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Will Anyone Mention the C Word?

‘No challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a change in climate’. Thus spoke President Obama, and most Western leaders have done likewise. Most have also underlined the national security risks emanating from climate change, with John Kerry calling it ‘another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction’. Yet as the security policy community descends on Munich for its annual conference, climate change is likely to be a sideshow, again, despite the global attention that climate change received in the context of December’s conference in Paris.

What explains this disconnect? It is not as if the security community as a whole had not noticed. These days, some 70% of the world’s militaries acknowledge climate change as a national security threat. The US military has been among those most outspoken about the need to prepare for a future with higher temperatures and an ever less reliable hydrological cycle. Last November, the Dutch government convened a high-ranking Planetary Security Conference, moderated for two days by its foreign ministry’s political director. And, as readers of the blog are likely well aware, the foreign ministers of the G7 last year welcomed a report that detailed seven mechanisms linking anthropogenic climate change to increasing state fragility.

And yet, climate change has not left much of a mark on the security policy community. There are several reasons, but one stands out: confronted with a surplus of crises, why invest political capital into a tangentially related issue, climate security, whose full force will only be felt in a few decades’ time?

Why should climate change concern security policy-makers?

The short answer is: climate change is already playing a role in several of the most worrying conflicts today. And we know that a significant amount of additional climate change is already built into the system, regardless of the mitigation actions that are being taken (and their cumulative level of ambition is rather limited as of now).

As a result, we risk facing a future world in such disequilibrium that it becomes unmanageable. If nothing changes (safe the climate, for the worse), it is easy to predict that our crisis management capabilities will simply be overwhelmed. It would make the ominous title of this year’s Munich Security Report – ‘Boundless Chaos, Reckless Spoilers, Helpless Guardians’ – a programmatic statement. If we cannot mobilize political capital today, when we are still faced with limited climate change impacts, where do we suppose we will generate it from once we hit crisis mode full-on?

For the long answer, it might be instructive to look at the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) 2016 list of ‘conflicts to watch’. A majority of these conflicts is taking place in regions where large parts of the population rely on livelihoods that are very sensitive to climate change, and some where climate change is already playing a role in fuelling conflict. That is not to say, of course, that climate change is the single or primary driver of these conflicts; it is not, because changes in the physical environment need to be related to socio-economic conflicts to develop their potential for conflict (or cooperation). Yet we need to acknowledge the partial overlap between climatic vulnerability and existing conflicts and try to break the negative feedback links between the two.

Security impacts today…

In January, ICG’s president Jean-Marie Guéhenno warned about 9 (sets of) conflicts in Foreign Policy: Iraq/Syria, Turkey, Yemen, Libya, the Lake Chad basin, South Sudan, Burundi, Afghanistan, and the South China Sea (adding Colombia as a hopeful example of a civil war that may soon be overcome). As the subsequent paragraphs will detail, many of these conflicts feature an important dimension related to environmental change.

In Syria, the links between climate change, a long drought preceding the current civil war, and the outbreak of the latter have been discussed in some detail, both academically and in the media. There is no consensus yet regarding the precise mechanisms linking environmental change and the outbreak of violence, but a very plausible argument can be made that the lack of apparent willingness or ability of the Syrian government to support the hundreds of thousands that were displaced due to the drought contributed to existing grievances and chipped away at what remained of governmental legitimacy. Although it is crucial to better understand the exact links in order to be able to counteract them elsewhere, any residual uncertainty should not distract from the relevance of environmental change. As Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia of the Center of Climate and Security aptly put it, there are risks of both oversimplifying and underestimating the connection.

In Yemen, the ongoing civil war conceals considerable local violence over land and water. Dwindling availability is the consequence of a confluence of overexploitation (with most of the country’s aquifers depleted or polluted), mismanagement (widespread unlicensed drilling), and climate change (including higher temperatures and reduced precipitation). Given the widespread availability of arms and breakdown in trust into traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, the Yemeni ministry of the interior has estimated that some 4,000 people die each year in violence over land and water.          

The Lake Chad basin is among the regions with the highest number of fatalities from terrorism, as Boko Haram has killed some 10,000 people over the last years. Simultaneously, the Lake has shrunk enormously over the last decades, severely impacting livelihoods. To what extent and how exactly these two trends are related – e.g., to what extent the loss of livelihoods decreases the opportunity cost of joining Boko Haram, or to what extent it fuels the grievances that give it legitimacy – continues to be contested, much as the general links between poverty and violence. But the foreseeable environmental degradation that climate change is expected to bring about across the entire region, in combination with strong demographic growth make it urgent to build sustainable livelihoods so as to stem the violence.

Climate change is also playing a significant role in the conflicts in South Sudan. Pastoral communities in particular are confronted with deteriorating conditions including higher temperatures, less rainfall and more extreme-weather events. Some of the worst violence has taken place in regions that are particularly drought-prone as pastoralists compete for resources or shift their routes in ways that bring them in conflict with farmers. As in the other cases, there is no determinism linking environmental change and conflict, but patterns of political exploitation of vulnerability and competition. Addressing these will however often require adaptation to climate change, in ways that are sensitive to the region’s conflict potential.

Finally, the conflict in the South China Sea has gained greater notoriety in the past few years, due to an increasingly explicit stand-off between China on the one, and various other riparians as well as the U.S. Navy on the other hand. There are various strategic assets at stake – free navigation, nationalist credibility, fossil fuels – but one potentially crucial issue is fisheries. In part, that is due to their tactical value – fishing fleets also stake territorial claims, and protecting them offers governments a lower-risk opportunity for visibly upholding their claims. But given its global importance (providing some 10% of global catch) and its falling stocks, it is easy to see how overfishing along with the acidifying impacts of climate change may intensify competition and feed into inter-governmental tensions.

…and the looming challenges of tomorrow

The five examples above capture only a small part of the fragility-inducing impacts of anthropogenic climate change. The impact mechanisms differ, but the implication is that, unless counteracted, more pronounced environmental change will induce more and more intense fragility of states and regions around the world. This in turn will increase the number of violent conflicts.

Because war is the result of numerous intersecting pressures and because human agency always looms large in the decisions that eventually add up to war, we do not know which country will be the next Syria. However, given the many things we do know about the future impacts of climate change, we know that the pressures that have contributed to so many of the world’s worst conflicts will rise significantly. In other words, the likelihood of another state implosion like the one in Syria – and the number of simultaneous implosions – will rise, all else remaining equal.

Therefore, we need to ensure that all else does not remain equal, that the world invests into systematic and conflict-sensitive climate adaptation efforts, that peacebuilding efforts are cognizant of impending environmental change, and that dispute resolution mechanisms on the natural resources through which climate change affects social outcomes are systematically strengthened. We need to build resilience to both environmental changes and societal fragility. Doing so goes beyond the purview of the security policy-makers assembled in Munich. But their acknowledgement and analysis of these risks is a necessary if insufficient ingredient for the integrated response that is needed.


Benjamin Pohl is a senior project manager at adelphi working on the intersection of global environmental change with foreign, security, and development policy. He has co-developed the ECC Factbook and is a co-author of A New Climate for Peace.