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World not prepared for climate conflicts - security experts

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 28 April 2011 16:18 GMT

Analysts say fresh thinking is needed to tackle the risks of violence from climate change and resource scarcity

LONDON (AlertNet) - Accelerating climate change and competition for limited supplies of water, food and energy are poised to ignite long-simmering conflicts in fragile states, monopolising the world's military resources and hampering development efforts, security experts say.

Defusing these new 21st century conflicts – or at least preparing governments and citizens to cope with them – will require a broad range of innovative interventions, a gathering at Britain's Department for International Development (DFID) heard earlier this month.

Mitigation measures include borrowing business risk-management strategies, getting military officials to talk publicly about the constraints they face, building capable institutions in unstable countries, and ensuring billions in climate aid go to the right places and aren't lost to corruption, experts said.

Putting the right strategies in place will require bringing together disparate groups – economists, military strategists, aid workers – and working out fresh approaches to the emerging problems, they said.

Climate change and resource scarcity are "setting a new challenge that we are not very good yet at handling", said Dan Smith, secretary general of International Alert and one of the organisers of the "Dialogue on Climate Change, Conflict and Effective Response".

In Yemen, for example, severe water shortages – the result of water mismanagement and changing climatic conditions – are hurting crop production and feeding into growing political strife that could unseat longtime ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and even break the country apart.

The pressures have important military implications, not least because Saleh has cooperated with Washington to dismantle an arm of Al Qaeda in Yemen, and because food and water shortages appear to be contributing to recent violence.


Worsening climate impacts and resource shortages could similarly aggravate simmering conflicts from Pakistan to fragile regions like the Niger River basin, which includes parts of Mali, Niger and Nigeria, said Smith, whose independent organisation works on peace and conflict issues.

"Twenty-first century conflict will be different from 20th century conflict, and our institutions are set up for 20th century conflict," he warned.

One problem with dwindling resources, experts at the discussion noted, is that they push countries to put their own needs first, making them less likely to cooperate with neighbours and more likely to conflict with them. Resulting political tensions make international institutions less effective, just when they are most needed to tackle international problems like climate change.

Another problem countries face is growing uncertainty stemming from climate change. There could be potential "tipping points" that threaten to abruptly increase sea level or global temperatures, or wipe out food crops, forcing up prices.

Countries – particularly fragile ones – need to develop greater resilience and capacities to deal with unexpected problems, the security experts said. That usually involves things like creating state institutions that work and giving people new skills.

"Understanding how to strengthen national institutions is crucial," said Neil Bird, a researcher on environmental policy and international funding mechanisms at the London-based Overseas Development Institute.


But money to help countries prepare – including a planned $100 billion a year for climate-vulnerable nations by 2020 – could miss those that need it most precisely because they don't have capable institutions in place to handle the funds in a transparent and accountable way.

Fragile states could end up as "climate finance orphans", Bird warned.

Addressing all these looming problems will require a high degree of innovation, as well as input from diverse fields, the experts said. Business people and market traders, for instance, are usually good at assessing risk and hedging things like commodity prices – skills politicians and others may need to adopt too.

Persuading military officials to "tell the world what they cannot do, even if they have a gazillion-pound defence budget" may also be useful, Smith said. They may be best placed to explain how spending on climate mitigation and adaptation could be cheaper and more effective than trying to control resource-driven conflicts or large-scale environmental migration further down the line, he added.

Both rich and poor countries have a stake in limiting conflict driven by climate change and resource scarcity, not least because it will likely be costly to lives, budgets and development efforts, the security experts said.

Climate change, together with associated shortages of food, water and energy, "are one of the gravest threats to our security and prosperity", warned Sarah Cullum, head of the climate change and energy group at Britain's Foreign Office.

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