Climate Wars

Posted by: Keith Kloor  :  Category: China, climate change, climate security, energy security

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comment thread, where a number of top environmental security experts weigh in.

I bet you you think this is going to be a continuation of last week’s discussion. Nah.

This week, I’ll be talking to scholars and experts who study the linkages between climate change, energy, and security. The shorthand for that nexus is climate security or energy security. Or, put another way: global warming = war.

In 2007, think tanks were just starting to define the climate/energy/security nexus. In 2008, intelligence experts sounded the alarm. In 2009, the CIA opened a climate change shop. Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review declared:

Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment.

These are important developments that deserve more attention. So far, public debate (which is minimal) seems to be shaped mostly by advocacy campaigns and political talking points.

In reality, the linkages between climate change, energy and national security are complex. Remember that impenetrable counterinsurgency powerpoint slide that recently bounced around the blogosphere? I bet there’s an equivalent one somewhere under lock and key that has a geopolitical diagram of the climate security threat.

What follows is a Q & A with two environmental security experts that seeks to clarify some of the core issues that have come to define climate security and energy security.

Geoff Dabelko is Director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C. Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatam House, in London, and the author of the recent book, Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises will Redraw the World Map. (Disclosure: Several months ago, I reviewed Global Warring for Nature.)

Two questions for Geoff Dabelko:

Q: Last September you wrote in the journal Climatic Change that, “‘climate security’ is in danger of becoming merely a political argument that understates the complexity of climate’s security challenges.” This recent commercial by seems to bear out your concern. What is the danger of oversimplifying the climate security issue for political reasons?

GD: Distilling complex topics into compelling sound bites demands (over)simplification and big leaps from problem to solution. But after grabbing people’s attention, what argument are you really making?

Careful analysis of climate and security linkages must inform advocacy efforts and policy responses. But we must realize that a wide range of players will interpret this analysis for their own ends.

Environmentalists should not use climate security just because it “polls well” or because military officers make effective communicators. In the 1990s, environmental security was proffered as the national security issue of the 21st century, but when that proved not to be the case, the blowback was fatal.

The security concerns related to climate and energy range well beyond typical climate advocacy goals. For example, the Pentagon is focused on clear tactical vulnerabilities such as IEDs targeting fuel re-supply missions, and strategic vulnerabilities, including dependence on unstable regimes for fuel. Both concerns have led DOD to prioritize fuel efficiency and alternative fuels, which can help reduce carbon emissions but are not direct arguments for passing a cap and trade scheme.

Similarly, climate change could act as a “threat multiplier” or “conflict accelerant” in regions of the world already destabilized by poverty, scarcity, and/or poor governance. While climate change may contribute to this instability, it should not be framed as a new type of conflict or a certain path to catastrophe.

For example, not all “climate migration” will be destabilizing or even negative. Migration has been a rational adaptation strategy in the past and will likely continue to be one in a warmer future. Yet advocates are often tempted to paint a picture of hundreds of millions of migrants flowing South to North. Such false precision in the face of tremendous uncertainty undercuts the legitimacy of the problem.

The bottom line: Climate change poses a range of security challenges, some of which must be met by security actors and others by civilians.  Those efforts must be based on precise analysis, even when fitting it on a bumper sticker.

Q: Energy security is a buzz phrase that has made its way into the political discourse. It’ll probably be invoked as a central plank of the U.S. Senate’s climate bill, whenever that is unveiled. How can the U.S. best achieve energy security?

GD: Energy security is not a new label but an enduring one that gained salience in the oil crises of the 1970s.  It is now surging past climate change as the political frame for the energy and climate efforts on the Hill and at the White House.

Energy security has unfortunately been conflated with the call to “end our dependence on foreign oil.”  While politically appealing, this slogan is practically impossible, given the nature of the global oil market, and probably undesirable and unnecessary-Canada, our friendly neighbor, is actually our largest supplier of oil.  The challenge is to channel the strong support for reducing trade with fragile or hostile suppliers into support for measures that increase efficiency, cut demand, and transition to alternative fuel sources.  Making these demand-side reductions-not just changing suppliers-is a key step to achieving energy security. It’s politically more difficult, but ultimately necessary.

We also need the software as well as the hardware. Achieving energy security requires an honest accounting of subsidies and regulatory incentives and disincentives for the full portfolio of existing and future energy technologies and sources.  Alternatives to fossil fuels remain at a tremendous disadvantage despite recent changes for the better.  Massive public and private investment in technologies must be accompanied by revolutions of equal importance in regulatory and behavior change arenas.

Energy security depends on addressing the current and future energy infrastructure vulnerabilities, including equipment failure, extreme weather events, long-term environmental change (i.e., sea-level rise/surges in the Gulf or pipelines built on thawing permafrost), regulatory inflexibility, and terrorist attacks.

Three questions for Cleo Paskal:

Q: What’s the big collision coming up at the intersection of climate change and U.S. national security?

