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Global Security in a Warmer World

10 Jan 2018
By Dr Kumuda Simpson-Gray
A family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and building materials. Ifo section.
Dadaab camp is the largest refugee camp in the world with people fleeing the civil war in Somalia.  In recent months the rate of new arrivals has increased dramatically due to the added factor of drought that is affecting the region. It has now become severely overcrowded.

As warnings continue to grow more dire of the impact climate change is having on the global security environment, policymakers, including in Australia, have put the issue front and centre. In doing so however, are they missing the context on the ground?

It has become commonplace to talk about climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’, exacerbating already existing environmental, economic, social and political vulnerabilities. For the least developed states the pressure on food, water and land resources will in many places become acute. Land degradation, food insecurity and water scarcity will interact with demographic pressure, economic stagnation, and, in key states, poor governance.

The most alarming predictions for the future point to the ways in which this confluence of challenges could lead to a significant shift in patterns of migration, worsening an already catastrophic global refugee crisis. In the most extreme cases, climate change could also potentially lead to conflict, adding to the numbers of global asylum seekers fleeing insecurity, and prompting some form of international intervention.

These are the risks policy makers fear when they refer to climate change as a threat to national security. The 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper hints at the alarming conditions described above when it states:

These challenges could undermine stability in some countries, especially fragile states, and contribute to conflict and irregular migration. They also affect our economic interests.

The economic and security effects of climate change will sharpen and increase global stresses on the supply of food and water. Climate impacts could add to social, economic and political tensions.

Conflict and increased migration are the two key issues that generate the most attention when talking about the links between climate change and security.

As with the Foreign Policy White Paper, most assessments of the risk tend to emphasise the role of climate change in increasing resource insecurity and conditions that will either cause, or exacerbate economic, political and social stresses that exist in a particular state. While important, these analyses too often ignore the pre-existing factors that make some countries or regions particularly vulnerable to instability due to climate change. Those factors include high levels of extreme inequality, poverty, poor governance and systemic corruption. In states where there is a high potential for conflict as a result of climate related insecurity, there is often also a recent history of armed conflict or violence.

The issue here is one of emphasis. By focusing primarily on the role of climate change, the political, social and economic context is often missing. This leads to misleading diagnoses of the root causes of conflict and mass migration, which more often than not have to do with the political, economic and social conditions that make life precarious and potentially dangerous. Ignoring these factors and isolating the role of a changing climate and environment has worrying implications for policy responses.

Take the Syrian civil war for example. There is an increasingly popular narrative that blames the multi-year drought from 2006-2011 for the civil war. The argument is that the drought drove over a million Syrians from their farms into overcrowded cities where they were among the earliest to protest against the Assad government.

While this is certainly an accurate description of events, the drought occurred after years of agricultural reforms that led to disastrous over exploitation of ground water resources. Corruption and liberal economic reforms that benefitted a small number of agri-businesses at the expense of many small farmers added to the already deep economic and political grievances of Syria’s rural population. Thus the drought, likely longer and more severe as a result of climate change, exacerbated the already significant economic hardship of rural Syrians, and intensified their sense of political and social grievance.

One of the lessons to take from Syria is that climate change will be one of many factors that contribute to insecurity and conflict. In cases where is has the most severe impacts it will likely interact with already existing patterns of political, social and economic exclusion and neglect. Likewise, this will often take place in states or regions where there is already considerable resource mismanagement and insecurity, corruption, poor governance and inequality.

Governments who are concerned about the impact of climate change on international security, whether it be conflict, migration or humanitarian disasters, should be paying attention to states that already show signs of economic, political and social instability. Weak political institutions and high levels of inequality and poverty should merit particular concern. Once these conditions have been identified, security analyses of how climate change will interact with them should be the focus.

How will food insecurity affect already economically and politically marginalized groups? Will flooding or drought lead to internal displacement and migration to already overcrowded cities? If so, are there economic opportunities for internally displaced people or will they add to an already existing system of economic inequality and swell the numbers of those living in poverty? How will particular governments respond when crisis occurs? Will those already disenfranchised continue to be neglected? Will the government look for specific groups to blame, based on gender, ethnicity, religion or race? Are the disenfranchised and neglected likely or willing to voice their grievances? Do people have access to weapons? How would a government respond to an uprising or protest movement?

These questions must be part of any analysis of where climate change will create the kinds of insecurity that could lead to conflict or mass migration. Ignoring the complex political, economic and social factors that will exacerbate the effects of climate change for some of the most vulnerable people in the world will contribute to growing global insecurity.

Dr Kumuda Simpson-Gray is a Lecturer in International Relations at La Trobe University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.