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Academia takes on 'Climate change and Security'

Starting in August 2009 Jürgen Scheffran will take on a professorship for "Climate Change and Security" as part of the Excellence Initiative "Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction" (CliSAP) at the KlimaCampus of the Universität Hamburg. Leaving his position as Assistant Director for Education at the Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Jürgen Scheffran will hence lead the efforts to fill remaining research gaps in a field of increasingly political relevance. The editors of the ECC-platform took the chance to talk with him about his new position.

ECC: Mr. Scheffran, in the summer of 2009 you will take on a professorship at the University of Hamburg, on the topic of "Climate Change and Security". This is the first of its kind in Germany – is this a sign that the threat of climate change has finally made the agenda of foreign- and security policy and research, or will this position simply serve to uncover further facets of climate change research?

Jürgen Scheffran (JS): It would be surprising if a world shaking development such as global warming had no significant implications for security policy. This new field of research investigates the mutual connections between climate change and security, making an integrated approach indispensible. Security and climate research offer different perspectives, scientific methods and solution concepts that can complement each other. The term climate security is rather new and includes impacts on national and international security as well as the implications for human and ecological security, depending on who or what is affected. An extended and comprehensive understanding of security stands in contrast to a narrow meaning that would identify climate change primarily as a threat to national security and see military instruments as adequate for coping with the climate crisis.

In a climate that triggers a cycle of environmental degradation, economic decline, social unrest and political instability, violence may indeed become more likely. Conflicts may spread to neighbouring states, for example through refugee and resource flows or arms exports, which can destabilize regions and overstretch governance structures. However, researchers need to be careful not to oversimplify the climate-security nexus by drawing a direct path from climate change to war, as if this is unavoidable. While climate-related shocks may add stress to the world’s existing conflicts, this impact will be hard to single out among a set of other conflict factors. There have been exaggerated statements in the past about water wars while in reality there have been more agreements on water than conflicts over it. It is also important to focus not only on threat analysis but to pay attention also to a possible positive coupling of constructive and solution-oriented climate and security policies, which would mutually enforce each other.

ECC: What are your research priority topics over the next few years? Where do we need more knowledge in order to define the risks of future violent conflicts or even wars?

JS: There is a great need for research because the link between climate change and security is far from being understood. Historical studies can provide some lessons of how human civilization was challenged by changing climatic conditions, which in some cases contributed to violent clashes and the disappearance or movement of human populations. We do not know what the global temperature change projected by the IPCC for the coming decades will do to our societies and how these will respond. Rather than waiting until it is too late, we need to understand in advance which climate risks we can still prevent and for which we have to be prepared. A better assessment now can save millions of lives and billions of Euros later.

The task however, is not easy since the world is facing a complex interaction between climate stress, environmental change, human responses and societal instability. There are many possible pathways to conflicts, and societal instability can appear in various forms, including famines, poverty and refugees, crime and corruption, irregular power transfers, institutional failure and governments lacking legitimacy, riots, civil unrest and violent clashes, armed rebellion and terrorist activity, civil war and interstate war. Finding conditions under which climate change leads to violent conflict or possibly to more cooperation is one research priority. A key challenge and priority for research is to find ways to slow down and stabilize the climate dynamics to levels that avoid the breakup of natural and social systems and allow these systems to adapt. Along the way there are many decision points that can be influenced by policies in several ways. Identifying these decision points and developing strategies that avoid risk escalation is an important research priority. Different research tools can be applied here, including case-based narratives and causal path analysis, surveys and statistical methods, as well as computer modelling and GIS-based visualization.

While a better theoretical understanding can help to guide research questions, it will be essential to study and compare the potential security impacts of climate change on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the different vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities across the world’s regions. How will increasing water scarcity in the Middle East affect conflict and cooperation in this region? How will draughts and food insecurity in the African Sahel zone affect the conflict in Darfur? Where will climate refugees from further flooding in Bangladesh move and what are the consequences? How will the melting of glaciers affect regional water distribution in Central Asia and Latin America? Analysis of these and other such cases can help develop an early warning system against climate-induced security risks and conflicts.

ECC: Over the last few years, you have taught and researched in the US. What significance does the question of climate and security have there – in the research and policy arenas?

JS: The United States has a long tradition of climate change research and many of the world’s leading climate researchers are located here. The recent series of reports by the US Climate Change Science Program covers a wide range of issues. However, climate change has long been neglected in US politics and the public at large, and climate science was not always well received, in particular under the Bush Administration, which tried to pressure critical climate scientists and postponed progress both in national climate action and international climate negotiations. The situation began to change when hurricane Katrina hit the Southern coat of the US, the price of oil soared and Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth“ received wide attention throughout the country. Local and regional coalitions for climate protection and energy security emerged across the US.

In 2007, when the IPCC report appeared, the climate debate became increasingly securitized. The UN Security Council discussed climate security for the first time, and several reports on climate security appeared, for example by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. A blue-ribbon panel of retired admirals and generals characterized climate change as a "threat multiplier" in already fragile regions of the world, who could become breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism and thus an issue for US national security. Additionally, the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC and Al Gore was a major issue in the US media.

ECC: Is the topic of "Climate and Security" thus included in the transatlantic climate talks? With the new administration, there is a new dynamic on the horizon of the international climate policy debate – does that also apply for the debate on possible security implications of climate change?

The Obama administration pays more attention to avoiding climate change, which offers great promises for a breakthrough in the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of the year. It also offers opportunities for a new transatlantic dialogue and joint action with the European Union, which has developed a more progressive and proactive approach. Being among the world’s largest emitters, the US and Europe have a special responsibility for tackling the common threat of global warming. The devastating impacts of Katrina in 2005, which destabilized a whole region, as well as the 2003 heat wave in Europe demonstrated that not only poor countries are vulnerable to climate change but the world’s richest nations as well. The latter are not protected against climate disasters and long-term environmental changes in other parts of the world, such as harvest losses, floods, droughts, sea-level rise and mass migrations. In addition, there is the risk that climate change could trigger an increasing struggle for the world’s resources that could adversely affect relationships among the major powers. Such a possibility was brought up recently regarding Arctic resources, which are now made more easily accessible due to melting ice. As the recent economic crisis vividly demonstrates, large-scale disruptions in a globalized world affect everyone and require global responses. Developing new cooperative approaches and institutional structures to tackle these problems is a joint task for both climate and security policy.

ECC: Mr. Scheffran, thank you very much for the interview.

For more information on the research agenda of the Excellence Initiative "Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction" (CliSAP) in Hamburg, please see http://www.clisap.de/index.php?id=151&L=1

Published in: ECC-Newsletter, April 2009