The State of the Field in Climate and Security

PHOTO: Creative Commons/Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

This blog post was first posted on the Duck of Minerva.

After nearly fifteen years of study, what do we know about the relationship between climate change and security? I recently attended a Woodrow Wilson Center event organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) on the state of the field. Along with Geoff Dabelko, Halvard Buhaug, and Sherri Goodman, I offered my take on the field.

In this blog post, I wanted to focus on five different causal pathways that I think represent the frontier of research on the study of climate and conflict, which include agricultural production and food priceseconomic growthmigrationdisasters, and international and domestic institutions.

In most of these accounts, climate hazards or variability affect the likelihood of conflict either through the effects on livelihoods, state capacity, and/or inter-group tensions. In some accounts, extreme weather or variability lowers the rewards to agriculture and/or other livelihoods and makes rebellion or violence more attractive.  These same processes can also deprive states of tax revenue and undermine their capacity to suppress violence and provide public goods. They can also exacerbate tensions between groups.

Whether climate changes and variability contribute to the increased likelihood of conflict has been the dominant focus of this literature, though I myself have a broader view of what constitutes security. 

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Science Meets Policy, Practice, and the Public

Last week, PRIO co-hosted a set of meetings for peers, policy, and the general public at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

These events marked the end of Climate Anomalies and Violent Environments (CAVE), a three-year research project supported by the Research Council of Norway’s FRIPRO program. The project has contributed with important insights into how climate variability affects dynamics of political violence through a large body of publications, reports, and working papers. At the events in Washington DC, these findings were communicated and discussed with other scholars, practitioners, and policy actors.

Scholars, practitioners, policy actors and the public met to discuss the state-of-the-art on climate and security. PHOTO: Wilson Center/Flickr

The main event was a public seminar on “Climate Change and Conflict: New Research for Defense, Diplomacy, and Development” with particular focus on the current state-of-the-art on climate and security and how scientific evidence can be implemented in politics and practice. Three panelists introduced their take on this issue: Joshua Busby, Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin; Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow at the Wilson Center and former US Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense; and Halvard Buhaug, Research Professor at PRIO and project leader of the sponsoring CAVE project. Under the moderation of Geoff Dabelko, former director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center and Professor of Environmental Studies at Ohio University, questions from the audience paved the way for a engaging and insightful discussion.

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Why did Mali fall into jihadist hands?

Jihadists have succeeded in taking control of more than half of Mali, where many people in rural areas are now adherents of one armed group or another. This situation is largely the result of widespread frustration with the bad governance by the country’s corrupt ruling elites. While the jihadists have managed to take advantage of popular discontent, Western countries have shown little interest in understanding the situation. Rather, aid donors have focused on praising Malian democracy and highlighting desertification and climate change as the greatest threats to the country’s development. This has contributed indirectly to the insurgents’ success. The frustration we see in Mali may generate similar uprisings elsewhere.

Mali has seen a surge in violent conflict events in recent years, with battle-related deaths conservatively estimated at around 2,000 between 2012 and 2016. PHOTO: Screenshot from Uppsala Conflict Data Program

Following the country’s political and economic collapse in 2012, it may take decades for Mali to regain stability. Several factors contributed to the crisis, but one trigger in particular was the bombing of Libya and the assassination of Gaddafi in autumn 2011. Following the bombing, between 1,000 and 4,000 heavily armed Tuareg soldiers, who had been serving in the Libyan army, returned home to Mali, adding fuel to a Tuareg uprising that was already simmering in the north of the country. Together with the jihadists, some of these Tuareg soldiers succeeded in advancing south, before being pushed back by a French counter-offensive in January 2013.

The frustration we see in Mali may generate similar uprisings elsewhere … The national government has become so unpopular that many see the jihadists as a preferable alternative

The jihadists have returned, however, and they now control not only rural areas in northern Mali, but also the central Mopti Region. They have gained control through a process of gradually establishing small groups in the region. These groups have attracted ever-increasing support from smallholders and, not least, nomadic herders. Meanwhile, Mali’s army and government have retreated to the cities. The national government has become so unpopular that many see the jihadists as a preferable alternative. This is despite the fact that Mali has been held up by Western aid donors as a model for democratic development in Africa.Read More

Conflict and Insecurity in the IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is headed towards another round of assessing the world’s climate and how it affects our lives and livelihoods. Last September, the outline of the Sixth Assessment Report was approved and now the selection of authors is underway.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres warns about the effects of climate change. PHOTO: United Nations

‘Climate change is fuelling wars across the world’. Thus, a heading in The Independent summarized the views of UN Secretary General António Guterres in January 2017, shortly after he took office. The potential implications of climate change for conflict remain high on the international political agenda. The reports of the IPCC are broadly recognized as the most authoritative summaries of what we know and what we do not know about the effects of climate change. Yet, there is little scientific evidence in these reports for the view that climate change is an important driver of conflict.Read More

Bringing Different Disciplinary Perspectives to Climate Change and Conflict

PHOTO: Creative Commons

The scientific evidence for climate change is unequivocal, and the scientific community continues to refine our understanding of the impacts of these changes. Many of these physical changes, such as heatwaves, droughts and sea-level rise, are projected to adversely affect human wellbeing. The scope of these impacts has prompted serious concern that climate change may increase or alter the propensity for human violence and conflict. At the time of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, however, the relationship between climate change and conflict was highly contested with a relatively small number of high profile papers, such as Hsiang, Burke and Miguel (2013) and Buhaug, Nordkvelle, Bernauer et al. (2014), making divergent claims.

