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Seminar on "Climate Change and Non-Traditional Security: Beyond Climate Wars?"

Dr Lorraine Elliott, Senior Fellow, Australian National University 16 May 2008, 10.30am - 12pm, Conference Rm, RSIS, NTU

In this seminar, Dr Elliott briefly reviewed the recent arguments that have dominated the ‘climate security’ debate in the international arena. She began by noting that the idea that the impacts of climate change could have consequences for national and global security, has become a prominent and at times repetitive motif in public security debate. In the past 1 ½ years, the links between climate and insecurity have been continuously reinforced in various events and reports. Despite this apparent link, the solution and response to these problems have been slow and less obvious as governments have placed very little emphasis on human security.

In explaining the link between climate and the potential for conflict or wars, Dr Elliott broke her presentation into three broad areas – (1) ‘climate war’ triggers; (2) ‘climate war’ pathways; and (3) the implications for security.

(1) ‘Climate War’ Triggers

Based on the various climate security –related reports that have surfaced in recent times, Dr Elliott noted 3 main factors that would trigger conflict based on climate issues. The first is the increased likelihood of resource stress and scarcity, which would increase a state’s strategic vulnerability. According to the UK Ministry of Defence’s Strategic Trends, the stress on resources are diverse and wide-ranging, as the increasing demand for natural resources in particular food, water and fossil fuels, will have major impacts and unpredictable effects.

The second trigger is food insecurity, which has the ability to turn food exporting countries into net food importers, thereby increasing their vulnerability to global markets and their reliance on the security of trade routes, heightening poverty and potentially intensifying domestic grievances and social disruptions.

The third trigger is the reconfiguration or loss of territory, which would be the most directly linked to the idea of an existential threat to the state. For instance, the melting of the Artic’s ice sheets could result in sovereignty disputes as the Northwest Passage becomes fully navigable or as the access to the seabed and its potential resources becomes increasingly feasible.

(2) ‘Climate War’ Pathways

With regard to the likely effects as a result of these climate war triggers, Dr Elliott noted 4 main areas. The first would be that various kinds of critical infrastructure would be made vulnerable due to the physical impacts of climate change. This would include ‘hard’ infrastructure such as coastal port facilities, oil refineries and transportation networks, and ‘soft’ infrastructure such as health systems. While the economic impact of climate change in general and damage to critical infrastructure is likely to be more severe in developing countries, the wealthier countries are not immune, particularly in terms of impact on military capability and the loss of strategic assets.

The second area is an overstretch of resilience and adaptive capacity, which would pose both a material and social challenge. The social and economic impacts of climate change in poorer countries and in poorer parts of rich countries are likely to generate greater demands for effective response which many governments are unable to meet. Yet in conditions of ‘economic weakness’, the range of income possibilities is narrowed an the state is deprived of resources with which to meet people’s needs, with a higher degree of risk of violence and conflict.

The third area is the security consequences of increased migration pressures. While migration does not itself lead directly to conflict, it can alter the ethnic composition and/or population distribution within and between states, which can increase the potential for instability and conflict- particularly in situation of resource scarcity, and in already sensitive cross-border areas.

The fourth area of concern is the potential for climate change to fuel a politics of resentment. Within countries, this is usually identified not just as a function of competition for scarce resources but also a function of inequitable access to resources between and among identity-groups within social and political communities or where livelihood choices are contracted. At a global level, politics of resentment is one between those most responsible for climate change and those most affected by it.

(3) Security Consequences: Locating ‘climate wars’

In light of these effects, Dr Elliott then explained why these were of concern to the security community. The first point raised was the possible security consequences of state incapacity and lack of societal resilience, which ranges along a continuum from civil unrest through intercommunal violence to political radicalization and, in extreme situation, state collapse. Climate change is predicted to increase the likelihood of state failures if governments are unable to respond effectively to the social and economic challenges of climate change.

Secondly, the security threats are now transnational in nature and not limited to within state boundaries. This is evident of four ways – (1) conflict are anticipated to result in ‘transit and destination areas’ as climate-related migration intensifies; (2) more convention border disputes between states or adjacent communities due to the loss/reconfiguration of territory; (3) ‘spill over’ effects that threaten political stability of countries and regions; and (4) threatening the multilateral system if governments are unable to address these threats, which in turn may affect global and regional distributions of power.

