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Times 10 Sep
Impact of Climate Change on Security: Beware the slippery road to conflict
By Hoo Tiang Boon & Ng Sue-Chia
IN RECENT months, much effort has been made by individuals, advocacy networks and transnational organisations to raise global awareness of the perils of climate change.
But much of this focus has been on the first-order impact of climate change: the direct repercussions of climate change for the environment.
To raise the level of political will and secure more governmental 'buy-ins', the 'first-order approach' may not be enough.
More emphasis should be paid to the indirect second-order consequences: how these physical changes might translate into serious security implications that would ineluctably affect individual states.
Climate change is more than just an issue of environmental degradation; it is also about security dynamics and this nexus should be given greater weight.
Climate change refers to the artificial warming of the Earth as a result of excessive emission of greenhouse gases induced by man-made activities. While scientists are unsure about the extent and speed of shifts in climate, the consensus is that the phenomenon is real and undeniable.
The warming of the Earth is likely to bring about various physical repercussions for the environment.
But more than just these physical manifestations, they also inexorably give rise to secondary-order problems that may have security implications.
For a start, climate change has the potential to generate more humanitarian crises. It is likely to induce greater frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, and these extreme weather events can result in mass mortality and grave subsistence complications for the affected community.
And a severe situation can concomitantly lead to mass displacement of refugees that may destabilise the affected area and its surrounding neighbours.
Climate change also has the potential to fundamentally modify the distribution landscape of natural resources such as agricultural produce, fresh water and arable land. When that happens, competition for resources may become exacerbating factors in provoking civil strife and conflicts.
The violence in Darfur, in Sudan, for instance, other than being attributed to ethnic tensions, has also been linked to land resource problems caused by the abnormal drying of the land.
While climate change is unlikely to be the primary driving force behind any specific conflict, it may nonetheless create the precipitating conditions in which conflict is more likely.
Many health experts have also noted the growing nexus between climate change and the emergence and spread of diseases. In particular, the rise in global average temperatures has been identified as one of the primary reasons for the extending ranges and seasons of various tropical disease-carriers, thus pushing the geographical boundaries of these diseases into areas that were previously too cold for them to thrive.
The West Nile virus, for example, had never been detected in North America until some eight years ago. Dengue fever and Lyme disease are noted to be heading northwards, while malaria is occurring at much higher elevations than recorded before.
Taken together, all these signs indicate the far-reaching effect that climate change has on the diffusion of diseases and this implication should not be lost on today's national security planners who are increasingly worried about the impact of disease threats on states.
Encouragingly enough, recognition of climate change as a security problem has already started to seep into the corridors of power.
In April, the United Nations Security Council addressed the issue of global warming for the first time, warning about its potential to be a 'conflict catalyst'. In the United States, a Bill calling for the elevation of climate change to a national security concern has been proposed, with the ultimate objective of getting an unprecedented 'national intelligence estimate' on climate change to be carried out.
The US military (via the Centre for Naval Analyses) has published a study explicitly stating that climate change 'presents significant national security challenges to the US' and is a 'threat multiplier for volatile regions'.
And at the 6th Shangri-La Dialogue in June this year, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's view was unequivocal: Not only is climate change a potential damper on progress in Asia, it is also a 'serious long-term threat to the security of the region, and the world'.
Like most major issues worth debating, the 'securitisation' of climate change will invite its fair share of detractors.
In particular, sceptics point out that the broadening of security's agenda to encompass global warming is akin to opening the conceptual floodgates to the extent that the idea of 'security' is prosaic and analytically weak.
Now, as adroitly argued as the cynics' reasoning is, they fail to see that climate change - as an indirect trigger of conflict, strife, instability and disease emergence - can result in loss of lives, involvement of security forces or socio- economic consequences that are comparable to, if not worse than, conventional inter-state type of threats.
This is why climate change should never be brushed aside as something that is incompatible with security analysis.
Indeed, to circumscribe the notion of security within its orthodox boundaries may well be to impose unhealthy limits on analysis. If that is the case, it is possible to counter-argue that the sceptics' approach is conceptually parochial.
Climate change remains one of the most pressing problems confronting states today. Unless more sustained, substantive and concerted efforts are taken to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, artificial warming of the Earth is unlikely to abate.
And climate change has an undeniable security dimension to it. Putting more emphasis on this facet may well boost efforts to raise the political will and governmental interest needed to fight the global warming battle.
The writers are associate research fellows at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
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