Environment At War

Climate change presents a whole slew of new security concerns says Richard Matthew.
By: /
May 22, 2012

Despite 20 years of experimentation with sustainability, the human forcing of global environmental change (GEC) is taking place at an unprecedented pace and scale

Recent analyses of GRACE satellite data by James Famiglietti and his team, for example, have identified alarming rates of groundwater depletion worldwide. These rates spell the demise of vast reservoirs of water – upon which agricultural economies from Pakistan to California depend – within decades. In the U.S., the National Research Council is poised to release a report on the security implications of hydrological change in the Hindu Kush/Himalaya region – a region that provides freshwater to three billion people. The fifth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will likely conclude that adverse climate-change effects are widespread and worsening, and that the next decade will be a crucial period for the security and welfare of many regions of the planet.

The key elements of GEC are highly interactive. They include climate change, disruptions to the planet’s hydrological cycle, and biodiversity loss. The social and environmental impacts of changes in these complex, coupled systems can be non-linear, making them hard to predict and manage. This poses a significant challenge for the world’s large natural-resource based economies, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, and Russia. They are at once the perpetrators and the victims of GEC.

Throughout history, analysts have recognized that every society’s security and welfare is linked in part to its geography, climate, and resource endowment. This line of inquiry accelerated after the 1987 publication of Our Common Future, a report documenting the extent of GEC and laying the foundations for a planetary commitment to sustainable development. The first wave of post-1987 analysis, led by scholars such as Thomas Homer-Dixon, was largely informed by a traditional understanding of national security as a domain focused on war and peace. The end of the Cold War, however, challenged this traditional understanding and opened the door to rethinking security, an opening that many analysts of GEC welcomed.

The outcome of all of this has been a growing body of evidence that suggests that GEC has an impact on conventional issues of war, state failure, and national elements of power, and also on new formulations of security including human, global, and ecological security. GEC displaces people, threatens public health, undermines livelihoods and economic development, raises the costs of disasters, and introduces uncertainty, misperception, and fear into a society. Trust in government declines, resources are diverted to disaster response, social stability weakens, and affected populations resort to unsustainable survival behaviour and express their grievances through riots and crime. Although academic debates continue, considerable statistical research by analysts such as Solomon Hsiang has shown very compelling correlations between GEC and various security issues, including violent conflict. Competing research, by scholars such as Aaron Wolf, that finds GEC triggering innovation and co-operation, remains compelling, but is informed by a past world of few states, a much smaller population, and mainly very local forms of environmental change – it is informed, in other words, by a world that no longer exists and may not be comparable to the world we live in today.

Human ingenuity, of course, has not disappeared and over time we may innovate solutions to GEC. But this is not likely to happen as quickly as needed. In the next decade we should be prepared to address significant human and national security threats amplified, triggered or created by GEC.

The implications of GEC for militaries are enormous. Militaries may have to operate in highly challenging environments – droughts, floods, storms, and fires – which will require new equipment and procedures. They may have to confront violence fuelled not by ideological differences, crazed leaders, or geopolitics, but by high food prices, water shortages, disease outbreaks, and other types of human misery and despair, which will require new understanding. They may be asked to intervene in costly, messy situations where there are few prospects for a happy or decisive resolution, which will require a new sense of the end game.

These situations will occur at home and abroad. At home, Canada may face severe droughts in the Prairie provinces, coastal intrusions of pirates and pollution, a global scramble to access resources (and perhaps experiment with geo-engineering) in the Arctic, and breakdowns in urban infrastructure. Abroad, it may be asked to assist in dealing with famines, epidemic disease outbreaks, disasters, economic crises, civil wars, and state failures. Given its small population, its enormous stocks of energy, water, and land, and its global identity as a climate-change criminal, Canada could also become a symbol of anger and frustration, and see its international reputation blacken.

There is a great deal Canada can do to position itself for future challenges, and to refurbish its global identity as a middle power committed to peace, human rights, and sustainable development.

It should deepen its engagement with African and South Asian countries, where its bilingual culture, demographic diversity, natural-resource technologies, and middle-power status confer great advantage. Instead of scaling down its presence throughout Africa, it should maintain and increase it, perhaps building a new embassy in South Sudan.

It should position itself as a nation that can help developing countries exploit natural resources sustainably, using clean technologies, fair labour practices, and effective rehabilitation programs. Especially for countries rebuilding from war and disaster, there are few opportunities to engage with best practices, and many for them to be exploited by shifty coalitions of expensive capital and harmful technology. Don’t retreat from the challenges of Afghanistan – embrace and help resolve them.

Canada should think strategically about the next wave of extraction at home – how can it bring its vast resources of water and energy into a hungry global market in a sustainable way? Make the debate over headline-grabbing issues like tar sands development transparent.

It should train its military for the disaster response and humanitarian operations of the future, and also develop the technologies, goods, and services a world of chaos and breakdown will need. Haiti is still a disaster; step up and help change this.

Finally, Canada should refresh its identity as a force of good, making it clear to the world that it is deeply committed to the values, practices, and technologies of sustainability, and that innovation along these fronts takes place at the provincial level – as it does in the U.S. – for constitutional reasons. What the world sees most are the modest contributions, opaque rhetoric, and handwringing of the federal government. But the sustainable practices of Vancouver or the energy efficiency of a province like Quebec, which are truly remarkable, are largely invisible. It is time for Ottawa and Quebec City – and Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax – to leave the fractious politics of the 1960s, and become relevant to the politics of the new millennium.

GEC matters to Canada, and in dealing with its own challenges, Canada can also become a world leader, a role it has shied away from on issues like Afghanistan, R2P, and immigration, but should consider embracing now.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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