The climate-security nexus: ‘operation enduring narrative’

25 January 2012

Betsy Hartmann’s phrase ‘operation enduring narrative’ is one of my favourites from her work that places a critical eye on the dominant US framings of climate security. To me, it captures - somewhat sarcastically - the continuing trend to link climate change and security without providing substantive evidence. We’ve heard it all before: ‘climate change causes conflict’ vs ‘climate change does not cause conflict’. In reality, conflicts are the result of a complex myriad of factors associated with governance, security, economic opportunities, politics, socio-cultural factors, historical grievances and so on and so forth. Unfortunately the list is long.

Much has been written about the possible, suggested and, in some cases, unsubstantiated links between the impact of a changing climate and the prevalence of conflict and fragility. But we also know from the long and extensive history of work on natural resource management that tensions arise when natural resources are scarce or their availability changes if not managed effectively. Yet there has been little analysis as to whether the discourse of climate change and conflict (which has been bandied about since the UN Security Council put climate change on the agenda in 2007  has had any real impact in terms of programming priorities and budget allocations for development assistance. This is the central question in a new ODI Working Paper on climate change in UK security policy.

America and, trailing behind it, Germany, have been at the forefront of climate-security discourse, but the UK has also contributed its fair share towards constructing a narrative where climate change and security are inextricably linked. As I explore in my working paper, this has been led primarily by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its successive heads including the current, William Hague . The UK Department for International Development (DFID), on the other hand, have been somewhat more cautious in their approach and, although the agenda since the release of their response to the HERR has moved towards integrated approaches to complex risks, the explicit manifestations of the possible links between climate change and security are yet to be fully explored.

I feel uneasy making the case for a greater focus on the climate-security nexus when the outcome could prompt more (unhelpful) coverage that reinforces sensationalist links between climate change and the prevalence of violence and conflict. It continues to surprise me how the underlying tone of many speeches and articles on climate security regurgitate the kind of arguments put forward by Homer-Dixon and proponents of ‘resource wars’. Perhaps a reflection of my education and focus on the political economy of violence and conflict, it seems somewhat astounding that such little progress has been made in better understanding the peace and security implications of a changing climate at the local level – in some respects the real and grounded level – as opposed to a level of broad generalisations about countries going to war over mass migration as a result of climate change.

Of course arguing for a more nuanced and evidence-based assessment of the impact of climate change on security and thus the implications for UK security policy isn’t ‘sexy’. But it is needed if we are to avert the trend of defence and security agencies conducting scenario planning for future climate wars behind closed doors.

There are alternative options for better understanding the climate and security nexus, which must be pursued. For example, a number of non-governmental organisations (and indeed staff within DFID), have been pursuing a more cautious approach to the climate-security nexus. International Alert  and Saferworld have been promoting the use of conflict sensitivity tools, conflict resolution and natural resource management options as a means to prevent the outbreak of conflict as a result of changing natural resources influenced by a changing climate. Yet, despite these practical and positive avenues for action, evidence is lacking regarding the programmatic and policy options for what needs to be done at scale.

The International Climate Fund has a role to play here as the UK Government’s largest contribution to climate change funding to date, but many questions remain unanswered. What does undertaking climate change adaptation mean in fragile and conflict affected environments? How can the different perspectives within government be harnessed and aligned in order to promote a ‘whole-of-government’ approach? Moreover, with UK security policy firmly placing climate change as one amongst a number of threats, how will the responses (to be devised) by the FCO and Ministry of Defence align with those of DFID and the Department of Energy and Climate Change?

These questions – amongst others – are fundamental to better understanding the climate and security nexus. And, most importantly, learning how to use the changing climate as an entry point for more positive ends: to build resilience to changing climate, disaster and security risk through a suite of actions and, who knows, maybe even the possibilities for conflict transformation. What is clear is that 2012 is set to be an interesting year for unpacking the climate-security nexus, but the overriding framing of that nexus is still very much up for grabs.

Katie Harris