lot to offer and must do more. We have world-class expertise on water management issues because of our work with our American neighbours. We could share that expertise throughout the world.

Canada also has experience in climate risk insurance. There are too many countries that don’t have access to insurance against natural disasters. At the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last December, countries contributed to the G7 Initiative on Climate Risk Insurance.

Canada also has a good reputation in effective conflict mediation and prevention and in ensuring that women have a prominent role. We should use this expertise to address climate-related natural resource disputes before they happen.

In conclusion, the day when climate change is as mainstream for security experts as arms control is, as the evolution of interest rates is for economists, as the weather is for farmers, then we will be much better equipped to meet our objectives.

But we are not there yet. We will be there when a world summit on Somalia appreciates and recognizes the role that climate change, the lack of water and other environmental stresses play in exacerbating security conditions. We will be there when economists fully factor in the impacts of the prolonged droughts in California when they are speculating on the rate of economic growth in North America. 

Let me finish by quoting Wangari Muta Maathai, who became in 2004 the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. At that time she stated that “in a few decades, the relationship between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace.”

That decade is upon us now.

Thank you.

The address was originally delivered at the Climate Change and Security: Fragile State Conference.