The authors find little evidence for direct pathways from climate change to violence, especially for group-level violence and armed conflict.

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Water Stress and Conflicts in Africa

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Water scarcity is widely believed to be a common source of violent conflict. However, in a recent policy brief I wrote with Clionadh Raleigh, we show that a direct water-conflict link is largely refuted by empirical research.

In the conventional narrative, it is believed that population growth coupled with scarce water resources will lead to tensions. There is a danger in assuming such a simplistic causal relationship between a physical asset and societal response, since it detaches the problem from the political arena. A main insight from the book chapter The Absence of Water Conflicts in the Developing World: Evidence from Africa, upon which the policy brief builds, is that it is the politics of water, rather than scarcity per se, that increases the risk of conflict.Read More

What Do the Experts Think?

Experts in action. PHOTO: Woods Institute for the Environment.

Connections between climate and security continue to be debated inside and outside of academia. Last week, I attended a workshop at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, together with Nina von Uexkull and nine other invited participants representing a variety of academic disciplines and viewpoints, to discuss impacts of climate variability and change on armed conflict.

The workshop is part of a larger ongoing expert elicitation project that seeks to identify extent of agreement and origin of disagreement among leading scholars of climate security. The overall aim of the project is not to reach consensus but rather to provide a thorough assessment of the full range of judgements about the state of the art, which will serve as a foundation for offering guidance and advice on future research as well as policy.Read More

Making Our Planet Great Again: Climate Diplomacy and Cooperation at COP23

A meeting, hosted by the COP23 president, with heads of state and government, the Secretary-General of the UN, and the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC. PHOTO: James Dowson/UNFCCC/Flickr.

A measured dose of optimism and small steps towards implementing the Paris Agreement were overall good outcomes for this year’s climate conference held from November 6-17, known officially as the 23rd Convention of the Parties (COP23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Despite global security concerns, there was little of the rhetoric from earlier COPs where the security implications of climate change dominated discussions on the urgent need for action. Instead, there were many—albeit tentative—examples of cooperation, including the Talanoa Dialogue, America’s Pledge, climate risk insurance initiatives, and new funding announcements. Positive developments aside, COP23 closed with substantial uncertainty for finalizing the implementation rules for the Paris Agreement prior to COP24 and serious questions remain as to whether actions will be taken towards limiting the global temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels, let alone the more ambitious 1.5oC goal forwarded in the Paris Agreement.

The convention opened on a lower note in light of the US administration’s intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement; the present pledges in the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) only meeting roughly a third of the emission reductions needed to achieve a 2oC temperature goal; and signals that credible commitments from developed countries were being undermined by the inability to bring the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol into force—leaving a gap in mechanisms for emission reductions and climate actions to 2020. At the same time, the need for action was underscored by severe weather in 2017 and the reaffirmation of the current and future risks from climate change in the US National Climate Assessment’s report on the state of the climate.

The next round of NDCs due in 2020 will perhaps be the true test of the effectiveness of climate diplomacy.

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Let the Desertification Zombie Rest in Peace

The myth of the creeping desert, swallowing green and fertile areas, is hard to get rid of. PHOTO: Creative Commons

The myth that African agriculture and livestock farming is causing desertification originated early in the colonial times. The reason was that colonial authorities wanted to exploit resources for their own profits. Efficient management of natural resources was presented as part of the white man’s burden. The losers were smallholder farmers and herders who lost access to resources.

Desertification in Africa has been declared dead by scientists many times over the past 30 years. Yet, the narrative keeps returning – no matter how hard you kick back at it with facts.

In 1990, I wrote an article in Norwegian titled “Desertification – a myth?”. As part of my first research project, a dissertation in Geography that I completed two years earlier, I had studied aerial photos from northern Mali. The photos showed large areas with dead trees after the mid-1980s drought. The Sahel south of Sahara definitely looked desert-like, and there were many indications that the desert was spreading. However, in the first years after the drought, one could see that the vegetation was returning, and the desert was becoming greener.

Desertification in Africa has been declared dead by scientists many times over the past 30 years. Yet, the narrative keeps returning – no matter how hard you kick back at it with facts.

This process had just about started in the 1990s. At my recurring visits to the same areas in the 1990s and early 2000s, I could observe how the landscape was changing dramatically from one visit to the next. A re-greening of the landscape was clearly taking place. Today, there is a dense tree cover in the areas where I once measured significant deforestation.

New Lake

A new lake, Lac Agoufou, has flooded the main road between the villages Hombori and Gossi in Northern Mali, as evidenced by Google Maps.

Today, it is too dangerous to travel to this area in Mali, due to the conflict between the government and various armed groups. Yet, during my latest visit in 2007, a new lake had emerged: Lac Agoufou.

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– No Land, No Life

The fertile farming lands of Mt Elgon. PHOTO: Nina von Uexküll

Why are individuals willing to join armed groups and fight over land access?

To find answers to this question I studied a militia in the Mt Elgon conflict in Kenya. A key finding of interviews with 75 ex-members of the SLDF militia was that the economic importance of land for farming communities is important for understanding why land became a resource worth fighting for. As one interviewee put it: “No land, no life”. Dependence on land also explains why individuals did not leave the area and became subjected to both taxation and forced recruitment by the SLDF militia.

The economic importance of land for farming communities is important for understanding why land became a resource worth fighting for.

I presented these results recently at the Agriculture Policy Scholars Conference bringing together Agricultural Economists and Political Scientists in New Orleans.