The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation

Held at the Wilson Center

At exactly 9:12 AM, the Wilson Center workroom became flooded with mid-career and high level professionals who had come from various Environmental and Nonprofit Institutions around Washington DC to discuss an issue common to all: Climate Change and its implications. Starting the day was a question put forth for all participants to ponder: Could efforts be introduced to reduce the potential of conflict and threat of security as a result of Climate change? As the room became deathly quiet with everyone lost in his own thoughts quietly formulating possible solutions to this challenge, the moderator for the day, Roger-Mark De Souza, who presently serves as Director of Population, Environmental Change, and Security, at the Woodrow Wilson Center, introduced the panel speakers who would put forth even more compelling rhetoric throughout the conference, and engage the audience in an interactive dialogue to find a collective solution to the questions at bay. In no particular order, Geoffrey Dabelko, Senior Advisor, Environmental Change and Security Program and also Director of Environmental Studies at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, Ohio University, Lisa Friedman, Deputy Editor for ClimateWire, and Stacy VanDeveer, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of New Hampshire, took their seats upfront facing the audience, and the session was declared officially opened.

Roger-Mark De Souza welcomed everyone formally to the Wilson Center and stated that the key purpose of the gathering, amongst other important reasons, was to officially launch the latest edition of the Wilson Center’s ECSP report “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Mitigation and Adaptation”. (Access to the full downloadable report can be found at  Mr. De Souza gave a general highlight of the report and the critical question it focuses on: “Could efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and lower our vulnerability to climate change inadvertently exacerbate existing conflicts or create new ones?” He said the report was significant in that it stimulates analytical solutions to growing environmental concerns, and also focuses on policies and programs that require much thought in finding solutions to the environmental problems the world is increasingly facing. The report, as Mr. De Souza coined it, is also an extremely important tool for reference because it puts forth recommendations on how countries can design Conflict Sensitive Mitigation and Adaptation Programs, and make use of the many useful tools the report provided to help improve resource management.

The first panel speaker, Mr. Geoffrey Dabelko, said it is important that environmental institutions pay a bit more attention to the Security and Climate Change phenomenon that seem to be a growing concern for many countries and hoped that the enthusiasm that was once seen in the 90s when a similar unspoken campaign was introduced on the role environmental interdependency played in upholding trust, confidence, and peace, would once again be seen in the coming years.  Mr. Dabelko, noting that this wasn’t always easy, tried to draw a connection between the impact of rising sea level, decline in Agricultural productivity, migration of people from coastal and draught areas, undercutting economic activity and the effect these had on the stability of a region. He said that responses to climate change could create conflict and undercut stability if done poorly, but on the other hand, if done properly, it could lower vulnerability and build resilience to benefit peace building and contribute to development.  He said environmental institutions that are currently working in or have plans to work in fragile states faced an increased risk of conflict if interventions were not handled properly, and should be careful not to indirectly create conflict while trying to bring solutions to environmental problems. Giving some examples, he said increased biofuels, increased in purchase of third country land, land grabs, and increased hydro, solar and increased payments for purchase of forest lands were few of many potential conflict spark ups that could result in trying to address climate change. He made a point on how these changes may be met by stiff resistance by the locals in some areas due to insecurities, speculations, and mistrust and what institutions may see as a good idea or project, and not see as a threat for a conflict, may well contribute to one. He said the key was maintaining the balance between transparency and communications with the locals. He said that impact level environmental projects should be done with the full participation of the community so that there is no suspicion as to unfair exploitation of resources, corruption, or a misunderstanding of the intended benefits the project could well have on the community. He also said there should be as many full prior assessments as possible to ensure the by–product(s) of the intervention would not in some way cause a collective dissatisfaction that may leave the tiniest possibility of a security threat. In conclusion, Mr. Dabelko reminded institutions that there were many opportunities in sustaining greener economies around the globe, and that institutions could tap more into that if they went in with their eyes open and understood the rationale of co-benefits.

