The Climate Security Conundrum

By Keith Kloor | May 6, 2010 8:15 am

The issue of climate security, which a number of experts discussed on this thread, is gaining prominence in U.S. policy and political circles. But as I wrote in this story last November, “a sense of urgency has been building in military and intelligence circles around the world” too. Climate security has also leaped to the top of think tank agendas in the U.S. (see here, here, and here) and in the U.K., where Jeffrey Mazo studies the security and policy implications of climate change at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mazo has just published a book, Climate Conflict: How global warming threatens security and what to do about it. In the introduction, he writes:

The scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the climate is changing in response to global warming. In the past, climate change has affected the stability of societies, nations and civilisations, so the historically unprecedented change scientists are observing raises the spectre of increasing and accelerating social, geopolitical and economic disruption over the rest of this century and beyond.

Yesterday, I conducted a short Q & A with Mazo via email.

Q: In your new book, you devote a chapter to cases in prehistory where climate change contributed to a state’s downfall. You conclude:

It is clear that climate change does not always lead to contraction or collapse, and that contraction or collapse can occur in the absence of climate change. But climate cannot be ignored, since instances of climate change have challenged cultures throughout history. The way they met that challenge as much as the nature of the challenge itself provides a mirror for the security challenges posed by unprecedented warming we now face.

So is there one particular historical mirror that we should be looking into, one shining example of a society that successfully met the challenges posed by climate change?

JM: There really isn’t one shining example, since every circumstance is unique. It’s the common threads that run through widely varying examples that teach us valuable lessons. And, in a sense, it’s sort of the opposite of Tolstoy’s dictum that “˜happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.

Nations and cultures tend to fail in the face of climate change in similar ways, but the successes are all different. And it’s paired examples of different responses to the same circumstances like the Inuit and the Norse in medieval Greenland, or modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic, or drought in the American West in the 1800s, the 1930s and the 1950s, that are most revealing.

What they tell us is that the relative ability of different societies to adapt is the most important factor. In part that’s a question of what a society can afford to do, but most crucially it’s a question of whether a society or political system is flexible enough to make necessary changes, and fast enough, to cope with climate shocks.

We’re rich enough in the West, and in the industrialised world as a whole, to cope, at least in the medium term. Whether we’ve got the flexibility is another story. But in the short to medium term, it is the poorest and least developed countries that fall short on both grounds, and where we can expect security challenges to increase.

Q: In recent years Darfur has been held up as a cautionary tale of climate change and ethnic conflict. In a 2007 Washington Post op-ed, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote:

Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.

But some environmental security experts say it is oversimplistic and even historically inaccurate to blame the Darfur conflict on climate change or resource scarcity. In your book, you devote a chapter to Darfur. What’s your take on this?

JM: I think the disagreement among environmental security experts on this point is merely a difference of emphasis and perspective. The Darfur conflict was not caused by climate change, if you mean that climate change was both a necessary and a sufficient condition.

But in fact, in the case of Darfur, the further one gets from a simplistic, reductionist view of causality the more climate change (and probably greenhouse-induced climate change) is a critical factor underlying the violence. If we are asking “˜what caused the Darfur conflict’ (or any other conflict), this entails an examination of the relative contributions of different factors, and whether they are deterministic or predictive. There can be any number of equally valid answers, some of which have more relevance to finding solutions, or apportioning moral blame.

But if the question is whether climate change can cause (or contribute to conflict), Darfur can be readily adduced as evidence. To say that other factors were equally, or even more, important politically or morally is not to deny that Darfur was in this particular sense a climate-change conflict. Ban Ki Moon’s interpretation of the causes of the Darfur fighting was in fact more nuanced than some critics have given him credit for.

Q: Given how difficult it is to disentangle political, cultural, and environemntal factors, how can we best assess climate change as a legitimate security issue?

