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

Arid Sahel landscape in Nouna, Burkina Faso, West Africa. 18 February 2021. Jake Lyell / Alamy Stock Photo

We continue our conversation (read Part One here) with Lauren Herzer Risi and Apurva Dave about climate change, climate security, and mass atrocity prevention. 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.

Q: You’ve both described the connection between climate change and mass atrocities as complex, indirect, and variable across different places. Can you illustrate these points by discussing any particular case?

Lauren Herzer Risi (LHR): Today, climate’s most immediate impacts are being felt in parts of the world least ready to respond. We’ve seen this playing out in headlines over the last decade—take the crisis in Syria, for example. This was one case where climate’s connection to the conflict was boldly proclaimed in headlines. Those headlines caught a lot of people’s attention, which was good for raising awareness. But, while headlines are great for getting attention, they’re less great at helping us understand what is really going on—how climate change is actually driving risk. But a closer look at the sequence of events leading up to the uprising illustrates one way climate change can interact with existing vulnerabilities and bad policy to the point of contributing to a major humanitarian crisis and violent conflict.

In 2007, a three-year climate-induced drought in Syria led to the collapse of crops and livestock in the northeastern bread-basket region of the country. Coupled with the regime’s poor governance of water access, the drought drove migration to cities that were already burdened by Iraqi refugees. In 2010, internally displaced persons and Iraqi refugees made up roughly 20 percent of Syria’s urban population—a 50 percent increase in just eight years—straining the limited resources and deteriorating infrastructure. Against this backdrop of hardship and rural and urban discontent, the Arab Spring, which itself was sparked in part by a drought in Russia that led to sharp increases in global food prices, was beginning to sweep across the region. In March 2011, peaceful protests broke out, Assad’s regime responded by torturing youthful protesters, and anger spread. And what had previously been considered an unlikely uprising began to take shape.

Climate change is an important piece of the Syrian story, but so are the decades of poor water resource management that compounded the drought’s impacts and the strain on cities caused by people forcibly displaced by conflict elsewhere. Francesca De Chatel has argued that focusing on the role of climate change in the conflict is an “unhelpful distraction” that provides an opportunity for the Assad regime to obfuscate responsibility by pointing to external factors (that is, the drought) as the cause. As we analyze climate-related risks, clarity is key.

Apurva Dave (AD): While the climate-conflict relationship may not vary much from one context to another, the structural vulnerabilities that interact with climate certainly do—and I think that these should probably be the main focus of any analysis of mass atrocity risk. Given that socioeconomic, cultural, and political drivers exert a far greater influence on conflict risk than climate change does, it seems most useful to just acknowledge that there is a general association between climate change and violence, that it’s complex, and then focus on unraveling that complexity in context-specific ways. 

Lauren’s Syria example illustrates this approach by focusing on the ways in which a climate hazard (prolonged drought) compounded existing stresses created by authoritarian governance, inequality, demographic pressures, long-standing ethnic and religious rivalries, and civil unrest, to push Syrian society into a massive armed conflict and civil war. The resulting mass executions, torture, starvation sieges, and indiscriminate bombings of populated areas stemmed from the government’s brutal attempts to crush dissent and retain power amid widespread protests and armed rebellion. As Lauren notes, climate change needs to be part of this type of analysis, not because it singly causes mass atrocities, but because there is accumulating evidence that it is a key contributing factor and can’t be dismissed as what climate experts label an “externality”—that is, something that occurs without any impact on risk factors for conflict and mass atrocities. 

Q: Does the intersection between climate security and atrocity prevention extend to policy efforts to address climate security? That is, should we expect that successful efforts to promote climate security will also succeed in preventing climate change from exacerbating mass atrocities?

LHRIn an ideal world, yes. If done right, investments in climate action are investments in peace, and investments in peacebuilding are investments in climate resilience. We can’t have a climate resilient world without peace; and we can’t have peace without a climate resilient world. At its core, it’s about governance, which is admittedly not a particularly helpful statement, but can be a helpful reminder that decisions made in silos (whether climate-related, security-related, or other) at a minimum neglect potential co-benefits, and worse, can have unintended consequences. 

AD: I love Lauren’s comment about the reciprocating effects of a peaceful world and a climate resilient world. A basic truth seems to be that, if instability, conflict, and violence are rooted in social fracturing, and climate risks are amplified by social fragility, then policies that strengthen societal resilience can substantially reduce insecurity in all its forms. 

That said, I think the question of whether broader climate security efforts can also effectively address mass atrocity risk really comes down to how effectively they can address local societal contexts. As Lauren notes, climate change acts as a threat multiplier, interacting with non-climate stressors and underlying social, economic, and political conditions of vulnerability that enable violence against civilians. This vulnerability—and the solutions to it—will be strongly place-based, so I wouldn’t expect that solutions that aren’t tailored to specific places would be successful. 

Q: Both of you work at the intersection between research and policy on these topics. For policy makers focused on preventing mass atrocities and violent conflict, what's one thing about the intersection between climate change, climate security, and mass atrocities that you'd like to see policy makers emphasize in the coming year?

LHR: I’d like to answer this question with a question. How can preventing mass atrocities best be integrated into climate responses? If understanding that mitigating conflict and building climate resilience are two sides of the same coin, what tools are there in the relevant communities of practice that can be brought to bear on climate resilience efforts? Finding an answer can—and should—inform how climate responses are developed.

Another question is finding a place for climate up front in these discussions. Can efforts to prevent mass atrocities yield better climate resilience even if climate resilience isn’t an explicit objective of those efforts? For example, Mercy Corps has found that by strengthening social and institutional systems and conflict-management skills, the effects of climate and other environmental shocks can be mitigated.

Q: Climate change is forcing us to think differently about what constitutes security. What kinds of updates do we need now to analyze risk and develop responses to reflect the new risks we’re facing? And what lessons can be brought to bear from those researchers focused on preventing mass atrocities to this larger context? 

AD: I don’t see an obvious reason why entirely separate policy approaches would be needed to address climate-related risks for mass atrocities vs. for security broadly. Again, the underlying premise remains the same—that climate interacts with other societal stressors and vulnerabilities. So, policy actions that strengthen the foundations of societal resilience—effective governance, robust institutions, social welfare, climate adaptation, disaster preparedness—should substantially address both climate security and mass atrocity prevention needs. 

That said, effective policy solutions could also specifically address risk factors for mass atrocities (instability and exclusionary ideologies). These could include support for inclusive governance and rule of law, investments in equitable socioeconomic development and poverty reduction, and reconciliation efforts to heal past divisions and prevent renewal of violence. From the viewpoint of analyzing risks to U.S. national security interests, effective policy solutions could strengthen assessment and anticipation of mass atrocity risk, through exchange of data, knowledge, and expertise; improvement of research and modeling tools and approaches; and development of indicators and early warning capabilities.