CP: Environmental disruptions (caused by climate change but also other environmental change factors, such as depletion of groundwater) are increasingly threatening domestic U.S. security across the board, including economically, socially, politically and militarily.

Economic security is being undermined by, for example, water scarcity affecting urban development, agricultural communities and energy security. Costly extreme events, such as the ‘snowmageddons’ of February 2010, don’t help either. These uncertainties can, in turn, affect other operating costs, such as insurance, as economic systems try to figure out ways of factoring in the disruptions.

Socially, U.S. security is likely to be increasingly affected by internal migration caused by one-off extreme events, such as hurricanes, as well as by the gradual collapse of some of the regional economies that will be badly hit by environmental disruptions. In many regions the scars from Katrina are still festering.

Politically, failed response to disasters can have enormous political repercussions. According to Matthew Dowd, President George Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 campaign: “Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public. State of the Union addresses? It didn’t matter. Legislative initiatives? It didn’t matter. P.R.? It didn’t matter. Travel? It didn’t matter. I knew when Katrina-I was like, man, you know, this is it, man. We’re done.

From a traditional security perspective, the U.S. military is not properly trained, staffed or equipped to handle extreme or multiple domestic environmental disasters, as was made evident during Katrina. And, according to the National Intelligence Council over 30 U.S. military installations are already threatened by rising sea levels.

Q: Can you talk about the geopolitical concerns raised by China’s pursuit of energy security?
CP: The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is very focused on, and often very effective at, securing resources it deems essential to national prosperity and security. It sees prosperity and security as interlinked because without much prosperity (or the the hope of prosperity), Chinese citizens may be less acquiescent to their authoritarian government.
One of the keys to that prosperity is a reliable flow of energy. Given the relative lack of domestic hydrocarbons, that means the Chinese government has had to try to lock in a broad range of energy partners. Typically, when possible China will offer country-to-country package deals incorporate long-term energy supplies. So, for example, in Africa, China might supply infrastructure, military hardware, training and international diplomatic cover in exchange for a reliable flow of oil. This form of ‘nationalistic capitalismcan mean by-passing international markets.

Geopolitically, this can mean the scything off of large economic and political blocks from the ‘West’, and include high level (including the U.N. Security Council) diplomatic - and possibly even strategic - backing for nations such as Sudan, Iran and Venezuela.

Q: If you looked at climate change purely through a geopolitical lens, what should the U.S. be worried about most today?

CP: That the U.S. will see a gradual (and in some cases sudden) erosion of economic, social and infrastructural stability that will drain the nation and leave it increasingly less able to cope with coming challenges.

Stimulus package spending is a good example. This was an opportunity to shore up the U.S.’s physical infrastructure and defenses. However little, if any, assessments were made to see if the new builds were placed in locations that would be compromised by environmental change. As a result, instead of reinforcing stability, you can end up with infrastructure that pulls people into areas that are going to become increasingly dangerous - for example along some vulnerable coasts.

There are a lot of challenges coming our way, but there is also a lot of low hanging fruit. Little things that can be done that will dramatically increase security — such as ensuring that environmental impact assessments include not only an installation’s impact on the environment, but also a changing environment’s impact on the installation. We can do this. We have to.

There is a whole suite of climate security issues that deserve greater clarity and discussion. I will explore more of them in depth as the week progresses. Meanwhile, thanks to Geoff and Cleo for kickstarting the discussion.

42 Responses to “Climate Wars”

  1. J Bowers Says:

    Africa. Out of sight and out of mind for most.

    Climate ‘is a major cause’ of conflict in Africa, by Richard Black

    Climate has been a major driver of armed conflict in Africa, research shows - and future warming is likely to increase the number of deaths from war.
    US researchers found that across the continent, conflict was about 50% more likely in unusually warm years.
    Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they suggest strife arises when the food supply is scarce in warm conditions.
    Climatic factors have been cited as a reason for several recent conflicts.

    One is the fighting in Darfur in Sudan that according to UN figures has killed 200,000 people and forced two million more from their homes.”
    Anyone read the study?

  2. C Briggs Says:

    Just to underline some points made by Geoff and Cleo:

    First, climate change does not exist on its own, it’s not some single “thing” that exists outside of society. Climate increasingly drives environmental changes, but those are also affected by existing practices and vulnerabilities.  As Cleo said, those vulnerabilities exist everywhere but are unique to each region, and intersect with climate/environmental changes in different ways in different places.

    Related to that, environmental systems underlie many other complex systems upon which we rely- agriculture is perhaps an obvious example. When we witness abrupt changes in systems (and increasingly we understand that climate and environmental systems can be highly sensitive to phase shifts), the whole security background can change. I think the term ‘threat multiplier’ can be a little misleading in this regard, because in many future scenarios we can witness not just amplification of existing threats, but wholesale new security concerns that had not existed before. The risk of Australia become a net food importer in the future is one example- it’s a security concern completely out of previous boundaries.