JM: I think there are two ways to answer this. One is to look at the long-term, dangerous, even potential catastrophic impacts of climate change as an existential security threat that justifies the sorts of actions outside the security sphere that will be necessary to avoid those impacts. In other words, we need to avoid the security threat, so we need to mitigate emissions and move to a low carbon economy as quickly as possible.

This is something I don’t really look at in my book, which focuses on the short to medium term. Over the next thirty years or so, which is the usual horizon for defence and security planning, the impacts will, as you say, be difficult to disentangle from political and cultural factors, especially given the relatively modest degree of climate change we expect over this period.

In the medium term the trend will be more ‘more of the same’–an incremental, quantitative change in things like civil unrest, violence and civil wars – rather than qualitatively new threats like resource wars and maritime border changes (from sea level rise) and land border changes, from melting glaciers. And though we can be confident that the security threats will increase in the aggregate, precisely where and when they will manifest is impossible to predict.

  • Sashka

    This strikes me as an embarrassingly weak line of thinking. First guess is (call it conspiracy theory if you like, but there is a clear hint in the answer to the second question) that security/military types are trying to exaggerate (more exactly – create the notion of) climate security thread in order to justify some actions that won’t be otherwise allowed.

    The idea that a modern developed country could be susceptible to climate change in a way similar to past civilizations is unfounded at best and, frankly, is not credible. One could argue that poor countries might be vulnerable. But considering the pressures of fast population growth and natural climate variability it should be clear that slow climate change (assuming it does affect the relevant regions) is one of the smaller problems that they face.

    The Darfur bit is really really bad. Even if the case can be made that local climate anomaly played a role, there is precisely zero evidence that it had anything to do with global change.

    If I may indulge in nitpicking:

    The opening statement in the first box “The scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the climate is changing in response to global warming” is essentially free of content. GW is the dominant form of climate change, by definition. No scientific evidence is required. What he probably meant is that it is all linked to CO2 emissions. I don’t know what’s his interest in transition to low carbon economy but in reality we don’t know how much warming (if any) is due to CO2.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Sashka:

    I think your beef is more with politicians who seek to piggyback on the climate security meme.

    This is just my hunch, but I don’t get the feeling that “military types” are looking to exaggerate climate change for their purposes. In fact, it seems they have their hands full with plenty of other pressing threats. But for planning and contingency purposes, it seems like a smart idea to get the ball rolling.

    Interestingly, your concerns (of the military exploiting climate change) are shared by some liberals, who have recently expressed some reservations about the national security/climate change argument.  I’m still looking for those links, but I’m fairly certain I read this a few months ago on a few liberal blog sites.

  • Sashka

    Keith:

    Yes, liberals would be concerned about military power grab while conservatives are concerned about the government using the climate excuse to pile up more taxes on our backs. For the record, I am politically unaffiliated (as in plague on both of their houses) but on this issue I agree with both.

    There is a difference, though. The governmental climate actions along the Kyoto-Copenhagen axis, climate bills, cap-and-trade programs and carbon taxes are at least founded on something that passes as science today. The governments are willingly buying into “consensus” while the security concerns are just an outright bogus.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Jeff,

    Over at the previous thread, I put out a call to your colleagues, asking if they could share one book in particular that has shaped their thinking on climate security. I also gently rapped Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which I know informed your chapter on historical case studies. I’m curious if there is another book that you leaned on heavily, as well.

  • Jeff Mazo

    Keith,

    I haven’t seen your comments on Diamond yet, but I wrote a critical review of Collapse in Survival myself (behind a pay wall, unfortunately) and clearly set out some of my concerns in the chapter you refer to, although I think its pretty sound overall. My theoretical analysis also relies to a great extent on Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (subject to similar caveats and criticisms, laid in out chapter 4 of my book). I’d also recommend the German Advisory Council on Global Change report Climate Change as a Security Risk.