It was also noted that the climate triggers are more likely to lead to conflict and instability in parts of the world that are already ecologically stressed, economically vulnerable and characterized by weak or stretched state capacity. Moreover, while there were many reports on what climate change meant for international security, very little has be said, or agreed, on what specifically needs to be done about it. Hence, Dr Elliott noted the demand for increased leadership from key actors such as the EU and US.

Dr Elliott concluded by noting that what is ultimately missing in addressing the problem of climate change as a security threat, is the lack of focus on human security. The human security model is the most prominent of the non-traditional security approaches to environmental security and its genesis lies in the ideas articulated initially by the United Nations Development Programme, in which human security is seen as a universal, people-centered concern with ‘human life and dignity’ and an antidote to conventional views of security that focused on military conflicts between states. The list of human security challenges that arise from climate change is, potentially, a long one and one that recasts the impact of climate insecurities. In light of these insecurities, to focus on climate change only as a security threat that generates instability conflict and social unrest only understands part of the bigger picture. By focusing on human security, it reinforces the importance of adaptation strategies as well as mitigation. Moreover, the human security model for adaption suggests that this cannot be a process of ‘top-down’ technocratic responses.


A comment was made regarding the downside of securitization, in which there seems to be a lack of science on sea level rise, for instance in the Indian Ocean, which is the most under-research. Greater research would therefore assist in the protection of maritime disasters. Dr Elliott agreed with the comment, adding that science tends to take place under the assumption of a security threat, rather than providing understanding where or when a worse case scenario would take place.

In expanding on the implications climate change has on the military, Dr Elliott noted that according to the CNA corporation report, it would affect the day to day running of the military. For instance, there would be difficulty in operating military machinery in different climates, even if it was a mere change of 1 degree Celsius. A reconfiguration of territories as a result of climate change would also affect the military’s dependency on oil resources.

A comment was made regarding the dichotomy between the traditional notions of state security and human security, to which Dr Elliott noted that such a dichotomy grew out of the debates on Human Rights. This was based on the assumption that if the state is secure, the people are secure. Climate change on the other hand, demonstrates that this is not the case, as externalities/harm is fundamentally displaced, thereby casting the costs of climate change over a wider area. In China for instance, the effects of pollution have spilled over on socio-economic costs, whereby according to the World Bank, 8% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product accounts for health-related costs.

Questions were raised as to what could be done in light of the complicated nature of Climate Change. It seems as if Climate Change has become an abused term within public debates, to the point that it confuses people as to what can and needs to be done. Dr Elliott suggested that at a regional level, there would need to be greater cooperation rather than competition for shared resources (such as the Mekong River in Indochina). At the state level, rather than bicker over where the responsibility lies, it is better to act immediately. This is where small individual efforts would play a part in instilling a greater sense of collective moral responsibility and also putting more pressure on governments to act on the issues.

* Dr Lorraine Elliott is Senior Fellow in International Relations at the Australian National University and former Reader in International Relations at the University of Warwick in the UK. She has also recently taken on the role of Associate Dean (Higher Degree Research) in the ANU's College of Asia and the pacific. Dr Elliott has also held visiting appointments at the Free University of Amsterdam, Oxford University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Keele University and has been a visiting lecturer at military defence and staff colleges in Australia and the UK. She is a member of the Australian National Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation Asia Pacific (CSCAP). Her research work focuses on non-traditional security (including environmental security), regionalism particularly in the Asia Pacific, global environmental governance, transnational environmental crime, and Australian foreign policy on the environment. Dr Elliott has presented the results of her research at international conferences and workshops in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Finland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Germany, and Thailand. She is author of over 70 book chapters and articles in international journals.Her recent books include The Global Politics of the Environment (Macmillan Palgrave, 2004) and Forces for good: cosmopolitan militaries in the 21st century (Manchester University Press, 2004; co-edited with Graeme Cheeseman

Posted on: 16/5/2008 10:30:00 AM  |  Topic: Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters

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