The Climate War Meme

By Keith Kloor | October 6, 2011 11:21 am

In a column published today, a scholar challenges the legitimacy of the climate security frame and suggests it is distracting from the real climate concerns that need to be addressed.

But before I get to that, some quick background. In recent months, a flurry of highly publicized papers have explicitly linked climate change to war and civil turmoil. If you’ve been keeping score, you know that this research is controversial and seemingly contradictory. And that the associated climate link derives from natural weather cycles and temperature swings, not man-made global warming. Let’s briefly recap.

In August, a study published in Nature found that

Tropical countries face double the risk of armed conflict and civil war breaking out during warm, dry El Niño years than during the cooler La Niña phase of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO)…

The abstract of the paper declared:

This result, which indicates that ENSO may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts since 1950, is the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies relates strongly to the global climate.

A result like that garnered much media attention (see here and here, for example), but the study was also heavily criticized by some scholars.  At the same time, the news prompted constructive assessments of the state of the research on the climate/war linkage. Unsurprisingly, a study connecting civil conflict to warmer weather led some to infer:

That could be bad news as the global climate is changing in a generally warmer direction thanks to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere.

Some major related news came several days ago, with the publication of this PNAS paper, which concludes

that climate change was the ultimate cause of human crisis in pre-industrial societies.

But in this case, the culprit is colder weather. Specifically, the researchers assert:

Results show that cooling from A.D. 1560″“1660 caused successive agro-ecological, socioeconomic, and demographic catastrophes, leading to the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century.

Unsurprisingly, some who like to point out every blizzard or cold snap as a supposed refutation of global warming have seized on this study.

Now there is a new lens to view all this research on climate change and war. It’s known as climate security, and I’ve written about it previously on numerous occasions. I think it’s fair to say that environmental scholars are ambiguous about the emergence of climate security as a call to action. For example, here’s some cautionary advice that one such expert offered in 2009.

Today, another scholar jumps into the climate change = conflict debate with some fresh concerns. Corinne Schoch, a researcher with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, writes in this piece:

Over the past five years, climate change has moved from being a purely environment and development issue to being a matter of national and international security.

For years we have understood that civil wars generally break out as a result of political instability, a poor national economy, weakened infrastructures and, in the case of African states, the collapse of the Cold War. Now it seems that environmental shocks can be added to that list “” journalists, academics, policymakers, security institutions and heads of states repeatedly tell us that the impacts of climate change pose a grave security threat.

As a result, the idea that prolonged heat waves, rising sea levels, more variable climates and more frequent disasters such as cyclones or droughts will result in more civil conflicts has taken firm root in the public’s imagination. The popular belief that climate change will soon spark “˜water wars’ between water-scarce regions and countries is just one example.

But while the notion that climate change could lead to conflict is widespread, it is based on very little evidence and questionable sources. The debate tends to be characterised by conjecture, extrapolations and a limited set of facts that make assumptions about how the climate will change in years to come, and how people will respond “” for example, that increased climate variability automatically causes inter- and intrastate migration, or that a drop in rainfall led to the Darfur crisis. The links between what causes conflict have been simplified.

The truth is that there are, as yet, no concrete examples of violent conflicts induced by climate change, and a limited understanding of what the future holds.

This is a shot across the bow to proponents of the climate security frame. And it comes not from a political partisan or climate skeptic, but from a scholar whose expertise is the climate change/security nexus. In her piece, Schoch argues that the climate security rationale

risks sidelining or missing out completely issues such as adaptation, mitigation, development, economic growth, equity, justice and resilience, which do not figure as priorities on the security agenda but which are integral to addressing climate change.

In today’s world “” filled with talk about “˜human-induced climate change’, “˜compensation’, “˜responsibility’ and “˜global justice’ “” it is also important to ask ourselves to what extent the reframed climate-security debate is tackling the real drivers of climate change.

I look forward to hearing the answers she gets from the community of scholars and advocates who have helped put the issue of climate security front and center in the climate debate.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, climate security
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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

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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