Global Warming and Conflicts: About Myth and Reality of Climate Wars

In 2007, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon, underlined that global warming is likely to “become a major driver for war and conflict”. On 17 April 2007 the UN Security Council held its first ever session on climate change. In the same year, the US Senator Olympia Snowe compared the security importance of man-made climate change for the US with the terrorist attacks on the Word Trade Centre. 2007 is considered to be a turning point in the debate, and since then, the security implications of global warming have been intensely discussed, sometimes leading to concrete policy implications. One example can be found in Great Britain, where a Special Envoy for Climate Security was appointed.
But what is the empirical truth and the political intention beyond all these statements? When looking at the debate about the link between climate change and conflicts one must differentiate between two different levels.
On the one hand, there is the question how the interplay between climate change and its security implications will shape up. Without any doubt, climate change affects the livelihood of humans and thus contributes to the exacerbation of existing conflicts, for example in Darfur or the Middle East, as the Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms. But the concrete causal link between increasing temperatures and conflicts, as well as its interactions with other factors such as population growth, remain contested. While some argue that climate change alone can be a cause of war – as for example in the controversial book “Klimakriege” (climate wars) by the German social scientist Harald Welzer – there seems to be a growing consensus that climate change mostly acts as a threat multiplier. Some voices in the debate even say that a degrading resource base should and will force states to cooperate on a global and regional level.
In addition to the debate about the exact link between climate change and conflict, this debate itself deserves attention – an aspect whose importance is often underestimated. Since the end of the Cold War, militaries have sought new basis for legitimisation. The implications of climate change for national security are a welcome point of reference in that context. Positively seen, this development leads to increasing attention and eventually even more resources for the fight of global warming. One example is the statement of the US Senator mentioned above. Traditionally, climate change ranks relatively low in US public opinion polls asking people which is the most pressing issue in their opinion, in particular compared to terrorism. The “discursive link” made between the security impacts of climate change and those of terrorism, meaning to compare the security impact of climate change to the security threat resulting from terrorism, could enhance the awareness for climate change. However, it is more than questionable if armed forces and a military logic are appropriate reactions to the challenge of global warming.
What does this mean? To emphasize the influence of climate change on conflicts is, per se, neither negative nor positive. Of central importance is how this link is presented. It makes a tremendous difference if actors underline the implications of climate change for national security and propose, for instance, to adapt the military and consider scenarios of closing US borders against climate induced migration(1) or if the influence of climate change on conflicts is considered to be a global issue, with the strengthening of the United Nations as the appropriate response(2). These two examples do not mean that the debate in the US is entirely “bad” and the German one could function as a positive example; they are only an illustration of the different directions that the discourse can take. They should serve as a reminder that more attention for climate change should not be pursued at all price, especially not if it leads to “militarizing the environment rather than greening the military” as the political scientist Käkönen already feared in 1994(3).
Footnote
1)As it is done in a report by US militaries called ‘National Security and the Threat of Climate Change’ (2007), http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/National%20Security%20and%20the%20Threat%20of%20Climate%20Change.pdf [30 March 2011].
2)WBGU (2007) ‘Welt im Wandel: Sicherheitsrisiko Klimawandel‘, http://www.wbgu.de/fileadmin/templates/dateien/veroeffentlichungen/hauptgutachten/jg2007/wbgu_jg2007.pdf
3) Cited after Trombetta, Maria Julia (2008) ‘Environmental Security and Climate Change: Analysing the Discourse’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 21 (4), 585-602.

In 2007, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon, underlined that global warming is likely to “become a major driver for war and conflict”. On 17 April 2007 the UN Security Council held its first ever session on climate change. In the same year, the US Senator Olympia Snowe compared the security importance of man-made climate change for the US with the terrorist attacks on the Word Trade Centre. 2007 is considered to be a turning point in the debate, and since then, the security implications of global warming have been intensely discussed, sometimes leading to concrete policy implications. One example can be found in Great Britain, where a Special Envoy for Climate Security was appointed.

But what is the empirical truth and the political intention beyond all these statements? When looking at the debate about the link between climate change and conflicts one must differentiate between two different levels.

On the one hand, there is the question how the interplay between climate change and its security implications will shape up. Without any doubt, climate change affects the livelihood of humans and thus contributes to the exacerbation of existing conflicts, for example in Darfur or the Middle East, as the Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms. But the concrete causal link between increasing temperatures and conflicts, as well as its interactions with other factors such as population growth, remain contested. While some argue that climate change alone can be a cause of war – as for example in the controversial book “Klimakriege” (climate wars) by the German social scientist Harald Welzer – there seems to be a growing consensus that climate change mostly acts as a threat multiplier. Some voices in the debate even say that a degrading resource base should and will force states to cooperate on a global and regional level.

In addition to the debate about the exact link between climate change and conflict, this debate itself deserves attention – an aspect whose importance is often underestimated. Since the end of the Cold War, militaries have sought new basis for legitimisation. The implications of climate change for national security are a welcome point of reference in that context. Positively seen, this development leads to increasing attention and eventually even more resources for the fight of global warming. One example is the statement of the US Senator mentioned above. Traditionally, climate change ranks relatively low in US public opinion polls asking people which is the most pressing issue in their opinion, in particular compared to terrorism. The “discursive link” made between the security impacts of climate change and those of terrorism, meaning to compare the security impact of climate change to the security threat resulting from terrorism, could enhance the awareness for climate change. However, it is more than questionable if armed forces and a military logic are appropriate reactions to the challenge of global warming.

What does this mean? To emphasize the influence of climate change on conflicts is, per se, neither negative nor positive. Of central importance is how this link is presented. It makes a tremendous difference if actors underline the implications of climate change for national security and propose, for instance, to adapt the military and consider scenarios of closing US borders against climate induced migration(1) or if the influence of climate change on conflicts is considered to be a global issue, with the strengthening of the United Nations as the appropriate response(2). These two examples do not mean that the debate in the US is entirely “bad” and the German one could function as a positive example; they are only an illustration of the different directions that the discourse can take. They should serve as a reminder that more attention for climate change should not be pursued at all price, especially not if it leads to “militarizing the environment rather than greening the military” as the political scientist Käkönen already feared in 1994(3).

Footnote

1)As it is done in a report by US militaries called ‘National Security and the Threat of Climate Change’ (2007), http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/National%20Security%20and%20the%20Threat%20of%20Climate%20Change.pdf [30 March 2011].

2)WBGU (2007) ‘Welt im Wandel: Sicherheitsrisiko Klimawandel‘, http://www.wbgu.de/fileadmin/templates/dateien/veroeffentlichungen/hauptgutachten/jg2007/wbgu_jg2007.pdf

3) Cited after Trombetta, Maria Julia (2008) ‘Environmental Security and Climate Change: Analysing the Discourse’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 21 (4), 585-602.