  3. Stephen Leahy Says:

    Doubt climate change will lead to wars between countries since impacts will cross borders. Internal conflicts guaranteed  like food riots and displacement of people.

    That said we are getting to the point where people in the least developed countries will become very, very unfriendly to those of us in the rich countries that created the problem and are doing little to prevent climate change from hammering them even harder. There’s already a term: Climate Justice.

  4. J Bowers Says:

    Stephen Healy says: “Doubt climate change will lead to wars between countries since impacts will cross borders.”

    I’m not convinced of that. Impacts may cross borders, but that also means there could be less impacted areas on the far side of a nation state which could become desirable territory to a neighbouring state that is hit worse. Throw in some historical ethnic connection and you have all the justification needed for a starving nation to rejoin their kin, even reclaim what they could see as their territory anyway.

  5. Keith Kloor Says:

    J Bowers:

    I’m not sure Darfur is the best poster child for climate security, but I’d rather have Geoff or some other expert weigh in on that.

    C Briggs:
    Good points. One of the things that struck me about Cleo’s book is that she stayed away from the term ‘climate security.’ Her frame of reference was ‘environmental change,’ if I recall, which seems to allow for a more precise analysis of a region’s security concerns.

  6. C Briggs Says:

    I give Cleo credit for keeping me on track when it comes to getting bogged down in climate discussions.

    As for places like Darfur, the conflict there existed years ago and has deep, colonial roots. An important point is that the environment was used as a weapon, which is common in conflicts, especially where livelihoods are closely tied to natural conditions. But I would be very cautious in saying that environmental conditions ’cause’ conflict, or even that conflict is the measure of insecurity- there was a very long debate on that in the 1990s. Environmental changes can cause instability, but that’s crucially distinct.

  7. Shub Niggurath Says:

    Climate security?

    You guys have all the time and money in the world, don’t you? :)

  8. Raving Says:

    “The shorthand for that nexus is climate security or energy security. Or, put another way: global warming = war.”

    Sorry, but your scope of reference is severely limited. A larger overview would be more appropriate.

  9. Geoff Dabelko Says:

    I solicited private feedback on the PNAS article on climate and conflict (J Bowers #1) and the responses from experts I trust ranged from “totally irresponsible” to “promising results.” We are pulling together a civil and accessible methods debate on New Security Beat sometime soon. But in the meantime it is important to remember that no one single factor causes conflict. So climate change may contribute to the causal mix. And it may have a large or a small contribution as an underlying condition or an immediate cause. Or it may not. But will not alone cause wars as some interpret this article to be claiming.
    Such parsing may seem basic or banal. But it translates into very real differences in policy framing. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote for the Washington Post of Darfur perhaps being the first climate conflict. Such a characterization outraged those who saw this attribution absolving the genocidal regime in Khartoum for responsibility. Overreach was the problem. Climate will not create a new class of conflict. There are lots of cooks who stir the pot.
    But the same time, the conditions have dramatically changed under which pastoralists and sedentary farmers (coinciding with different tribal/ethnic groupings) have co-existed and at times butted heads. Although a couple years old, UNEP’s Sudan Post Conflict Environmental Assessment is an excellent source for the fundamental environmental, resource access, and yes, perhaps climatic changes that have exacerbated the tensions between these groups to deadly effect.
    The bottom line is a modest proposal: include natural resource issues(whether scarcity or abundance, whether absolute or relative), in the equation of conflict and social stability. Climate change impacts should be part of that consideration but not so quickly championed or dismissed.

  10. Marlowe Johnson Says:


    On the topic of climate-energy-war I’d suggest that you try and get in touch with Thomas Homer-Dixon as he’s being studying these issues for a couple of decades…

  11. Raving Says:

    History repeats itself.

    Years ago extremists embraced eugenics to give scientific credibility to their bigoted dogma.

    Now extremists hold up AGW as an extraordinary and unprecedented danger which should override all lesser considerations.  Scientists who support such dogmatic alarmists are rewarded with prominence and lauded reputation.

  12. Keith Kloor Says:

    Geoff (9):

    Thanks for providing that context. Based on what you say-and my reading of Cleo’s book-I have to wonder if the climate security frame is really just that-a convenient political frame that people can better wrap their arms around, than, say, diffused and complex environmental changes that are due to other human influences.

    It’s as if climate security can be the umbrella that other environmental security issues fall under. To the extent that those other env security issues get increased attention, maybe that’s a good thing. Still, as we’ve seen happen with the “disaster” angle of climate change, there is a danger of overplaying that, I have to think, which would end up undermining the climate security argument. Do you agree with this, Geoff?

    For example, I don’t think AGW advocates have helped their cause by leaping on every catastrophic wildfire or flood to bang the global warming drum. Isn’t there a similar danger of that happening with climate security-such as invoking the Sudans?