    As for Sashka’s comments, I’m not a “˜security/military type’, even though I work at a security/strategic studies think tank. My academic background is in Anthropology and Medieval Studies, informed by 20 years as an editor on scientific and academic journals, especially in politics and international relations. And of course because analysts like me who stress the long-term security and geopolitical consequences of climate change are motivated in part by a desire to avoid them doesn’t mean we’re inventing or exaggerating them. I wrote a commentary “Thinking the Unthinkable” in Survival a couple of years ago on this very issue (also behind a subscription wall).

    Otherwise, I think Sashka misses the point (or several points) entirely, perhaps willfully. He seems to be agreeing with much of what I actually say in my responses to your questions (as well as in the book, which he clearly hasn’t read) and criticising a straw man of his own making. As I said in my responses, I focus not on long-term consequences but on the short to medium term, where the anthropogenic climate change signal is difficult to extract from the background noise and where the degree of projected change is for the most part independent of emissions scenario, and the question of AGW is irrelevant to my discussion of Darfur.

    And one thing we didn’t go into in our e-mail exchange was my conclusions and policy recommendations, which for the most part relate to where and how resources should be allocated or reallocated (as between mitigation and adaptation efforts, for example), although I do, to be sure, think that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

    One final nit-pick of my own: there is a clear conceptual difference between “˜global warming’ and “˜climate change’ ““ the former reflects a change in a single metric (global mean temperature) and the latter the regional, seasonal and day/night temperature changes, changes in extreme weather events, precipitation changes, etc.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Jeff (5):

    Thanks for providing additional context and clarity. Tainter’s book is a classic and much discussed these days. See, for example, this interesting post at The Oil Drum, of which I briefly discuss here.

    RE: “your conclusions and policy recommendations”: I’m tabling that for another post.

    Lastly, your distinction between the terms global warming and climate change is an important one. Unfortunately, they are now interchangeable in the public discussion, but I think ‘climate change’ is on its way to becoming the dominant frame of reference.

  • http://climatesecurity.blogspot.com/ A Holland

    Sashka (3) – you say “the security concerns are just an outright bogus” but government actions are based on science.  I think you’re wrong, as the security concerns are based on just a layering of social science and security studies on top of the projected climate changes. 

    For instance, unmitigated climate change has been projected to reduce food production in Africa by 10-20 percent by 2050. Is that an economic problem, a humanitarian problem, or a security problem?  The answer to that relies on the resiliency of individual societies.  In a resilient society, it would only be an economic problem, as effective adaptation and food importation could make up for shortfalls.  However, in a socially brittle, impoverished society (as too many African countries are) its pretty easy to see how growing populations, increased urbanization, and increasingly unpredictable weather paterns could create a humanitarian crisis, where international aid organizations would be called upon for famine relief.  Once a society is at that point, its very easy to fall into conflict as opposing ethnic, religious, or economic groups fight for control over scarce food supplies.    If one of those ethnic groups happens to be allied with global Islamic Fundamentalists, don’t you think that the US Military would have a strategic interest in the region?

    In other words, its complicated.  There are plenty of other examples like that – some including shared water supplies, som including scarce energy resources, some including  rising sea levels, and some looking at storms.  But, to say that security and military planners thinking critically about these questions are doing so in order to exaggerate the climate security threat is worse than a conspiracy theory.

    Keith, as for books, this is still a relatively new field that has had very little in the way of ‘popular’ non-fiction come out.  Cleo Paskal and Gwynne Dyer are two of the first to look at it in this format.  But, there is some very good work being put out by Think Tanks, as you’ve mentioned in the blog, including the CNAS, the CNA, the IISS, CSIS, and the Wilson Center. 

  • http://MoveBeyondGreen.com Brian Smith

    Keith,

    The “military interest in environment/climate change as a power grab” is so badly overblown as to be funny.  The US military is not looking for any new missions or for excuses to go places.  Their hands are quite full right now.  The issue for the military is to understand two primary issues:  how will climate change impact their capabilities and how will it determine where they will be asked to go and operate.

