#05 Securing Peace
Michael Brzoska

Climate Change – a Security Issue?

In 2007, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the prestigious Peace Prize to former US Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), thereby nominating them global leaders in the struggle to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change. It justified its decision by saying: "Indications of changes in the earth's future climate must be treated with the utmost seriousness, and with the precautionary principle uppermost in our minds. Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth's resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the world's most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states."[1]

While carefully couched in the language of possibility, the Norwegian Nobel Committee's prize announcement implies that climate change will have severe consequences for the security of individuals, but also for the security of states and, ultimately, the world.

With its words, the Norwegian Nobel Committee echoed a number of reports from expert groups and think tanks in Europe and the United States on the consequences of climate change for peace and security published around the year 2007[2]. Based on predictions by climate scientists for changes in precipitation, the melting of glaciers and polar ice and other physical effects of global warming, these reports painted a gloomy picture of a dangerous future marked by widespread migration, local violence and regional wars if the production of greenhouse gases was not soon cut decisively.

Experts on peace and security issues had a variety of reactions to the identification of climate change as the major security threat of the future. In the security policy community, the majority of researchers readily adopted the view of climate change as future security threat. Among peace and conflict researchers, on the other hand, most were skeptical of many of the claims in the aforementioned reports, particularly those on large scale migration and wars.

Where is the evidence?

The main issue that divides views on the security implications of climate change concerns the link between environmental change and its societal consequences. Few experts doubt that climate change will lead to decreases in the availability of scarce resources such as water and land in many parts of the world. Regions particularly affected will likely be those already under environmental stress such as arid and semi-arid areas in Africa, the Mediterranean and Central Asia, those that currently depend on glaciers for their water supply as well as coastal areas and low-lying islands. Climate-change induced environmental change is likely to threaten the lives and livelihoods of people in these and other areas, particularly those already living in poverty. There is thus little doubt that human security will be affected by climate change in a good number of regions.

However, environmental stress, whether because of extreme weather events or long-term resource degradation, does not automatically lead to more traditional security threats or armed conflict in particular. History is full of examples of successful conflict management and even cooperation in situations of resource competition. Transboundary water is a particularly interesting case. Water has often been cited in popular literature as the probable central cause of future wars. Academic research on rivers shared by several states has, however, shown that cooperation is much more likely than confrontation in water disputes. Indeed, history shows that the number of water conflicts that escalate into wars has been very low, and these were generally linked to wider, political disputes, such as in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The case of transboundary water can be extended to other resources. Case studies and macrostatistical research have shown the importance of governance structures and conflict management institutions in alleviating environmental stress. Where these are strong, people are better able to cope with resource scarcity and competition. Another important factor shaping the relationship between environmental change and social consequences is the capacity to adapt to difficult situations, such as extreme weather events. People and groups with assets and various economic options will generally fare better than poor people. The likelihood of environmental problems turning into armed conflict further depends on a multitude of other factors, such as government policies, the geography of a country and a combination of ethnic and social inequality.

Up to now, environmental problems have been just one of many factors influencing the likelihood of armed conflicts. There are few examples where they were the most important factor – the end of the civilization on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, in the 17th century is probably one such case. Darfur is another, it is sometimes argued, including by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who has called it the "first climate change conflict". But experts are divided on the relative importance of environmental stress compared to the policies of the central government in Khartoum as causes of the Darfur war.

Macrostatistical studies therefore generally find no significant correlations between environmental factors and the incidence of armed conflict. While there are some important exceptions, such as a study by a group of US scientists on environmental factors in African wars, these are disputed by other researchers[3].

Most peace and conflict researchers are similarly skeptical of the dangers of large-scale migration induced by climate change and stressed by proponents of a direct link between climate change and insecurity. In many parts of the world, migration is a tried-and-true way of adapting to changing circumstances, whether environmental or economic. Furthermore, excepting situations where resources completely disappear for a longer period of time, such as major droughts, case studies show that it is very difficult to distinguish the environmental from the economic motives of migrants, as well as between the push and pull factors of migration. Like the arguments made for armed conflict, societal and political structures and institutions can be shown to shape migration patterns. Furthermore, while migration often has to be seen as a response to threats to lives and livelihoods of people and groups, and thus a signal of human insecurity, comparative studies using data for the last few decades show that it has rarely led to armed violence.[4]

Will the future be like the past?

Conflict researchers skeptical of a strong link between environmental change and armed conflict as well as large-scale migration have good arguments and rely on the bulk of the empirical evidence available. But how relevant is that evidence? Reliable data are only available for the last few decades. Climate change has been ongoing for some time, but its environmental effects have been small compared to those climate scientists anticipate in the coming decades. Average global temperature rise, for instance, was limited to about 0.7° C in the 20th century. But in its most recent assessment report, the IPCC predicts between 1.9° C and 6.1° C in the 21th century, depending on future greenhouse gas emissions and the assessment method used[5].

Security policy experts' main argument is based on the historically unprecedented speed and size of environmental change being predicted by climate scientists. Recent data may not be of particular relevance, since they do not cover environmental change of the magnitude likely to occur in future. Scenario analysis has been suggested as an alternative to case studies as well as the macrostatistical analysis of past data.