  13. Keith Kloor Says:

    Marlowe (10):

    I’m quite familiar with Dixon’s work. But your suggestion is a good one-at least in terms of bringing him into the discussion.

    Unfortunately, many scholars are reluctant to engage in the blogosphere, for various reasons.  (I have no idea if this is the case with Dixon.) Even those that have blogs aren’t in the habit of engaging with their readers or commenting on other blogs. I think they simply see the blog format as a means of communicating to their colleagues.

    But I increasingly believe that the very people who seek to influence these vital policy and political debates should engage in actual dialogue and the blogosophere is a great medium for that. It’s not enough to just write op-eds and position papers. There should be much more direct engagement in a mainstream manner. (Geoff is one of the few who gets this, BTW.)

    Yes, as we saw with last week’s frenetic comment threads, such a thing can be noisy. So what. We all live with background noise, but we still carry on. I’d like to see if I can entice more scholars and scientists to jump into these kinds of bloggy debates. The blogosphere is one of the few places where such organic conversation can take place.

  14. Geoff Dabelko Says:

    Both Shub (7) and Raving (8) are brief and skeptical. Let me tweak Keith on the title of this thread, “Climate Wars,” as part of the problem in eliciting such responses and refusals to engage. Headline writers LOVE to reduce the story line to “climate wars” or “water wars.” Short sells, dramatic sells, and conflict sells. Complexity doesn’t. Cooperation doesn’t.
    And again, oversimplification carries costs. Readability and drama may be diminished, but the realities of environmental change and social phenomena such as conflict demand less reductionism. Even when stories under those banners are nuanced and sophisticated, the reader may rightly read no farther than the inflammatory headline. Or as is often the case, the simplicity of the critique of climate and security or environment and security matches the simplistic caricature of the debates.
    Water wars has the longest record of misdirection. Countries don’t fight each over water. Thanks to scholar-practitioners like Oregon State’s Aaron Wolf (and a legion of graduate students), we can be confident in making such claims. Cooperation is actually the more common interaction between states and this understanding is finally making its way into wider policy circles.
    Yet the story does not stop there. Conflict over water is intense! It just isn’t armies invading across borders. Scholars like Ken Conca (now of Maryland, soon to be at American University) sketch out the wide range of water fights within states. But the number of intentional casualties is a poor measure for severity of these diverse conflicts. But alas, the headline still appeals, this time for the advocates: “Blue Gold: World Water Wars,” the movie.

  15. Michael Tobis Says:

    Re Keith’s #12

    Joe Romm says:

    In short, get used to it.
    And remember, this is all from about a 1°F warming in the last few decades.  We are on track to see nearly 10 times that …
    In short, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
    As always, the events I focus on here in this context are the record-smashing ones, the super-duper storms:
    I don’t always agree with Joe, (I think he is, like many others, overstating the horrible but not cataclysmic Gulf oil spill) but I fail to see why highlighting events like this one could possibly be inappropriate. Actually, I did so myself.

    Nashville attained an all time record for May rainfall on May 2nd! That’s partly an odd coincidence of the calendar, of course, but to say it isn’t worthy of mention on a climate blog makes no sense to me.

    If this is a harbinger of our future (physics and modeling both say it probably is) then we ought to have our attention drawn to videos of buildings floating down the highway. It is a useful addition to the cool charts and graphs of science to see the sort of effects we expect on the ground.

    On the other hand, re #13, yes.

    the very people who seek to influence these vital policy and political debates should engage in actual dialogue and the blogosophere is a great medium for that. It’s not enough to just write op-eds and position papers. There should be much more direct engagement in a mainstream manner.

    I’d like to express enthusiastic agreement.

    Actually Homer-Dixon did try to get some discussion going on his website in a forum format, but it seems to have fizzled. He might want to examine the blog medium more closely.

  16. Keith Kloor Says:

    Geoff, I plead guilty to the dramatic headline. But I also don’t think it’s misrepresentative of the climate security meme being advanced by scholars and politicians alike.

    Also, I think it’s clear that my post and this thread is an attempt to bring nuance to the issue.  So I sort of thought of the headline as having multiple meaning. But your larger point is taken.

  17. Keith Kloor Says:

    Michael (15)

    I think that playing up every new record-breaking storm as global-warming related (not just a harbinger) is akin to exploiting a brutal summer heat wave or a 70 degree December day in NY.

    First of all, our written records go back a mere 100-150 years. So I’m not a fan of that metric, myself. In any case, Romm is quite explicit in his criticism of media for not including the global warming angle when a catastrophic flood or wildfire makes the news. (See here, for example.) 

    The climate security equivalent of this would be attributing every  conflict over natural resources to climate change.  Now just to be clear: I don’t think anybody is doing that.

    What climate security proponents are saying is that climate change will be an “accelerant” or “force multiplier.” I happen to think that’s reasonable, just not so easy to identify.

