Blog post

You can’t simply frame climate as a security problem - NRC Guest Blog by Dr Ingrid Boas

Published on
February 28, 2019

This blog post is part of our new series of Dutch blog posts on important issues from the field of environmental policy on NRC online.

You can find the original post (in Dutch) here.

The link between climate, conflict and migration may seem obvious, but it isn’t. That’s the opinion of Ingrid Boas of Wageningen University.

Climate change is “a source of many problems that we are currently facing, such as extremism and instability,” said General Middendorp to the NOS in early December 2016. Around that same time Minister Koenders (Foreign Affairs) argued at the UN:

“If we want a safe world without enforced flows of migrants, chaos and conflict, then we must better anticipate the consequences of climate change on security.”

In a fact check in NRC Next Paul Luttikhuis wrote:

“Even if climate change isn’t the only cause of war, it can certainly contribute to it. It’s logical that military leaders are taking this into consideration.”

It sounds logical: scarcity, new migration flows – this could lead to tension. However, the link between climate, conflict and migration is not by definition a logical one. At any rate, it’s not direct nor is it very clear and strong. Imagine that your house in Amsterdam has been damaged severely by an extreme storm. Do you abandon it forever? Not necessarily. That depends on whether there are aid services, whether you have the means to repair your house, whether you have the means and connections to go somewhere else, whether Amsterdam takes measures to protect itself in the future and prepare for disasters, etc. And if you do leave, do you go far away? You try to stay with friends or relatives or you stay at a temporary shelter so that, when the time is right, you can return or settle somewhere else, and probably in the Netherlands.

The most vulnerable

These same considerations play a role in areas that are now being affected by climate change, such as Bangladesh. Groups that are hit the hardest by rising sea levels or storms are often the most vulnerable and lack the means to go far away. And, moreover, they don’t per se want to, given their ties to their country and community. Once the immediate danger has passed, they try to repair their houses with whatever is left at hand. If they do leave, they go to nearby villages or cities, where relatives live who can help them find new jobs (read here). So arguing that climate change leads to mass migration to Europe, chaos or extremism has little to do with reality.

The same holds true for the link with conflict. Are you going to start fighting when there’s a drought? Not per se. If the government or other organisations protect the country with new technologies or if you can earn your living in a different way, there is no reason for fighting. Tensions often arise from socioeconomic and political factors that already existed, such as disagreements about land ownership or a government that suppresses certain groups. This is what the UN climate panel IPCC concluded about scientific studies on this topic:

Some find a weak relation, some no relation and, collectively speaking, research concludes that there is no strong positive relation between global warming and armed conflict.

A scientific publication about a drought in Syria rekindled the discussion. In short, the argument is that a drought in the years prior to the Syrian conflict led to the migration of 1.5 million people from agricultural areas to Syrian cities. This contributed to the unrest that resulted in the civil war. This story is now actively being spread, by General Middendorp among others. However, prominent scientists such as Mike Hulme argue that the number of 1.5 million migrants is far too high and that the migration can primarily be attributed to an abrupt stop in subsidies for diesel and fertilizers. In addition, there is no proof that this migration actually contributed to instability – that’s pure speculation.

An indirect role

It is often said – also by General Middendorp – no, we understand that things aren’t so simple: climate change only plays an ‘indirect’ role. To a certain extent, that’s true – but following that argument everything is eventually indirectly connected to instability. Should we, in that case, also deal with other issues, varying from social security to education policies, in the UN Security Council and make them a subject of defence? Is that how we want society to respond?

Framing climate change in terms of security, also known as ‘securitization’, is partly a political manoeuvre to draw attention to the problem. If the army says so, then it must be really important! But when you say ‘securitization’ you never know who’s listening in. Well-meant efforts to focus more attention on climate change can have negative side effects. For example, vulnerable groups who are hit by climate change in the Middle East, Asia and Africa are stigmatised as forming a threat and being frightening without there being any proof of this. And this, even though they themselves are the actual victims of the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions and need our help.

Framing climate change this way can also lead to a depoliticization of other causes of war. In the Darfur conflict, the Sudan embassy was more than happy to adopt the argument that the conflict was caused by drought.

Climate change certainly needs to receive more attention. But is this the best way?

Ingrid Boas, 17 January 2017