    The first issue is pretty straightforward.  Rising sea levels can swamp naval facilities, reduced fresh water sources reduce the ability of the US military to train on its existing facilities, increased demands for renewables can put windmills at the end of runways or in the path of surveillance radar.  The Department of Defense spends a lot of money on its environmental programs each year and on sustaining its military training areas.  Its mantra is to “train as we fight” and “fight as we train” so it is important to have access to training areas to have a ready force.  The impacts of climate change are, as a result, of interest to the Department of Defense.

    On the second issue, they are concerned that climatic changes and shifting political stability will result in their having to support large humanitarian relief efforts or in policing the consequences of political meltdowns.  If there are conflicts over resources, the military will need to be prepared to respond, either in combat, peacekeeping or some form of nation building.  They know it, they need to be prepared for it and they want to know where they will need to go to negotiate access well in advance.

    One last point – modern industrialized nations still need to eat and several of them are primary food producers, including the United States.  Climate driven changes to the Midwest will effect the ability of the United States to exercise its influence on the world stage.

  • Sashka

    Jeff:

    I didn’t pretend that I’ve read the book. I was just commenting on Q&A. Since (as we agree) on short-to medium term it’s hard to detect anthropogenic climate change signal (or even the very fact of the climate change as well) then I there is no point to talk about climate conflicts, climate security and climate anything else. Short-to medium term climate is simply non-issue, especially as far how our (in)actions affect it. Long term it may or may not be, but you are not focusing on it. So what is there to discuss? What I am criticizing is not a straw man but your focus on what I see as non-issue (I mean the security angle) and your call to move to low carbon economy which is completely groundless in the context of the time frame of your interest.

    As for thirty years as the usual horizon for defense and security planning, do I really need to point out what a stellar track record security services have in that regard? Need I mention CIA reports on the stability of the Soviet Union?

    Please have no doubt: I do understand the distinction between the GW and CC. I didn’t say they were the same.

    A Holland: I think I am right precisely for the reasons you think I’m wrong: “the security concerns are based on just a layering of social science and security studies on top of the projected climate changes.” To me, it’s a non-science based on a layer of non-science based on another non-science (that passes as science today but isn’t).

    Projections of food production in Africa a worth nil as they are based on unverifiable assumptions, bad models and ignore any future agricultural innovations. In any event the food shortages will be much more dependent on the unchecked population growth than on food production. If we want to help Africa we should help them with education, with water supplies and most importantly donate billions of condoms instead of speculating about climate change and low carbon economy. This addresses your other point about possible islamic militant connection. The possibility is there and it is already happening. But mitigating climate change is the least important part of the problem in that respect.

  • http://climatesecurity.blogspot.com/ A Holland

    Well, sashka, if you don’t believe the science, then you won’t believe the social science that is layered on top of it, of course.

    But — what if you’re wrong, and no one has done the planning, because of that very uncertainty about the right or wrong of the science?

    Military and security planners don’t plan for what we know is going to happen – that’s pretty easy.  We have to have the foresight to look for and be able to adapt to any number of contingencies.  Part of that planning has to include uncertainty.  It even has to include planning for events that are very low probability, if the impact is high enough.  Outside of the climate sphere, this is why we spend money on missile defense. 

    Another example: the intelligence community was rightfully pilloried for not being prepared for a terrorist threat eminating from Afghanistan.  Should Osama bin Laden have been the sole focus of US intelligence in the 1990s -no.  But, planners should have had the foresight to look at the possibility and put in place some prudent preventative actions.

    So when you say projections are worth nil — that’s not really true.  They’re worth it as a potential contingency that should be looked at. In fact, we should probably prepare for much worse than those projections, on the assumption that if you prepare for the worst,   We don’t have the luxury of operating with 100% certainty. 

    Strategic planning is looking at and preparing for all of your “known unknowns” — the things we know we don’t know — and trying to minimize the dreaded “unknown unknowns”. 