  18. Geoff Dabelko Says:

    Just a  tweak, not a broadside as you are right Keith (16) that the catchy title gets the attention. The challenge is getting folks to look past the misleading but catchy title to engage and engage broadly on the diversity found under the climate and security umbrella. 

    This thread has largely been on just the climate & conflict hypothesis and not on the broad array of other other ways security and security institutions are linked with climate.  Cleo’s work has been pioneering for example in making a strong case for breaking down false perceptions that only poor countries (re Bangladesh as best example) are highly vulnerable to climate impacts.  The wealthy by this argument will buy its way through adaptation with limited impacts.  Cleo calls it a “developed country complacency syndrome.” Yet vulnerable energy infrastructure (on the Gulf coast susceptible to sea level rise & flooding or in the far North where it is built on melting permafrost) are the types of security concerns that should get more attention.  These topics are also the stuff of climate and security debates. Josh Busby at UT-Austin for example has also been very constructive in making specific policy suggestions on how to lower this US vulnerability that pose security threats.

    And incidentally, Cleo doesn’t just focused on the US energy security vulnerability or just fossil fuels as this interview shows.

  19. Brian Smith Says:

    Feels like we are caught in a loop in the overall discussion.  First, it was environment that was going to create the great instability in the international system, so we got “environmental security.”  Then water became the focus, so we got “water security” and “water wars” as the tagline.  Food security came into the mix and now “climate security” and “energy security” (which is recycled from the 70′s).  I think that to get the conversation moving again and in a positive direction, we need to be talking in a larger picture, not in narrower piece parts.  All of the “securities” mentioned above are interconnected and represent different parts of the elephant.  The key is that on our current trajectory the current international systems is not sustainable.  States that are not sustainable, whether it is the result of natural resources, financial resources or social structures going out of balance, will become unstable.  Instability is the ultimate culprit and the issue that gets the attention of policy makers and leadership.  It is certainly the grand strategic issue for the United States and the West - keeping the current political and economic system in place and operating, bringing more of the world under the tent.

  20. Keith Kloor Says:


    Just to clarify: you are referring to the larger discussion on all this that started several decades ago, I believe. I’m sure Geoff and his colleagues would agree that all the “securities” are interconnected.

    The question I’ve been raising, perhaps too obliquely, is whether the current banner-climate security, or energy security-is up to the task of conveying those interconnections.

  21. C Briggs Says:

    Keith, in answer to your question (20) about definitions being up to the task, the short answer is : in the past, no. today, maybe.

    In the past, energy security was purely defined as security of supply, and today most people still use that approach. Find more energy resources to accommodate an ever-increasing demand. What we see now is a potential shift in how we conceptualize the topic, noting that we can’t guarantee supply without realizing how other factors come into play. Our work at the Dept of Energy was meant to show the interconnections that otherwise get lost. So, for example, when extreme heat events hit Europe or water dries up in Central Asia, power production immediately suffers and there can be cascading effects from that. If we don’t plan for those possibilities in the future (and this means charting the boundaries of possible environmental conditions) we can be highly vulnerable. As another example, recently my team has been looking at energy exports from Australia, and are grappling with the question of whether that can be balanced with a rather severe drought.

    Of course, the most visible example is in the Gulf of Mexico now. Not only was there likely an engineering failure, but a lack of imagination of what would happen to other systems (ecosystems, economic systems, etc) should a high-pressure well cap burst in a deep ocean environment. It means that our energy security cannot just be defined in terms of supply, but its interconnections back and forth with other systems.

    I admit to be often frustrated with how people define climate security. As I said above, climate is a driver of changes and a potentially critical one, but it can never be taken out of context. From an academic perspective, climate security raises questions about who is responsible for security (“We have met the enemy, and they are us.”) which is rather different from how even earlier environmental security was often seen as a relatively local issue (with credit to people like Simon Dalby for earlier pointing out how that vision was wrong). From a more practical view, we were looking at climate changes for their potential to shift conditions very abruptly, and create new security conditions were none existing before. The melting of glaciers in Peru and its consequences for residents of Lima is perhaps a good example. Very little has been done yet on security scenarios there, because it’s not on most people’s radar yet.

  22. Kate Says:

    Geoff Dabelko is Director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C. Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

    Before I begin reading I have learned to go to and search for whether the quoted organizations  have a heavy dependence on government funds.


    Saves a lot of time.

  23. Marlowe Johnson Says:

    “The question I’ve been raising, perhaps too obliquely, is whether the current banner–climate security, or energy security–is up to the task of conveying those interconnections.”


