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Environment, Peace, and Conflict: Opportunities and Risks for the New Administration

The new Biden administration faces a variety of challenges and a rapidly changing environment will exacerbate many of the challenges. There will be opportunities to make progress in the Arctic, the South China Sea, and other geopolitically sensitive regions. The administration could also pursue opportunities to build peace through cooperation in areas such as shared resources, climate action, or disaster prevention. The Environmental Peacebuilding Association and the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program hosted a discussion on the potential opportunities and risks the new administration will need to navigate in the coming years. 

Date & Time

Wednesday
Feb. 24, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm ET

Environment, Peace, and Conflict: Opportunities and Risks for the New Administration

The Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program is co-sponsoring this event, hosted by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association.

The new Biden administration faces a variety of challenges and a rapidly changing environment will exacerbate many of the challenges. There will be opportunities to make progress in the Arctic, the South China Sea, and other geopolitically sensitive regions. The administration could also pursue opportunities to build peace through cooperation in areas such as shared resources, climate action, or disaster prevention. 

A failure to act decisively could leave military infrastructure at risk, accelerate the risk of environmentally induced migration, precipitate global health crises, or create other unanticipated environmental conflicts. On top of all of this, could a poorly planned process of transitioning to a carbon-free economy result in new conflicts over land, minerals, and other resources? 

The Environmental Peacebuilding Association and the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program hosted a discussion on the potential opportunities and risks the new administration will need to navigate in the coming years. 

Find related coverage of these issues on our blog, NewSecurityBeat.org.

Selected Quotes
 

Tegan Blaine

“One of the things that I think we really ought to be thinking about is people moving from one fragile environment to another fragile environment. In West Africa for example, people are going to be moving out of the Sahel and as they move out of the Sahel, they’re going to be landing in coastal areas where you have a lot of large cities that are vulnerable to other kinds of threats.”

“We also need to remember that we have individuals who are moving, and think about what it means from an ethical standpoint to support those humans who are moving and make sure that we’re respecting their communities, that we’re respecting their culture, and that we’re giving them pathways that actually seem realistic and human to them when they have to make those kinds of choices.” 

"Focusing on adaptation and being willing to listen to the issues that countries are wrestling with—to actually hear them and to hear what they think they need in terms of support and in order to move forward—is one place that I think we could really begin building partnership internationally that will help us as a globe be more successful on climate change issues.”

Cynthia Brady 

“It's always about systems, those narrow technical fixes are never quite enough. There are all these different dynamics—climate change, political instability, human mobility—happening that are influencing one another all the time. And we have to keep our eye on how each of these different variables are influencing one another in real time alongside of some predictive capability into the future so we don't work ourselves into a problem.”

“Make sure that we don't define the problem for others but that we seek to understand their perspective. And that includes not only the problem assessment but the solution assessment as well. And if we don't do that together with partners and with those who are affected by these issues directly then we'll miss out on understanding where there are existing capacities that we could strengthen. Where there are exactly those sources of resilience, which don't need to be replaced and certainly don't need to be undermined by well-meaning but misdirected solution sets that are being brought in from the outside.” 

“As the administration rightly focuses on the relevance of climate change to national security, I beg of them to keep the development actors at the table and to remember that when we talk about security we are not talking about only guns and bombs and borders, we are talking about all of the aspects of human security… You need your development agency and your diplomatic agency at the table for those conversations to make sure that as we talk about these issues domestically those same perspectives are integrated, which connects directly to another of the administration's goals to focus on environmental justice. In this conversation, those dynamics are all connected.”

Sherri Goodman 

“I see that kind of environmental security, climate peacebuilding, environmental peacebuilding
opportunity inherent—as a forefront of foreign policy in this era and that's got to be built into the strategies that have been called for in the executive orders of President Biden from January 27th as well as the one the following week that had a whole section on climate migration. And that's very much at the forefront of in some ways climate and security cooperation 2.0. In a way that recognizes the importance of peacebuilding—as opposed to militaries being in the lead.”

“First of all, I think the U.S. has to come back with humility because we've set the wrong tone for the last four years. So, I think we have to recognize that, and then we have to realize we're not coming back to the world the way it was even four or ten years ago. The world has changed.”

“As we build back better and rebuild our economy and our infrastructure on ways more reliant on clean energy and climate tech, we can begin exporting this innovation in ways that make the U.S. globally competitive in these areas. But also offer it as tools in environmental peacebuilding in the right circumstances.”

Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson (USMC, Ret.) 

“We can make no small plans. We need to go big […] It’s going to have to be something where we’re taking care of the people who feel they’re going to be displaced by green technology—there’s ways to do this, but it’s not going to be able to be done by half measures.” 

“The administration is talking about one thing that’s interesting—Civilian Conservation Corps. This gets really close to universal service. We could take everybody coming out of high school and I don’t care if you go into Marine Corps, Peace Corps, Head Start, Conservation Corps—you’re going to do something for your country for a year or so. One, you get a labor force. Two, you get sort of a nation-building effort out of it. It might be worth considering.” 

“We have a tendency to treat the great part of the Pacific Ocean as flyover territory while we’re on our way to someplace interesting like Singapore or something. Consequently, China has made a lot of gains out there because we’re not looking that direction and we’re not paying attention. And these are areas—in many cases—that belong to us. The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands […] the Chinese have casino diplomacy going on there and they’re providing jobs and wealth for the locals and their message—and the Chinese are great at political warfare—their message is: you can have us, and you can have all these tourists coming in here and spending money, or you can have the marines. You can’t have both.” 

Richard Matthew

“World leaders have to build their big picture from the ground level and they have to navigate the complex global challenges that we’re experiencing today—the urgent environmental challenges from that vantage point. That’s got to be a hard task when you’re looking at everything from ground level. Fortunately, world leaders are in a great position to seek advice to put together the big picture by talking to and listening to people with lots of experience, lots of expertise, different perspectives. They’re not in this alone.” 

“There seems to be and there's lots of evidence suggesting that the sort of most severe impacts of climate change are often taking place in areas that are fragile from other perspectives as well, like the arctic, like the South China Sea, like parts of the Middle East and so on, where there are already ongoing conflicts.” 

“Going big on climate change means, for example, moving towards a new energy economy, dramatically trying to reduce emissions, and conserve water and protect carbon storage, and you know manage demand and so on. There is a risk in doing this, that we will create winners and losers economically, and bring some turbulence to different parts of the world.” 

Aaron Salzberg

“The building, the managing, and the financing of an inter-agency response represents a real challenge and how you make that work within a bureaucracy can be a real challenge and sometimes it requires navigating competing congressional mandates as well and that too can be an impediment to our ability to execute.” 

“How we build the capacity of parties to collect, to use evidence, to negotiate, to solve disputes—all lay the foundation for solving complex problems that require significant tradeoffs in the future.” 

“Environmental issues—in many respects—can provide the ideal platform for peacebuilding. In many of these complicated regions there’s often a common need and interest in ensuring access to basic services […] these shared interests can bring people together, they can create the space for shared visioning, for joint data collection and analysis, for trainings and activities that can build capacity and demonstrate that collective work can lead to successes that can strengthen social cohesion and regional integration, that can provide opportunities for apologies, forgiveness and reconciliation.” 


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

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

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more

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