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Exploring “Climate Security” and Its Relationship to Atrocity Prevention - Part One

In October 2023, the Simon-Skjodt Center’s Sudikoff Interdisciplinary Seminar on Genocide Prevention focused on the intersection between global climate change, climate response, and mass atrocities. One question raised during the seminar was how “climate security” relates to atrocity prevention. We asked two experts on climate security to discuss. Lauren Herzer Risi is the Program Director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center, and Apurva Dave is the Director of the Climate Security Roundtable at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. All opinions offered in this piece are the personal perspectives of the authors and do not represent the viewpoint of the Wilson Center or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Lauren Herzer Risi

Lauren Herzer Risi (LHR): I look at the connection between climate change and security in two ways: First, how climate impacts interact with existing vulnerabilities to compound insecurity and second, how our responses to climate change may inadvertently introduce new threats to security. An important thing to note in both of these instances, however, is that while climate change can contribute to increased conflict, it does so indirectly.

Let’s look first at climate change’s impacts on insecurity. Climate change acts as a “risk multiplier” by interacting with the challenges that weak states and conflict-affected countries already face. These vulnerabilities can take many different shapes, including increased competition for resources like water and arable land; the disruption of food production; extreme weather undermining livelihoods and the ability to recover before the next storm hits; and threats to the viability of low-lying coastal communities. All of these stressors put additional strain on governments' ability to respond. And in places where governance is weak, where capacities are already diminished by conflict or social instability, and where resources are limited, the impacts are magnified and can feed a cycle of instability as governance is further eroded.

In our highly interconnected world, climate and conflict impacts ripple across the globe and interact in dynamic and sometimes devastating ways. When Russia’s war in Ukraine upended grain markets, for example, the impacts on food security in the Horn of Africa, which is experiencing devastating drought as a result of climate change, was catastrophic.

Apurva Dave

Apurva Dave

(AD): To me, a useful starting point for any climate security conversation is recognizing the basic truth that traditional (or "hard") security outcomes, such as instability, conflict, and violence, are often rooted in deeper “human security” challenges—that is, in structural vulnerabilities, such as poverty, inequality, corruption, and weak governance, that can unravel the social fabric and weaken the bonds that hold communities and societies together. As made evident in the most recent scientific assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there’s now very strong evidence that human-driven climate change is intensifying these societal challenges through “widespread adverse impacts” on human health and well-being, critical infrastructure, and key economic sectors. It’s also clear that the deep interdependencies that exist within and between nature and society are driving increasingly complex patterns of risks that compound and cascade across regions and sectors. Moreover, the climate risk burden is disproportionately borne by communities that are most susceptible to harm. So, while there’s still not a lot of quantitative evidence for a direct causal link between observed climate change and conflict, there is a growing understanding that these societal factors translate climate impacts into concrete security outcomes.

As Lauren notes, climate change shapes security issues largely through pathways that amplify existing socioeconomic, political, and cultural drivers of instability, conflict, and violence. I’d add that this interplay between climate and non-climate factors often goes in both directions, meaning that insecurity can also, in turn, increase vulnerability to climate change. For example, discussions at a recent National Academies workshop on Climate Security in Central America highlighted that the reinforcing effects of long-standing poverty and structural inequality, crime, corruption, and weak governance in the region have contributed to environmental decline and also made communities more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

Q: International responses to climate change have accelerated in recent years, including efforts to both mitigate and adapt to climate change and its effects. How might these responses to climate change affect security?

LHR: At the Wilson Center, we’ve termed this potential for the unintended consequences of well-intentioned climate action “backdraft.” These climate actions have implications for political, social, and economic trends that must be accounted for in their development and implementation so that they don’t inadvertently make things worse. For example, what will the renewable energy transition mean for countries whose GDP is dependent on fossil fuels? What does the race for the minerals and rare earth elements so critical to the renewable energy transition mean for the US’s relationship with China and with other mineral-producing countries in the developing world? What does the push for the energy transition mean for the 600 million people on the continent of Africa who still don’t have access to electricity? 

AD: The potential consequences of human responses or societal actions—such as greenhouse gas mitigation policies—that aim to lessen climate risks but which may inadvertently create others are critical. I’d add that “human response” also encompasses actions that are unintentional and/or taken at much smaller scales. For example, human mobility in response to a climate shock is often spontaneous, involuntary, and occurs at the household or community level, but can still aggregate into impacts felt at the societal scale. Our Central America workshop discussions highlighted that individual remittances from overseas migrants—many of whom were mobilized by compounding environmental and economic stresses—collectively account for a substantial portion of national GDPs in the region, providing an important external counterweight to endemic drivers of insecurity. 

Q: The focus of the Simon-Skjodt Center's work is mass atrocities, or large-scale, systematic violence against civilians. To what extent should we expect that the climate security challenges that you just described will vary in the context of these types of violence?

LHR: The variables might change but the core premise—that climate impacts interact with existing vulnerabilities in dynamic ways—remains constant. One of the challenges of climate change is the unpredictability of its specific impacts: we know that the frequency and severity of storms and droughts are increasing, but what that means for specific locations and communities on the ground is harder to know. And what the knock-on effects of its impacts—how those impacts interact with existing vulnerabilities, like social unrest, poverty, a pandemic, an economic crisis—is much harder to know. You can predict the dry spells in the Horn of Africa, but knowing when it’s going to lead to famine is very difficult to predict.

Taking it a step further, what a climate crisis in one community or country means for a community just over the border or a trade partner across the world, is also hard to know. It’s the specificity of the impacts that is so hard to get right and to plan for because of their cascading effects across economies and social and political stability.

AD: I think another way to phrase the question is, “Is there a general, meaningful difference between the mechanisms that connect climate change to mass atrocities vs. other violent conflicts?” I think the answer is probably no. As I’ve learned from our colleagues at the Simon-Skjodt Center, mass atrocities certainly are distinct from other categories of violence—as grossly distorted forms of social conflict, characterized by their large scale, systematic nature, and a fundamental power asymmetry between the perpetrators and their civilian victims. I’m also aware that previous work at the Simon-Skjodt Center identified some of the strongest predictors of mass atrocities—the presence of large-scale instability, exclusionary ideologies, and previous discrimination and violence—but I don’t see much evidence that these factors are shaped differently by climate change than are factors for other types of violence. 

The core climate-conflict relationship that Lauren and I have described, with climate change rarely acting as a direct driver of conflict, seems to be consistent across almost all contexts. I’ll note that one exception relates to spontaneous interpersonal violence, for which there’s actually some quantitative evidence (see here, here, and here) of a direct association between higher temperatures and increased aggression. 

In part two of our conversation with Lauren and Apurva, they will discuss what these complex dynamics should mean for policy action to address climate-related risks of mass atrocities.