    It seems to me that the central issue here is one that lies closest to your own area of expertise; namely, whether or not the MSM is functionally capable of conveying the ‘nuance’ and ‘complexity’ that any rationale discussion of threat multipliers and climate change would entail…If not (which I think is this case) then how do we proceed?

    which i think is one of MT’s central gripes no? I realize that I’m probably coming across as a cheerleader for MT given my last few posts here, but there it is…

  24. Keith Kloor Says:

    Kate (22):
    All I can say is: wow. That’s quite an information filter you’ve developed.

    Marlowe (23):

    Depends which media you’re referring to. Newspapers, Rarely. Magazines, yes.  cable TV: definitely not. Public Radio: yes.

    So what does that leave us. Well, I think Andy Revkin does a great job conveying nuance and context at Dot Earth. Unfortunately, sometimes the folks on your side don’t like when that nuance works against them, so he gets pilloried for it.

    What I’m after here, with the direction this blog is going, is something similar to what Andy does, but with a sustained focus on one topic or issue, and an emphasis on cross-dialogue. The only way I’ll be able to pull it off, though, is if the scientists or scholars I feature participate in the conversation. And other experts join in.

    So in an effort to get at that nuance, you’ll see me devote the blog to a special topic each week. And maybe, just maybe, a lively dialogue will result in the threads. We’ll see. I’m experimenting.

  25. Steven Sullivan Says:

    [quote]Kate (22):
    All I can say is: wow. That’s quite an information filter you’ve developed.[/quote]

    Indeed.  It’s downright idiotic.  It would filter out any claims based on research funded by, say, the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.  Which is to say, most biological science in the USA.

  26. A Holland Says:

    Keith —

    Good thread of debate you’ve got going through here, including some of the best minds on the climate/environmental security field.  Dr. Briggs is right to point out the interconnectedness and complexity of the issue. 

    I’d also suggest that you get in touch with Jeff Mazo, who’s new book “Climate Conflict” was just released.  He has a full chapter about Darfur, relevent to what was written in (1) above. 

    The problem we face is that nuance doesn’t sell books, nuance certainly doesn’t get you on TV, and politicians and their staff don’t have time to get into nuanced arguements.  I’ve been approached many times by various Senator’s staff saying ‘my boss is very interested in using the climate-security argument’.  They want to use it because the concept of  ’security’ brings images of soldiers - the most respected establishment in America - and it allows you to paint an enemy - after all we wouldn’t have gone to the moon if the Soviets hadn’t put Sputnik up first. 

    Unfortunately, this leads to some distorted arguments.  The least nuanced ad I’ve seen on this issue — saying that the US’ failure to pass climate legislation = material support for Iran — was rejected by Fox News because it was “Too Confusing”  (see:  This is the political and media world we live in, and you can’t ignore it.  So long as politicians, the public, and the media live in the short-term, notions like climate security are difficult to get readers (as Geoff says above) unless you make some strong and difficult to prove linkages.  

    Personally, I think the political and economic argument that was advanced in the Stern report applies to the climate security argument best: relatively small, prudent actions now can act as insurance against the threat of potentially large and destabalising consequences — whether to security or to the economy - in the future. 

  27. Keith Kloor Says:

    A Holland (26):

    It just so happens that Jeff Mazo is on deck for tomorrow (Q & A), and Thomas Homer-Dixon is batting clean-up (Friday). So stay tuned throughout the week.

    You raise some knotty questions related to how we can discuss these issues rationally and intelligently. I think one way to foster better understanding on climate change is via discussion of case studies in prehistory, where drought and other natural climate swings played a role in state and societal change. (This is a pet interest of mine, having written a lot about SW archaeology.)

    These prehistorical cases studies are complex, in which it’s hard to tease out which was more important: cultural, environmental or climatic causes. But that may be beside the point for this discussion, for just having a grasp of this interrelationship would go a long way, I think, in helping people today make sense of climate change.

  28. A Holland Says:

    Also, I was able to pull up an example of that complicated powerpoint slide you mentioned.  You can see it at my blog:

  29. Geoff Dabelko Says:

    It is great to hear Brian and Chad jump in as long-time contributors to the environment and security discussions and more recently to climate and security debates. It is worth noting that during the mid 1990s when there was last such an upsurge in policy attention to environment and security, climate change barely registered in the debate.  A few flagged climate as an ultimate security issue - Columbia’s Marc Levy for one in his critique of Tad Homer-Dixon’s more focused work on scarcity and acute violence.

    Many will remember the big upsurge in attention in the 1990s came when journalist Robert Kaplan published “The Coming Anarchy” in the Atlantic Monthly, popularizing Homer-Dixon’s argument, claiming the environment would be THE national security issue of the 21st century, and suggesting it will succeed containment as the paradigm for reordering foreign policy.  To make a very long story short, the policy attention that argument garnered eventually fell back because the whole world was not going to become West Africa, where Kaplan set the Coming Anarchy story.  And the policy backlash against the ideas was tangible.