Imaging the future effects of climate change on armed conflict and migration requires credible assumptions about the behavior of people and groups in response to major changes in their environment, such as resource scarcity and resource competition. As mentioned, conflict and peace researchers generally assume that this is shaped by the capacities of structures and institutions. Then again, another strong argument claims that the expectet great increase in environmental stress may affect structures and institutions as well and can lead to their deterioration and even break-down.

There are already many regions in the world where governments and other public organizations do not provide much support in helping people cope with resource scarcity or manage resource competition. Several organizations have published lists of "failed" or "failing" states, which contain several dozen countries. In addition, the traditional structures and institutions that deal with scarcity are often weak or have been eroded in such countries, so they cannot compensate much for the deficits of governments.

Environmental change that leads to resource scarcity and competition, it is argued, will increasingly overload these structures and institutions with demands to support people in need and manage conflicts. These same structures will, in turn, increasingly be incapable of doing so as the availability of resources decreases. Local security breakdowns will compound each other and also increase demands on regional structures and institutions.

From this standpoint, climate change is a threat multiplier. It works both directly by increasing resource scarcity and resource competition, and indirectly by eroding governance and conflict management structures and institutions. Its effects will be most noticeable where scarcity already is a major problem, levels of conflict are high, and governance structures and conflict management institutions are weak.

Several projects are currently trying to identify climate change "hot spots" where these conditions coincide with predictions of large-scale environmental change brought about by climate change. The regions generally identified in these studies include the Mediterranean and North Africa, East Africa, the Northern Part of Southern Asia, Central Asia, the Amazon and the Andean region. In addition, low-lying coastal regions in many parts of the world are often mentioned as potential climate change hot spots.

Politization and securitization

The debate on the security implications of climate change is overlaid by political issues in several ways. First, it was no coincidence that the dangers of climate change for security received so much attention in 2007, and particularly in the United States. The George W. Bush administration challenged climate change predictions and was unwilling to do much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The idea that this endangered the security of people, including in the United States, added a powerful argument for persuading the public and lawmakers to demand a change in US policy. As in other policy fields, invoking the argument that a problem is a threat to security, or "securitizing" the issue, changes the foundation of a political debate. Second, "securitization" brings security experts and institutions into the debate.

Unsurprisingly, military institutions have been interested and involved in the debate on the security implications of climate change. The US military, which has sponsored a number of studies, and the UK military, which were the first armed forces to adopt a climate change strategy, have been particularly active here. Issues the militaries are interested in include practical problems such as the threat of sea-level rise to naval bases, but also the likelihood that armed forces from industrialized countries will be called upon more often to deal with environmental disasters, complex emergencies and armed conflicts in failing states.

Third, the concern seen in the climate change debate with traditional security has produced opposition to the perception of climate change as a security issue in many countries. This has been most visible at the level of the United Nations. Pushed by some of the small island states hit particularly hard by sea-level rise and a number of industrialized countries such as the UK and Germany, climate change has twice been put on the agenda of the Security Council, the body of the United Nations that deals with peace and security. While most of the UN members who spoke at the meetings in April 2007 and July 2011 acknowledged that climate change is likely to present major problems of human insecurity, only a minority was willing to agree to a Security Council resolution identifying climate change as a traditional security threat. Some government representatives were genuinely skeptical of the links between climate change and traditional security issues. Others objected to bringing the issue before the Security Council because of the fear of future authorizations of the use of military force to deal with the consequences of climate change by a body dominated by its five permanent members. The compromise at the last meeting, held on July 20 under German chairmanship in the UN Security Council, was a "Presidential Statement" in which "the Security Council expresses its concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security." It then goes on to emphasize the possible security implications of a loss of territory by some states caused by sea-level rise, and it asks the Secretary General to provide information on the possible security implications of climate change in future reports "when such issues are drivers of conflict"[6].

Policy consequences

The Norwegian Nobel Committee's statements on the effects of climate change on peace and security remain valid but largely unproven. Climate change will likely have major effects on human security. It is liable to make life more difficult and dangerous for people already in poverty, unless there are major changes in climate policy and investment in increasing the adaptive capacities of people in affected regions. It is less clear whether climate change will also have consequences for traditional security concerns, such as armed conflict and widespread migration. The scope for policies to prevent such consequences is wide. All of these policy measures, whether aimed at mitigation, adaptation or conflict management, should be taken soon – even in the absence of conclusive evidence that climate change will be a major cause of armed conflicts and large-scale migration. They make sense whether or not there is a direct link between climate change and security. And people should not be put in danger even if there is no clear academic proof that climate change will increase the incidence of war and large scale migration.


[1] http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2007/press.html

[2] For a critical assessment see Michael Brzoska, The Securitization of Climate Change and the Power of Conception of security, Sicherheit und Frieden, Vol. 27, No. 3, p. 137-145.

[3] http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100906/full/news.2010.451.html

[4] http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTSOCIALDEVELOPMENT/Resources/SDCCWorkingPaper_MigrationandConflict.pdf

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming#cite_note-6

[6] http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/424/28/PDF/N1142428.pdf?OpenElement

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