The next speaker, Stacy VanDeveer, who delved into the resource curse as part of his presentation, tried to establish a link between the resource curse and the green economy, and whether there truly existed such challenges. He viewed the term “green economy” to simply be a part of the global economy, highlighted its imperfections and noted that they shared many of the issues facing the global economy ranging from low worker’s benefits to uneven spread of technology, etc. He then defined the resource curse as observed correlation between national resource wealth, poor economic performance, and ineffective poor economic development overtime. He said countries which are very heavily dependent on a commodity exporting are economically more likely to be poor and remain poor, with a few exceptions to this rule. He said the presence of a wealth or resource in a country is not in itself a curse, but the problem lie with generally assuming that if poor governance structures were straightened, this problem would automatically go away. He reminded policy makers that bringing solar or other forms of environmental changes to a region without looking at the economy stream behind them was also a contributing factor to the problem of the resource curse. Mr. VanDeveer, who promised a very short presentation, ended with food for thought for all, reemphasizing what it meant for our world if we had cleaner energy transition. He concluded by drawing attention to the fact that the green economy really isn’t green if it is just products from the global economy and there must be a host of state led and non-state led ideas and initiatives to grabble with the resource curse dynamics.

Lisa Friedman, the last panel speaker of the day, who had engaged in many dialogues and forums on similar issues before, confidently started off by giving her opinions on what climate change meant for vulnerable countries. Ms. Friedman shared some personal stories on her work on migration and her coverage of climate disasters in poor and economically disadvantaged countries that forced people to leave their villages and communities. She said climate migration, for the most part, has not really been focused on by policy makers and giant environmental institutions as it should, and have not been giving much attention as a major source of disaster and the extent to which it destroys communities have not been brought to the public. She said the challenge remained to explain why it matters if people were leaving coastal areas of poorer countries for much urban areas due to flooding. She said environmental institutions should help in advocating that this be given more spotlight by governments of these countries who are not prioritizing the issue as much. She said environmental institutions should use the power of a story to call media and other sympathizers’ attention to the many environmental disasters happening in poor coastal countries. Ending her brief presentation, Ms. Friedman used herself as an example of having gone to the length and breadth of very rural villages, coal mines, and towns buried in valleys in order to interact with the locals and get their stories on how climate migration and climate change were affecting their lives and the general wellbeing of their communities.

After the panel presentations, Mr. De Souza opened the floor for participants to engage the panelists in an interactive Q&A session. The first question, which came from a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency, sourced out the panelists’ opinions on supply chain responsibility as it relates to the Dodd- Frank provisions. The panelists unanimously agreed that transparency as put forth in the provision, and sourcing out where minerals came from and where they were mined and whether they were conflict minerals, were all important, genuine points. They lauded nonprofits for pushing these ideologies to push firms to give more transparent reports of their methods and origins of productions. One of the panelists, Mr. VanDeever, then gave an example of a controversial issue that surrounded whether or not countries should stop importing resources from a conflict nation like Congo, and how this is an issue that environmental institutions could well advocate for or against. Another participant, from Conservation International, challenged the panelists to provide some authentic solutions to the gender gap in conflict adaptation and climate change. The panelists again all agreed that there have been gender gaps in some developing countries in handling climate mitigation, and that more forums need to be created to connect the work done on bridging this gap and furthering a call for change. The panelists also said there were now many global initiatives that were looking at strengthening women’s voices and their role in climate change and its policies, and gave examples of a few countries like Malawi, Kenya, amongst others who were championing these efforts. The moderator, buttressing the panelists, gave credence to his former organization, Population Action International, as well as World Conservation, as two of several nonprofits working to improve the gender gap and climate change adaptation strategies on the national level in many countries. A panelist made a very great point of how governments handled the issue of population growth in some countries would become a major factor in deciding the conflict potential of that country. He used Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan as a case study and mentioned that by 2030, Nigeria’s total population would be about a 100 million, while Pakistan and Egypt, 50 and 30 million respectively. He said the concern now for environmental and security institutions were to determine how this increase in population in already troubled nations would not escalate the instability and lead to even more extremists and insurgent groups.

The last two comments from participants for the day were made by me and another participant, and share similar patterns on the issue of natural resource management and the need for governments to better communicate with their citizens to ensure there is less suspicion and better trust. We both thought this will increase transparency and reduce the need for conflict if citizens were better informed on how their resources were being managed, and how the benefits distributed. We challenged environmental institutions present, as well as the Wilson Center and the panelists, to incorporate the need for governments to establish clearer transparency methods and broader means of communication with the citizens. We both agreed that reducing violence and conflict in a country as a result of climate change impact will mean environmental institutions and nonprofits now incorporating within their advocacy and social programs more informative outreach activities to inform citizens of their environmental rights and call governments’ attention to fairer systems, transparent methods, and participatory decision making processes.

The moderator officially brought the session to an end at 12:10 PM, and urged participants that the discussion points be taken into consideration by their organizations and used to channel a call for change to end the potential of climate change and reduce the ripple effect of the resource curse.




















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