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Climate Change Will Bring More Surprises to Security Community

This interview with Marc Levy first appeared on “Global Observatory,” the blogspot of the International Peace Institute.

Jill Stoddard
: I’m here with Marc Levy, deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, which is part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, to talk about climate change and security. Marc,  thanks for being with us today on the Global Observatory. Will climate change generate more conflict, and if so what aspects will be most relevant and what can we do about it?

Marc Levy: In my view climate change will generate more conflict and the reasons that climate change will probably do this is we know from the historical sensitivity of populations and governments to climate shocks that when the climate experiences abnormal conditions—it’s very hot compared to normal, very dry compared to normal, even very wet compared to normal—it puts them under stress socially. Therefore it makes it harder for them to manage the kind of conflicts that can spill over into conflict. But we’ve been able to identify looking at the historical information is that temperature change makes a big difference, drought makes a big difference, and in some places flooding can make a big difference. As we think about the future we have some good reason to worry most about temperature, worry also about drought, and worry about floods. But we don’t actually know exactly what the future climate will look like, and we have good reason to think that the future climate will be fairly different from the past because we’re not just making the world hotter, but we’re making the entire climate system behave differently. So it means that even though I can say that climate change is going to increase the risk of conflict, it doesn’t mean that I can predict exactly where it will do so and through what mechanisms. We need to be on the lookout for novel forms of climate stress and the possibility that they will trigger new forms of security threats.

JS: Did climate change have a role in the Arab Spring?

ML: Many people have argued that it did through two mechanisms. One is a heat wave which destroyed large scales of wheat production in many parts of the world, which triggered scarcity and rising prices. In addition to that you had you had climate policies which were mandating increased production of biofuels, which displaced agricultural production for food in favor of production for biofuel stock. Those two things together act like a pair of scissors cutting at food prices and pushing them higher and higher which meant that in the urban areas in the Arab world you had a build up of unrest and dissatisfaction that was inevitably targeted at the governments which coincidently were not doing a good job in many places of meeting the needs of their people. So when you had this background condition of discontent accompanied by an acute shock in the form of food prices which almost by definition affected the entire urban population, it had the effect of elevating the tension in the region. So some people argue that that tension was enough to push things over the edge. It’s of course an impossible-to-prove proposition because we don’t have an alternative world that we can compare it to and see whether or not the Arab Spring would’ve unfolded with normal food prices. But what is clear is that this is an example of the kind of threat that we should expect to see more of in a world with increased climate stress.

Photo showing person about to cross flooded highway using an inflatable raft.JS: Is there a consensus that climate change generates more conflict?

ML: There’s not a consensus. There are people who argue that the causal impact of political factors and social factors and economic factors are so large that the climate signal may just be random noise; and that people that claimed to have identified a link between climate stress and conflict have not been fair in the sorts of tests that they’ve put together, and that when you take into the account, the political factors, the economic and the social, the climate effect is much smaller and even zero or in some cases even positive.

What we have is a case where as a whole, the community that studies causes of conflict is not in agreement on whether this one factor is significant or not. But at the same time you have a sub-community which is oriented around trying to identify what effect does climate stress have? So they’re not trying to explain all the causes of conflict. They just want to explain what effect does climate change have. They are moving towards a virtual consensus: that climate stress does elevate the risk of conflict.

JS: What is the most important thing policymakers should know about climate change and security?

ML: I think the most important thing is that there are overwhelmingly strong reasons to believe that climate change that’s already underway is already triggering security problems that are requiring our attention, and from this flows a number of logical implications. One is that if things are this bad already, it’s probably going to be even worse probably pretty quickly. So the next decade is probably going to experience more cases of climate change triggering security breakdowns. The other implication is that most of the big climate impacts that we’ve seen in the last 10 years have taken us by surprise. So the collapse of the government in Madagascar a few years ago in response to opposition to the sweetheart deal that the government made in a long term land lease to the government of South Korea was something that was not on anybody’s radar in the Security Committee. But it’s a direct response to a climate-triggered policy response. South Korea is worried about how it’s going to feed its people in a climate-stressed, water-scarce world. They sought out these long-term land deals and it led to the collapse of a government. The big floods in Bangkok a few years ago led to a complete shutdown of the shipment of computer hard drives for several weeks because Bangkok was a choke point for the supply chain of those items; that was also a surprise. The Arab Spring, to the extent that you link it to climate change, was something that nobody was looking at. Nobody was looking at climate triggered food-price shocks leading to a potential destabilization of an entire region. Even if we get agreement that these kinds of problems deserve more attention, it would be a mistake to fall into the trap of merely looking for the kinds of problems that have emerged in the last few years. The most likely scenario is that we’re going to have more surprises and that there are things that are going to pop up and do bad things for us that we’re not yet aware of or anticipating.

JS: Thank you, Marc Levy, for being with us here on the Global Observatory.


Marc Levy is deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). A political scientist specializing in the human dimensions of global change, Levy is an expert on environment-security connections, environmental sustainability, and the effectiveness of international environmental institutions. Jill Stoddard is editor of the Global Observatory and Web editor at the International Peace Institute.


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