    In short, my caution is to avoid a rerun on climate and security. I am not speaking of the debate over the magnitude of climate impacts, but more narrowly of the social responses that may rise to the security realm.  When climate and security arguments are made with exuberant arm waving about inevitable war, chaos, chaos, 800 million “climate refugees” flowing south to north, then we are in danger of oversell and backlash. I do worry very much about its potential role in conflict and migration flows.

    But such rhetoric risks being dismissed as merely cynical tools to help get legislation passed rather than systematic analysis of potential security impacts.  It is a tightrope of flagging the threats while cautioning against overstatement. But we must perform that balancing act because the problems are expected to be bad enough without the hyperbole. We can’t afford to have the tremendous threats dismissed.

  30. Brian Smith Says:


    By way of a inadequate introduction, I have been working with Geoff D. for a number of years, but as a government contractor, you don’t get to see my name in print very often.  Did some early work with Tad Homer-Dixon on his project with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    Going to your question on whether energy security or climate security is up to the task of capturing the interconnections between the different “flavors” of security, I think that looking at any of them as the best “catch all” is self defeating.  Its not the sources of insecurity that are key, its the outcomes. 

    States that are becoming more fragile or are flat out failing may be doing so as the result of climate or energy related issues, but the window for addressing those issues may have passed.  Avoiding the outcome may come from levers that are not tied to climate or energy, but may be economic, for example.  Climate change may be tearing apart states, but a comprehensive approach to addressing green house gases will not solve the problem in my inbox, even it is the right approach for the future. 

    If one issue is not the overwhelming contributor to a undesired outcome, its tough for the policy community to consume the information and to create substantial, consistent outcomes.  Issue are far too stove-piped and tied to personalities to be effectively integrated in the bureaucratic structure that we have in our defense, diplomacy and development structures in the US.  We can’t really tease apart the different flavors of security to create something truly meaningful for a policy maker who is only going to hear the elevator speech.

    I think that there is one other aspect to the issue that needs to be addressed and it comes from looking in the mirror.  Researchers and scholars tend to take issues and focus on particular aspects of them, creating more knowledge about narrower subjects.  If as a group, we can’t take that increased knowledge and tie it together into something that an educated policy -focused audience can understand and digest so that there world view is expanded by it, then the quest to be relevant will continue to be just that - a quest.

  31. Keith Kloor Says:

    Brian (30):

    You write: “States that are becoming more fragile or are flat out failing may be doing so as the result of climate or energy related issues, but the window for addressing those issues may have passed.”

    So you got my attention with that. I’d be interested in hearing (in your opinion, of course) which states may be past the point of no return, in terms of not being helped by future actions reducing greenhouse gases. And if that window has closed for them, what do you do then: focus on containing the fallout from their failure, or go right into adaptation mode-or both, presumably.

    Which raises another question: climate advocates don’t like talking about adaptation, because they feel it undermines the urgency they say should be given to mitigation.

    But if we can all agree that much of the existing carbon load is already locked in, with the worst impacts to hit decades from now, then it seems to me that the climate security debate should revolve mostly around adaptation measures.  I’m curious if others in this thread agree with that.

  32. Stephen Leahy Says:


    I’m going to disagree that much of the carbon load is “locked in”, some is, some isn’t.

    Climate security has to involve mitigation and adaptation. After all if we get to +4C, adaptation will be “put your feet up and die” for most of the world as Oxford’s Chris West says in my coverage of the 4 degrees and beyond conf

  33. Keith Kloor Says:

    Stephen (32):

    This quote from Wallace Broecker of Columbia University’s Earth Institute sticks in my mind:

    “We’re at 387 now and we’re going up at two ppm per year. That means 450 is only 30 years away. We’d be lucky if we could stop at 550.”

  34. Marlowe Johnson Says:


    I wholeheartedly support your efforts to bring more nuance to climate-related blog discussions.  So far this thread has been excellent!

    Working with policy makers on a daily basis I can say that unfortunately the tendency is to distill everything down to a couple of powerpoint slides (as noted in the recent NY Times article).  The challenge as I see it, is how to effectively convey complex information through bureuacractic pyramids (both corporate and government) in such a way that the important nuance (i.e. details/context) isn’t lost as it goes up the chain….

  35. A Holland Says:

    Keith -

    In (31) you say that climate advocates aren’t talking about adaptation, but I would dispute that.  Maybe that was the case 5 years ago, but in my experience, everyone I’ve talked to says we need to do adaptation.  The difference, of course, is that mitigation is predominantly a national and global issue while adaptation is a very local issue (except for the money, of course). 

    I would agree with you, though, that most of the work on climate security issues should focus on adaptation, in the short-term at least.  Also, disaster response is a major focus, for example, I think the US Navy is beginning to realize that its unique sea lift capabilities are going to be in much higher demand, if climate changes bring more hurricanes.  However, if policymakers don’t go in for mitigation now, we bring in the possibility of really horrific changes, as Stephen says in (31).  A 4 degree rise will cause broad — and unpredictable - cross-cutting security threats to all levels of society around the world, and would be almost impossible to plan for.

