In the News, Water / Climate

Samir attends the SANSAC Climate and Security Roundtable, 2010

August 6, 2010, New Delhi
Link to original website

Summary of discussion
Chair: Fergus Auld, UK Cross-Government Climate Change and Energy Unit, India

International Alert convened a roundtable meeting, kindly hosted by the British High Commission in New Delhi, with the generous support of the EU, to generate a critical discussion on the inter-linkages between climate change and conflict in South Asia and to identify the institutional and governance level knowledge and capacity gaps to promote effective responses to these risks.

The meeting was an opportunity to take forward discussion in India on the relationship between climate change, resilience and security. Bringing together institutional representatives and civil society experts, the discussion addressed the complexities of responding to climate change in conflict-affected contexts in South Asia and the institutional responses to dealing with such risks. In particular, the group explored:

  1. Where human (and indeed state) security should fit into the climate change policy discussion?
  2. What the link between climate change and violent conflict means for development policy?
  3. The specific issues to be addressed in fragile communities.
  4. The best ways to move the debate with not only the necessary sense of urgency but also awareness of the depth and breadth of the issues and the appropriate policy responses. 

As more people become aware of and motivated by the links between climate change, conflict, peace and security, both the possibility of and the necessity for clarity about these links increases. Regardless of the scarcity of data, the climate change and security dialogue is moving ahead and shaping thinking and policy as it goes. Alongside this is concern from some quarters about the so-called ‘securitisation’ of climate change. A pragmatic response to this means ensuring the climate change and security dialogue is as informed as it can be by appropriate actors keying into the dialogue to embed sustainable development and peacebuilding priorities into the core of the debate.

Key issues discussed:

  • What is the value of the climate change and security discourse? Is it a distraction from adaptation and mitigation priorities?There are three particular risks in the climate change and security nexus:

i)         Just as security fears can mobilise people and change, sensationalist scenarios demobilise, especially when they turn out not to justified by the evidence.

ii)       Treating conflict and security issues as if they will produce direct threats from one country against another, or even one group against another, which is the language of military security will distort the debate and the policy response; at worst, the response will be inappropriate and wasteful.

iii)      Basing the argument on an over-simplified linkage could generate policies that miss their targets in other ways and simply lead to confusion and uncertainty about what the problem is and why anyone should care.

Yet the discourse exists and will continue to move in some cases with more policy leverage than the adaptation or ‘common but differential responsibility’ for mitigation discourse. As such, the three risks above notwithstanding, engaging in the security discourse is a vehicle for getting critical development and governance concerns to the policy table.

  • What is the nature of the causal link between climate change and security?

Policy cannot and should not be based on a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship between climate change and violent conflict or political instability. There is a lack of research findings on the topic and what there is does not offer robust conclusions. And there are good reasons for this: namely that causality is always complex. Armed conflicts not only have several different causes but several different types of causes. These are often conflated, blurring the differences between background or root causes, the immediate trigger, the role of the external actors etc. The fact is that simple cause-and-effect is rarely if ever enough to explain the origins of a conflict.

Given this lack of clear causal link, the sparse research literature on climate change and security contains some that declares that no link can be proven. But the fact that no link can be proven is not the same as saying none exists. A real limitation of studies so far is that they work by reflection on the past – whereas the key point to understand about climate change is that the future will be different from the past.

Perhaps the largest security risk of climate change is the most preventable one. That is the risk that climate change policy itself will be the most destabilising factor in fragile communities. The reasons are three-fold:

i)         New financing mechanism on climate change strive towards ‘national ownership’, but where the state government is an actor in the conflict and is party to structural exclusion and marginalisation, this essentially provides an additional ‘point resource’ for elite capture and for the perpetuation of existing systems of exclusion and inequity.

ii)       Lack of adequate consideration of the knock-on consequences on interventions to address climate change can have inadvertent negative consequences which could stoke instability. The rapid switch from food to fuel crops in the ill-informed bio-fuels experiment which lead to global riots in 2008 is a case in point. There are many more trip wires of unintended consequences in the path low carbon development which need to be understood from a conflict sensitivity perspective, particularly around REDD and hydro.

iii)      Any action involves a trade-off and creates new winners and losers. A shift in priority to narrow and technical adaptation or mitigation responses will entail others issues – perhaps basic services such as health or education – being pushed down the agenda. In already fragile communities where governance is weak and basic service delivery is poor, such a shift could rupture an already weak social contract between citizens and the state.

  • How to address the lack of empirical evidence?

The evidence base for climate and security interlinkages is necessarily weak; there has been too little time since the effects of climate change began to receive adequate attention for research data to have accumulated of the kind needed for large-scale quantitative studies that can reliably depict trends. Further, the state of knowledge in the natural sciences does not let us attribute specific events such as flood or drought to climate change, nor does it offer any policy relevant predictions of impacts at the regional level. As such, there is a case for turning instead to case studies. While limited in their generalisability, developing a broad geographic spread of case study evidence which drill deep down to understand community level perhaps offers the best solution to the knowledge gap in the interim.

There was strong consensus that the solution to the risk of climate change policy itself becoming a security threat is linking dialogues. This entails much more local level research into climate change and security links and risk transmission pathways (such as rural-urban migration, food insecurity, service delivery failure), addressing governance capacity constraints to ‘joined-up’ programming, and advocacy to move the debate beyond concerns that the security dialogue will hijack the climate change dialogue, and instead to bring the dialogues together.

Next steps:
Interested parties are to remain part of an ongoing dialogue process in India, and also to link into the regional climate change and security dialogue. Specific aims of this dialogue process would be to bring development and human security concerns, lessons and good practice to the heart of the climate change and security debate. Alert is happy to facilitate the dialogue. ORF have offered to host the next meeting. In the meantime, all participants are welcome to share resources through the South Asia Network on Security and Climate Change web-space (


List of participants:
1.       Ranu Sinha, Operations Analyst, Water Resource Management, World Bank

2.       Samir Saran, Senior Fellow and Vice President, Observer Research Foundation

3.       Rob Donkers, Environment Minister Counsellor, EU delegation India

4.       Mansie Kumar, EU Delegation India

5.       Uttam Sinha, IDSA

6.       Gitanjali Nandan, First Secretary, Australian High Commission

7.       L Vijayanathan, Senior Adviser, Environment, Climate and Energy, Norwegian Embassy

8.       Karolina Hedström, Regional Crisis Response Planner – South Asia, EU India

9.       Deepti Mahajan, Research Associate, Resources and Global Security,Teri

10.   Fergus Auld, First Secretary Climate Change and Energy, DfID India/British High Commission

11.   Clare Shakya, Senior Regional Climate Change and Water Adviser – Asia, DfID India

12.   Janani Vivekananda, Climate Change and Security Adviser, International Alert


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