  • http://stephenleahy.net/ Stephen Leahy

    Jeff,

    I think you’re wrong in assuming that the impacts of CC over the next 30 years will be modest, and things will tick along per usual. That might apply to sea level rise but other impacts are non-linear and accelerating. The loss of summer ice in the Arctic in 5 to 10 yrs by some estimates will have a profound impact on weather patterns in the northern hemisphere and elsewhere.

    “...what happens in the Arctic affects the entire planet,” Mark Surreze, National Snow and Ice Data Centre

  • Sashka

    A Holland:

    The science is not something one believes in or not. That would be an attribute of religion. I believe in science as long as the science proves itself by being able to explain the past and by making verifiable predictions of the future. Lacking those, it’s not quite a science yet.

    It is obvious that the “planners” must be aware of unknown unknowns. The only thing it means to me is that any plans must be flexible enough not to be ruined by unk unks. This is about where it ends. Any “planning” that calls for a wholesale changes in the economy (like the proposed switch to low carbon) should be based on rigorous arguments instead of hand-waving.

    Humans don’t have a history of planning anything decades in advance. I cannot even imagine where this massive hubris comes from.

    Steven Leahy:

    You are listening to wrong people. People who predict “profound impact on weather patterns in the northern hemisphere and elsewhere” have zero track record of predicting anything successfully. This is just a pile of BS. The arctic summer ice is not going anywhere in 5 years or 10. They are just trying to scare the gullible.

    Mark Serreze (not Surreze) is well-known panic-monger who made a spectacular career of making catastrophic predictions by extrapolating recent trends in Arctic ice cover changes. If you followed the more recent news, the trend has reversed after 2007 as more enlightened people predicted all the time. Yours truly is on record on Dot Earth.

  • http://stephenleahy.net/ Stephen Leahy

    First off those are not predictions they are projections based on current trends and there was no reversal in 2007. A one year slow down in rate of ice loss is not a reversal.

    Secondly when the summer ice is gone it will have an impact on global weather. If you can’t see that, you don’t know how the Earth’s weather system operates.

    Finally I talk to scientists who are actually in the Arctic doing the measurements and they say 5 to 10 years because the ice is now so thin.

  • Sashka

    Well, that’s precisely the point: projections based on current trends are worthless. If you care to check your facts you’ll find that the minimum of ice cover was reached in 2007. Since then it’s in two years of robust recovery. Again: it’s not a slow down of rate, it’s a reversal.

    You are right: I cannot “see” the global weather impacts. Neither can you or anybody else, no matter what they are trying to lead you to believe. They already stated their “projections” in 2007. Today we already know what they are worth. 5-10 years from now they’ll again find explanations why the ice didn’t disappear.

  • http://www.dobox.com/ Bruce

    A Holland:

    The science is not something one believes in or not. That would be an attribute of religion. I believe in science as long as the science proves itself by being able to explain the past and by making verifiable predictions of the future. Lacking those, it’s not quite a science yet.

    It is obvious that the “planners” must be aware of unknown unknowns. The only thing it means to me is that any plans must be flexible enough not to be ruined by unk unks. This is about where it ends. Any “planning” that calls for a wholesale changes in the economy (like the proposed switch to low carbon) should be based on rigorous arguments instead of hand-waving.

    Humans don’t have a history of planning anything decades in advance. I cannot even imagine where this massive hubris comes from.

    Steven Leahy:

    You are listening to wrong people. People who predict “profound impact on weather patterns in the northern hemisphere and elsewhere” have zero track record of predicting anything successfully. This is just a pile of BS. The arctic summer ice is not going anywhere in 5 years or 10. They are just trying to scare the gullible.

    Mark Serreze (not Surreze) is well-known panic-monger who made a spectacular career of making catastrophic predictions by extrapolating recent trends in Arctic ice cover changes. If you followed the more recent news, the trend has reversed after 2007 as more enlightened people predicted all the time. Yours truly is on record on Dot Earth.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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