In his first answer at Saturday’s Democratic presidential primary debate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders reiterated his belief, even in light of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris, that climate change was the principal threat facing the United States:
In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re going to see counties all over the world…they’re going to be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops, and you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.
As someone who has written about the connection between the effects of climate change and its impact on human security, I am of two minds when politicians raise this issue. On the one hand, my hope would be that the more attention paid to potential climate change-conflict links the better, especially if it leads to more attention and political will to fight climate change in the first place. On the other hand, these links are highly complex, and it is easy to over-simplify the issue. Vox’s Brad Plumer summarized this best when he wrote: “The truth about climate change and conflict is more complex and nuanced than a short soundbite can allow, but it’s foolish to dismiss the entire topic out of hand.”
Plumer’s post is worth reading in its entirety, as well as related analysis from Caitlin Werrell and Frank Femia at the Center for Climate and Security about how to ask the right question about the climate-conflict nexus. The bottom line is that climate change as a “threat multiplier” can make a lot of pre-existing security issues worse, especially in states with weak governance, long-standing ethnic or sectarian tensions, or resource-dependent economies (in other words, states that were susceptible to conflict risk even outside of climate concerns).
To this discussion I’ll add a few thoughts about the larger context of climate change governance, especially in the weeks ahead of the international climate change talks in Paris in December. As important as climate change is as a security threat, it is much more immediately serious as a development problem.
This facet of the climate change threat was brought into stark relief by a recent report from the World Bank. Shockwaves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty paints a depressing picture: without organized, sensible, and well-funded climate-informed development, one hundred million people could be forced into extreme poverty by 2030. Even before rising to the level of a security or political violence risk, vulnerable populations face climate-related natural disaster risk, threats to agricultural productivity, reduced water access (in terms of quantity and quality), and human health degradation from excess heat. Although some of these impacts are already being felt thanks to climate change already underway, it is by no means inevitable that the effects will be that dire.
This is why news that Secretary Kerry is launching a task force designed to consider how climate change should be integrated into U.S. diplomatic priorities is so important. Risk assessments of climate change are incredibly complex, and the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy will need a combination of time, a mandate from its leadership, and resources to design and implement what we would call “climate sensitive” diplomacy worldwide. Ultimately, as the Democratic debate showed, someone else will be taking up the reins in January 2017; what is crucial now is that the Obama Administration, which has consistently led on this issue (especially in its second term) lay the appropriate bureaucratic groundwork.