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Part of: Conflict and climate change
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Climate-security as agent provocateur

by Katie Harris | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Saturday, 18 February 2012 23:40 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Katie Harris

I want to take you back to 2007. Margaret Beckett was UK Foreign Secretary and chairing a United Nations Security Council debate. Instigated by the UK, this was the first Security Council debate to link security to climate change.

In the five years since Beckett stood before the Security Council, the topic of “climate-security” has been bounded around in all manner of debates.  It has been seized by government agencies, thinktanks, NGOs and the media. For some it is a “quick and dirty” way to grab the attention of those who are not normally interested in climate change, those who see it as a distant concern, of no concern of theirs, or simply a barrier to economic growth.

In many ways, framing climate change as a security issue has helped to raise awareness of its critical importance. It may even have contributed to increased policy traction.

But it is a dangerous tactic to gain popular attention. First, for those who want to identify the possible connections between a changing climate and the potential for increased violent conflict, nuance is key (as un-sexy as that may be). Second, it is unwise to promote such a narrative, given the role of perceptions in conflict. It is not, as conflict and security folk would say, “conflict sensitive”.

Take the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territory) as an example. Evidence shows that perceptions matter. As an International Institute for Sustainable Development report argues, “in the context of continuing distrust and political tension it is possible to imagine that allocations of resources could become increasingly tense. Control over them may become perceived as an increasingly key dimension of national security, and resource scarcity could be a pretext for their greater militarisation”.

Using a play on words, Betsy Hartmann has coined the phrase “operation enduring narrative” to reflect the continued presence of the climate-security debate. Indeed, climate-security is being taken up by the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague as well as the UK’s Ministry of Defence.

I want to stress that we must take seriously the challenges that climate change may present for security, the sharing of scarce natural resources and possible impacts on patterns of migration and food security. That said, I’m arguing that we need a more cautious approach to how we understand the role of climate change in such dynamics, and more caution in how we treat the issue overseas.

In many parts of the world that have had the “climate-security” spotlight shone on them, climate change is unlikely to be the biggest thing affecting their immediate security. I’m referring specifically to those places currently experiencing violent conflict.

So yes, it is important to recognise the need to act now on climate change, but we must do so in a way that helps us get a better handle on how we can support communities that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and conflict in ways that are positive, proactive and meaningful. As with many  other factors affecting peace and security, good governance is required to create the right institutional environment to handle tensions and conflict in peaceful ways.


The water sector, for example, has led the way in showing how, with the right support, contested water sources can foster peace through cross-border cooperation. The Good Water Neighbors project is one such example.

Working with 25 neighbouring communities from Israel, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territory, the project has turned wise use of water into an entry point to promote cooperation, create trust, increase willingness to cooperate and change attitudes. While long-term sustainable change requires the support of wider governance and political systems, this has been at least a first step at the local level.

The climate-security narrative continues to be pushed forward in 2012, without enough focus on the opportunities for collaboration, cooperation and negotiation that are vital to avoid the very doomsday scenarios that are being promoted.

Yet, as my recent ODI report shows, it is welcome news that the UK government is maintaining its focus on the need to promote good governance, address the underlying causes of conflict and support communities at risk of climate change and conflict through the Department for International Development (DFID).

To date, DFID funds for climate change are being delivered through the usual array of development channels, rather than being diverted to those more commonly associated with security and military interventions. Whether this will continue depends on how the climate-security narrative plays out this year – and the influence of new dialogue around issues from everything from the role of climate change in the Arab Spring to Arctic security.

Katie Harris works on conflict and climate change issues for the London-based Overseas Development Institute.