  36. Stephen Leahy Says:

    Keith (33):
    Lucky? We better be. Going to 550ppm is risky business: 3-4 % chance of +6/7C says Pal Prestrud, director of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

    “Would you get on airplane with a three or four percent chance that it might crash?” asked Prestrud.

  37. Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> The Climate Security Conundrum Says:

    [...] issue of climate security, which a number of experts discussed on this thread, is gaining prominence in U.S. policy and political circles. But as I wrote in this story last [...]

  38. Brian Smith Says:


    Regarding your question, in my humble opinion, I would say that the states that are beyond the pale for climate change mitigation are those that have been the consistent basket cases in the bottom ranks of the HDI.  It may seem a blinding bit of the obvious, but I think we will see that bands within the HDI rankings will become more distinct as climate change really impacts on environmental conditions. 

    The southern tier of Saharan states and the northern tier of sub-Saharan states are prime examples.  Their ecosystems have been steady losing resilience and diversity over the last few decades and that has been accelerated.  Desertification taking its toll.  In a workshop that we organized for the Army Environmental Policy Institute more than 2 years ago, the issue of climate and its relationship to sustainability and stability in Africa was raised.  The response was that climate was going to exacerbate the already poor and widely varying conditions in Africa - not create new problems so much as make the current ones worse.

    Mitigation isn’t going to net much because these are not the places that are sources of the climate change - in many cases, they are the recipients and the multipliers.  Adaptation requires state capacity to implement and in most cases, they have little or none.  You need to be prepared to going into addressing the fall out from the failures in a number of cases, in part because the environmental conditions are so poor, but also because the opportunities for innovation and the organic resources for adaptation are simply missing.

  39. Cleo Paskal Says:

    Thanks Keith for starting off this important discussion. It is exactly what is needed now. And it is great to see what some of the best in the field are thinking.

    Many critical points have been raised. Just to go back to one, about whether environmental change could lead to cross-border conflict, it seems as though, much like Andrew’s Senatorial staff, many people around the world want to use the issue (or their interpretation of the issue) to advance, shall we say, preexisting conditions. This can give the appearance of causing conflict, but sometimes it is just another card that can be added to give more leverage in an existing situation.

    So, for example, at a meeting including India and Pakistan that was supposed to be about the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan instead used the platform to complain about how India was stealing its water. Hydrological reality aside, this approach was very effective for Pakistan. It derailed the Mumbai attack discussion. It whipped up anti-Indian sentiment among the population (which can lead to more support for the Army). And it distracted from the fact that a large part of the blame for the water scarcity comes from mismanagement on the Pakistan side. Would Pakistan go to war with India over water? No. But would it use it as an excuse to do what it wants to do anyway. Looks like it.

    Similarly, though from a more positive perspective, environmental issues may be added into the ‘resolution’ pot during negotiations. So, if China and India are serious about negotiating Himalayan border issues, scare water supplies may be on the table, along with other issues such as the Tibetan government in exile, support to Maoists and location of borders.

    Geopolitical relations are a complex web of attractions and repulsions, and increasingly environmental issue are being thrown in to the mix. Personally, I think many governments have yet to realise how critical the situation is, and so are indulging in these sorts of games rather than actually implementing solutions (say, in the case of Pakistan, widespread watershed rehabilitation, rainwater harvesting, etc.).

    All that said, I think in some cases there is the potential for real cross-border conflict driven almost exclusively by environmental issues. For example, around potentially shifting maritime borders in locations such as the South China Sea. In that case, though, they would likely be brief and blunt.

  40. Keith Kloor Says:

    Thanks to all for the insightful dialogue.

    If anyone has time, I would welcome your participation at a follow-up  Q & A w/ Jeff Mazo. In particular, I’m interested in hearing how useful history might be in assessing contemporary climate security threats. For instance, Jeff’s chapter on historical and prehistorical case studies is very much informed by Jared Diamond’s Collapse. But I wonder if many of you are aware of the criticisim leveled at Collapse by some archaeologists and anthropologists? (See here for example.)

    With respect to the issue of climate change analogs, I found Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming much more illuminating than Collapse. His focus is on how drought played a key role in state collapse during prehistory.

    To the extent that the contemporary climate change debate can highlight the importance of drought as a major ‘forcing’ action is a good thing, because there are projections that we may soon be experiencing some of those mega-droughts that hit during ancient times.

    Here’s Fagan near the end of his book: “Judging from the arid cycles of a thousand years ago, the droughts of a warmer future will become more prolonged and harsher. Even without greenhouse gases, the effects of prolonged droughts would be far more catastrophic today than they were even a century ago.”

    So on this note, I’d be curious to hear what history or science book especially influenced your thinking on the climate security issue. Please respond at this thread, so we may bring Jeff into the discussion. Thanks!

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