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Climate change and conflict

24 November 2011

Cities at low-elevation coastal zones. Photo Credit: unfpa.org

The Pentagon and other military establishments have long recognised climate change as a “threat multiplier” with the potential to escalate existing conflicts and create new disputes as food, water, and arable land become increasingly scarce.

In 2007, under British presidency, the UN Security Council held a session  to assess the security impacts of climate change.  In that occasion, no agreement was reached as China and Russia raised doubts whether the Council was the appropriate forum to discuss the issue.  The session then was chaired by British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, who said that recent scientific evidence reinforced, or even exceeded, the worst fears about climate change, and she warned of migration on an unprecedented scale because of flooding, disease and famine.  She also said that drought and crop failure can cause intensified competition for food, water, and energy and that climate change was a security issue.  But it was not a matter of narrow national security — it was about “our collective security in a fragile and increasingly interdependent world.”  Unfortunately, her arguments and those similar from many of the delegations intervening were not persuasive enough to convince those who think climate change was purely social and environmental, and not an issue of security.

Last July, the UN Security Council met  to discuss the same topic but the results were more disappointing than in 2007, as more evidence confirmed the negative impacts of climate change.  With Germany in the presidency of the Council and through a concept note previous to the meeting, the German delegation stated their position towards this question.  “Climate change is among the key challenges for the international community.  The impacts of climate change on peace and security are already tangible and will increasingly unfold in the years to come.  This is happening at a time of rapid global change signified by growing populations, increasing demand for natural resources, and depletion of fertile soils and freshwater.  They bear the potential of driving social tensions, political unrest and violent conflict.”

Drought in a maize farm, Africa. Photo Credit: blogs.smithsonianmag.com

Knowing the reluctance of the same member states in sharing this vision, the German delegation stressed that “the international political and scientific discourse has evolved significantly, and awareness of the potential security implications of climate change has increased.”  Unfortunately, this was discussed without much success anew as China kept the same reluctance as in 2007.

The German delegation based its position in a report from 2009 by the UN Secretary General called “Climate change and its possible security implications.” This report identified sea level rise as the “ultimate security threat” for some small island states, with some possibly set to “disappear over the next 30 years.”  While complete inundation may take years and the increase of sea level may differ in different regions of the world, this is not only a future risk but a reality today: on some islands, the situation is already dire enough to command the evacuation of the resident population now.  Furthermore, even before sea-level rise actually submerges an island completely, its impacts may render it uninhabitable, requiring permanent resettlement.  Receding coastlines could furthermore incite disputes over maritime territories and access to exclusive economic zones.

Children in an upland community, Southeast Asia. Photo Credit: Pedro Walpole, SJ

A second major issue in the Secretary General’s report is that food insecurity can be both a cause and a consequence of violent conflict, and that food insecurity and intra-state conflict are closely linked.  Climate change is likely to reduce food production globally, with large parts of Africa and Asia suffering particular negative impacts.

Undoubtedly, today we have much more evidence that climate change is a “threat multiplier,” and is accompanied by major environmental challenges such as biodiversity loss, disruptions in the global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus, the destruction of the ozone layer, ocean acidification, global consumption of fresh water, changes in land use, chemical pollution, and the atmospheric concentration of aerosols.

All these seriously endanger the lives of people globally and remind us that human relationships with the environment is at a very fragile state.  Environmental conflicts affect not only those who live in the regions where these conflicts occur or are limited to short-term impact as in pre-industrial societies.  By contrast, the present tensions between society and environment are global in nature and can lead to permanent changes.

Apart from the conflicts that threaten security such as refugees, violence, food shortages, and economic reprisals, climate change puts before us a type of conflict we could call cultural.  The present situation is a cultural and political challenge to ideas that are firmly installed in our societies and that configure our way of thinking and understanding reality.

Deforestation in the Amazon. Photo Credit: amazonrainforestnews.com

Among those ideas that are deeply questioned, we can consider the following as most critical: the expansion of a model of development based on industrialization and mass consumption; the total trust in science and technology that puts societies under enormous risks and increases the individual and collective dependence; and finally, the preponderance of a view so radically anthropocentric that forgets that life on the planet is a complex systemic reality.

Unfortunately, this cultural conflict does not only take place in academic discussions or theoretical proposals but touches, or will touch, the lifestyles of millions, the geostrategic position of states, and the greater interests of economic and financial powers.

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