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Climate Change, Environmental Degradation, and Conflict Prevention: A Roundtable Discussion to Identify Policy and Programming Options

Experts from diverse fields—including conflict prevention, environment, humanitarian relief, development, and the military— discuss potential policy and programming responses to the security implications of climate change.

Date & Time

Nov. 1, 2007
12:00pm – 3:00pm

Climate Change, Environmental Degradation, and Conflict Prevention: A Roundtable Discussion to Identify Policy and Programming Options

Experts from diverse fields—including conflict prevention, environment, humanitarian relief, development, and the military—gathered at the Woodrow Wilson Center on November 1, 2007, to discuss potential policy and programming responses to the security implications of climate change. The participants shared their different perspectives on the climate change-security nexus, sparking a lively, engaged discussion.

Lisa Schirch of the 3D Security Initiative briefly outlined the local and regional climate-related developments that could contribute to conflict, which include:

  • Water and food scarcity;
  • Increasingly frequent and intense natural disasters;
  • The spread of infectious diseases;
  • Rising sea levels;
  • Mega-projects intended to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change (e.g., dams, mass plantings, or irrigation projects);
  • Disputes over Arctic oil and gas reserves; and
  • Decreased military preparedness.

Climate change could affect global security by spurring the migration of hundreds of millions of people; contributing to terrorism and mass instability; and deepening global antagonism and wars over natural resources such as oil. Schirch added that leaders of some developing countries are already calling climate change an act of aggression by developed nations against developing ones—making it even more urgent for researchers, policymakers, and leaders to consider the security implications of climate change.

A Word of Caution

While the public is largely unaware of the links between climate change and security, there has been a flurry of activity in the academic and research communities over the past several years. Geoff Dabelko, the director of the Environmental Change and Security Program, warned that overstating or oversimplifying climate change's potential effects on security would ultimately undermine, not bolster, the case for examining these connections. For example, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued in a June 2007 editorial that the violence in Darfur was partially the result of climate change-induced drought, some observers thought his comments downplayed the political and humanitarian dimensions of the conflict. This misperception, said Dabelko, may have weakened public agreement with Ban's argument.

To avoid oversimplifying the potential impacts of climate change, researchers should emphasize that environmental factors tend to indirectly, not directly, increase the likelihood of instability and conflict. Climate change destabilizes people's environments and livelihoods and exacerbates tensions between groups vying for the same natural resources. When these tensions are combined with other destabilizing factors, they sometimes lead to conflict or state failure. In other words, environmental issues can act as "triggers," revealing or igniting underlying structural issues that drive a conflict, such as economic inequality between ethnic or religious groups.

A Constellation of Issues

In the roundtable discussion, the participants identified several sectors that will play key roles in addressing climate-security links, including:

  • Defense: Military strategists plan 20-30 years in advance to field new weapons systems. They are seeing that some conflicts in the decades ahead will be triggered by environmental degradation and climate change-related issues. Military experts emphasize the need for better development and diplomatic investments to avert crisis scenarios. There is a risk that chronic underfunding of the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will lead to the militarization of environmental challenges, which are actually addressed more effectively by diplomacy and development efforts.
  • Development: Climate change poses additional obstacles to development in poor countries, which already face many challenges, including high population growth and environmental degradation. Climate change demands heightened efforts to make communities more resilient to climate shocks.
  • Diplomacy: Multi-track diplomatic efforts at all levels of society are needed to create mechanisms for addressing environment-related tensions. Climate change presents an opportunity for increased multilateral cooperation on common threats.

The participants made the following suggestions for responding to climate change security risks:

  • Good governance is essential for preventing and mitigating environmental security issues. One participant noted Amartya Sen's assertion that "if you have a democracy, you can't have a famine."
  • Field-driven development solutions to environmental degradation are needed, with a particular emphasis on alternative livelihoods.
  • Communities will be far more likely to return to cultivating drought-resistant crops, such as cassava, if there is market demand for them.
  • A broader set of tools for reconstruction and stabilization is needed, as well as conflict-sensitive climate change adaptation and mitigation programs.
  • Conflict assessment tools used by USAID, the U.S. Department of State, the World Bank, the United Nations, and many NGOs require more environmental indicators.

Smart Communication

The participants made several recommendations regarding the most effective ways to frame the argument for action on climate change's security risks:

  • Emphasizing climate change's opportunities is more effective than adding to people's fears. Decision-makers need to talk about the positive ways to address the crisis, including opportunities for peacebuilding, job creation, and economic growth.
  • Targeted communications strategies are needed to reach specific constituencies such as faith groups and organized labor.
  • Different sectors are using different language to talk about these issues, with some overlap. Congress tends to use "energy independence" and "energy security"; business tends to use "environmental sustainability/responsibility" and "energy efficiency"; the defense community tends to use "energy security" and "environmental security"; and NGOs tend to use "human security" and "environmental security."
  • The term "instability" is often a better choice when talking about climate change than "conflict," as it is easier to argue that climate change will cause the former than the latter.
  • It could be dangerous to discuss climate change in the context of national, rather than global, security. A focus on national security could increase the likelihood of conflict if people sense a "scramble" for the world's remaining resources or think of climate change impacts as having clear winners and losers.

Climate Change: Politics and Policies

The participants made the following observations on the politics of climate change in the United States:

  • The public has been quicker to recognize the urgency of climate change than Congress.
  • The Civilian Reserve Corps, which President Bush proposed in his 2007 State of the Union address, and the U.S. Department of State's new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization are conflict prevention mechanisms that could help build the infrastructure needed to address the social impacts of climate change. They are both currently in need of congressional support and funding.
  • Funds generated by "cap and trade" schemes should be directed toward mitigating climate change's destabilizing impacts on developing countries. First, however, experts must demonstrate the importance of the security implications of climate change.
  • Policymakers were strongly influenced by "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," the CNA Corporation report by military experts on the security implications of climate change, due to the military's authority on security concerns.

The Way Ahead

The participants brainstormed a list of possible future steps. Smaller sub-groups could meet to focus on the programming, policy, and communications aspects of climate change and security, and could potentially reconvene for another large group meeting in the spring of 2008.

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more


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