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Climate Change, Disasters, and Security: Unconventional Approaches to Building Stability

It is “not sufficient to look at history for lessons on how we should prepare for and prevent future security risks in a climate change world,” said Swathi Veeravalli, research scientist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Geospatial Research Laboratory, at the Wilson Center on January 14. Climate change and the extreme weather events it brings pose an “unprecedented” threat to human security.

Date & Time

Jan. 14, 2016
9:00am – 11:00am ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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It is “not sufficient to look at history for lessons on how we should prepare for and prevent future security risks in a climate change world,” said Swathi Veeravalli, research scientist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Geospatial Research Laboratory, at the Wilson Center on January 14. Climate change and the extreme weather events it brings pose an “unprecedented” threat to human security.

Natural disasters, driven in part by climate change, are affecting more people via higher frequency and intensity events, and a great number of people living in vulnerable areas. The EM-DAT natural disaster database recorded an average of 449 events per year between 2002 and 2010 as compared to 58 during the 1960s.

Veeravalli was joined by four other experts from the military, development, and humanitarian fields to discuss how complex crises are prompting more multi-disciplinary cooperation across disparate government agencies and between national governments.

The link between climate change and human security cannot be oversimplified, said Veeravalli. “It is the shifts in the frequency as well as severity of extreme events that result in the socioeconomic costs associated with climate change.” This “presents complex challenges for the fields of defense, diplomacy, and development,” requiring governments, NGOs, and other experts to find new ways to work together.

AFRICOM’s Environmental Engagement

U.S. military planners have talked about climate change in terms of increasing mission loads – both in responding to more conflict and responding to more natural disasters. One way the U.S. military is reacting is by facilitating discussion between foreign militaries and their civilian counterparts to help them prepare and reduce the potential for crises, said Jeff Andrews, chief of environmental security at U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Military engagements to “combat” climate insecurity, said Veeravalli, are increasingly focused on interacting with local communities in the form of dialogue, training, and partnership. AFRICOM, one of six U.S. regional combatant commands, brings different government ministries, civil society groups, and military representatives together to discuss environmental issues in an effort to “build a team to help these countries build resiliency in the face of climate change,” said Andrews.

AFRICOM has partnered with the United Nations Development Program on environmental awareness and rehabilitation projects in Togo and Senegal. One workshop in Ethiopia last year focused on regional water security, and was attended by local governments, university partners, and a variety of other local environmental ministries. In Malawi, a waste management seminar exposed a lack of communication between military and civilian authorities over waste disposal, and prompted a new approach that will reduce damage to Lake Malawi, said Andrews.

“How do you do preparedness when you’re already in crisis mode?”

Carl Bruch, co-director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute, said disaster relief is an important way for militaries to stay sharp and can have the added benefit of improving their public image.

Considering their often considerable resources, military involvement in programs surrounding climate change and disaster relief could be beneficial, Bruch said. However, many militaries may need to be restructured to incorporate a broader range of services than just national defense. He pointed out the role the Army National Guard plays in U.S. disaster relief and how most countries do not have an equivalent auxiliary force that can be called up in the same way.

Though AFRICOM has seen decreased funding for environmental workshops, said Andrews, they are working on building and maintaining relationships with local partners to ensure that climate-related issues still get addressed.

“It Can Only Get Worse Unless You Prepare Better”

Of course it’s not only the military that is called on to respond to natural disasters and complex emergencies; humanitarian and development organizations also play major roles.

The scope of work by development organizations, particularly in climate change adaptation, must be adjusted, said John Furlow, a climate change specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “Just addressing the climate challenges is not going to enable a country’s development path to proceed smoothly, because there are a lot of other problems.” It is necessary to adopt a longer-term outlook that takes into account drivers of economic growth, and the threats from climate and non-climate issues that could arise and impede the resilience of these drivers.

To help promote climate resilience in Jamaica, USAID recently worked with the national meteorological service and a variety of representatives from different elements of government – from finance to tourism – to begin developing a national adaptation plan, said Furlow. Some of these agencies had climate plans of their own, many did not, and very few spoke to each other about their plans. Through the workshop, they discussed the climate issues they felt needed attention and developed a tool to help the agricultural community better anticipate drought, said Furlow. This resulted in a forecasting system that gives farmers early warning of drought and lessens the burden on the Office of Disaster Planning and Emergency Management, which is responsible for aiding farmers after disaster has already struck, since drought emergencies can now be better avoided.

Rene Nijenhuis, a humanitarian affairs officer at the Joint United Nations Environment Program/Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Environment Unit (JEU), said that improving preparedness for climate-related natural disasters requires more focus, rather than solely “more” response.

In Nepal, Nijenhuis said, efforts to build resilience were hindered by the country’s state of crisis following the crippling 2015 earthquake. Communities were left vulnerable to potential natural hazards during recovery. At the same time the JEU was running earthquake response operations, they were preparing for annual floods that would lead to additional displacement. “We’ve been running humanitarian crises in a response mode,” said Nijenhuis. More investment is needed in risk management and preparedness. “How do you do preparedness when you’re already in crisis mode? You have to, because it can only get worse unless you prepare better.”

To ensure that countries are prepared not only for disaster, but also recovery and resilience afterwards, the coalition of partners involved needs to be widened and should include the private sector, said Nijenhuis. “Coordination is very much about adding all the things up and making sure you get more than the sum of the parts.”

Environmental Peacebuilding

The Environmental Law Institute is a major supporter of the Environmental Peacebuilding Initiative, which is cataloging hundreds of case studies of natural resource management in conflict-affected settings. “Environmental peacebuilding,” the concept of incorporating natural resource management into security, humanitarian, and development objectives, “provides an integrated and proactive approach to addressing the dynamics between climate change, disasters, and security,” said Bruch.

From data to information, to knowledge, to understanding

Before a disaster, environmental peacebuilding can help stakeholders understand how certain risk management strategies may favor one group over another, increasing tensions and the potential for conflict. These sorts of consequences can be avoided by paying closer attention to local contexts and placing decision-making in the hands of non-biased actors. After a disaster, environmental peacebuilding can be used to bring communities together by uniting them against threats to shared resources, said Bruch.

More engagements along these lines within and between countries are necessary to help increase adaptive capacity and facilitate stability, said Veeravalli. An environmental peacebuilding approach has been successful in former Soviet Union countries, she said, helping to improve cross-country dialogue and deal with regional flooding.

Toward a Shared Understanding?

Military, humanitarian, and development organizations must work together more closely to combat the effects of climate change and natural disasters in a “whole-of-world” manner, said Bruch.

There is still a great deal to be learned about how to best to do this, said Veeravalli. More research is needed to “move from data to information, to knowledge, to understanding.”

New technology is being developed to create better climate forecasting models, said Veeravalli, which may allow for better preparation among aid agencies, timely adaptation by at-risk communities to prevent disasters, and more efficient recovery projects.

The important step now is for finance ministers, aid workers, humanitarian relief programmers, generals, and other actors in the dispersed communities that together respond to climate change to form a shared understanding of climate change’s impact on human security and create actionable plans to address it, said Veeravalli. “It is only through collaboration through previously disparate communities and disciplines that we can avoid repeating silo mentalities and begin mainstreaming this rather unconventional approach to becoming more conventional and perhaps even the norm.”

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Written by Gracie Cook, edited by Schuyler Null

Photo Credit: A survey team from U.S. Pacific Command responds to the Nepal earthquake, April 2015, courtesy of 2nd Lt. Erik Anthony/U.S. Air Force.

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