Climate Change Is Linked to Security, But Don't Overplay It

ECSP's Geoff Dabelko in Climatic Change, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Aug 30, 2009

As the impacts of climate change on national security are beginning to receive attention at the highest levels of government, climate-security experts must avoid oversimplifying these complex connections, said Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"Today, with climate change high on the political agenda, powerful actors in the security community are assessing its potentially dangerous effects on conflict and military readiness," Dabelko said. In "Planning for Climate Change: The Security Community's Precautionary Principle" in the journal Climatic Change, Dabelko views the defense community's interest in climate change as an understandable development. "Climate change poses threats and opportunities that any risk analysis calculation should take seriously—including the military's planning efforts, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review," he says.

"However, it is important to remember that in the mid-1990s, advocates oversold our understanding of environmental links to security, creating a backlash that ultimately undermined policymakers' support for meeting the very real connections between environment and conflict head-on. Today, ‘climate security' is in danger of becoming merely a political argument that understates the complexity of climate's security challenges."

In a new op-ed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dabelko offers some advice to scientists, politicians, and the media:
• Don't oversimplify the links between climate change and violent conflict or terrorism.
• Don't neglect ongoing natural resource and conflict problems.
• Don't assume we know the precise scale and location of climate-induced migration.
• Don't forget that climate mitigation efforts can introduce social conflict and needs to be factored into both mitigation and adaptation efforts.

"There is a new opportunity to use increased public attention to highlight the relationship between natural resources, climate, and security," Dabelko writes. "But redressing the climate-security link requires avoiding some of the pitfalls that impeded progress the last time environment and security shared the spotlight."

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