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Weathering Severe Climate and Conflict

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the potential for climate change to cause conflict around the world. Even the United States has taken the threat seriously. The Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008 requires that the Director of National Intelligence prepare a “national intelligence estimate on the anticipated geopolitical effects of global climate change and the implications of such effects” on U.S. national security.

Now the academic community is reassessing the nature of the threat. New research on the interaction between climate change and conflict suggests that cooperation and accommodation are more probable outcomes than global mayhem. Ragnhild Nordås, a researcher at Norway’s International Peace Research Institute (IPRI), says, “Based on current knowledge, our judgment is that climate change in and of itself will only have a marginal effect on armed conflict, if any at all.”

A study of past natural disasters and past conflicts casts doubt on the existence of a causal link between resource depletion and generalized conflict, according to Nils Petter Gleditsch, also of the IPRI, who discussed his findings at Washington D.C.’s Georgetown University.

Take the issue of migration. Some have posited that rising sea levels would cause dramatic displacement of populations, causing refugee problems. But Gleditsch’s study found that because extreme drought conditions or rising sea levels will probably take place gradually, they “are not likely to provoke massive emigration over the short-term.” Consequently, governments and receiving communities will have time to prepare for migration.

Moreover, he notes that sudden migration caused by disasters such as Hurricane Mitch, which slammed into Central America in 1998, Hurricane Katrina, and the Asian tsunami, did not lead to widespread violence or crime, although they may have led to some random looting.

In fact, resource scarcity can have the opposite effect, it “could even stimulate cooperation,” Gleditsch writes in his study. He cites data showing that, in the past, partnership—not conflict—has been the norm in dealing with shortages, such as limited water resources. However, this requires adequate dispute resolution mechanisms, property rights, and the ability to enforce agreements, he acknowledges. That’s why well-organized states, such as Botswana, are able to manage crises successfully.

Gleditsch also advocates planning ahead. Governments should create policies that induce people to move away from high-risk areas, such as flood plains. Local communities should be encouraged to adopt water and soil conservation practices. International organizations like the United Nations and NATO should seek ways to help weak developing countries prepare for the worst.

Whether Gleditsch is right about the future depends on whether he is correct in assuming that leaders will react to future climate-change challenges much as they have to more temporary disturbances in the past. Yet a worsening climate could trigger extreme behaviors.

Ominously, even Gleditsch found a strong statistical relationship between civil conflict and refugee migration, particularly when the refugees are fleeing regions already in conflict. If it does not happen slowly or if governments do not use the time wisely to prepare, mass migration could destabilize even relatively well-run societies.

Worse, the regions most at risk are not run well. Authoritarian and corrupt rulers predominate in Africa and Asia, the continents most likely to be impacted by weather shifts. Governments that do not respond to the needs of their populations are the least likely to implement reforms.

It will be interesting to see how the DNI weighs these competing factors in the national intelligence estimate.