New “Backdraft” Podcast Series, on the Peace and Conflict Consequences of Climate Responses

The science is clear: To prevent major disruption, the global community must take steps to address climate change. But it is also increasingly clear that efforts to address climate change can have major effects on societies that are not always anticipated.

The “backdraft” initiative at the Wilson Center is an effort to understand how policies and programs intended to help us adapt to or mitigate climate change can unintentionally do harm. In a new podcast series, we speak to experts from around the world about the potential peace and conflict consequences of climate change responses, from the pitfalls of the “green economy” to the geopolitical challenges posed by geoengineering.

In our first episode, we speak to ECSP Senior Advisor and Former Director Geoffrey D. Dabelko, now at Ohio University. He discusses the history of backdraft and what lessons from natural resource management and environmental peacebuilding can help prevent the worst outcomes.

In the early 2000s, the connection between climate change and security became a primary area of focus in the environmental security community, says Dabelko. The question of how climate change might contribute to conflict was dominant, with research primarily looking at direct climate impacts, like temperature and rainfall change, and immediate effects such as migration and changes in agricultural productivity.

These are big transitions. There will be winners and losers, and there can be adverse effects.

In 2010, the Wilson Center held a workshop to examine a third category: Could responses to climate change – both adaptation and mitigation strategies – unintentionally exacerbate existing conflicts or cause new ones? The workshop and subsequent research was published in the 2013 report, “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.”

Now, we are beginning to see backdraft effects playing out on the ground, says Dabelko. Wind farms and hydroelectric dams require large areas of land that are sometimes already occupied, sparking conflict with communities in the way. The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Program (REDD+) is upending traditional forest governance models around the world, sometimes disrupting existing dispute and conservation mechanisms.

These “are big transitions – necessary transitions – but they’re big transitions,” says Dabelko. There will be winners and losers, and there can be adverse effects that exacerbate existing conflicts and even create new ones.

Despite the “temptation to see climate as new and distinct from other natural resource and environmental management practices,” Dabelko recommends looking to the guiding principles that have developed around natural resource management for a start. A conflict-sensitive approach that applies the “do no harm” principle is critical to anticipating the wider social and political impacts of climate adaptation and mitigation projects.

Climate responses will touch on so many different sectors – from energy policy to land rights to development and humanitarian responses, and health and gender programs – that “any effort to do climate work has to be part of a larger discussion,” says Dabelko.

Building resilience will require stronger institutions at all levels of governance, from the hyper local to the global, and an inter-disciplinary, integrated approach. “If one walks into a room and you know everyone already, you’re not doing your job on this topic,” says Dabelko. “You need to get out and connect with folks you aren’t accustomed to working with.”

Stay tuned for more interviews in the “Backdraft” series, coming every other week on Friday Podcasts.

The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and produced by Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

Contributions from the Wilson Center originally appear on New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program.