On Thursday, the Environmental Justice Foundation, a UK-based institution, published a new report, The Gathering Storm: Climate Change, Security and Conflict, providing an excellent overview of how climate change acts as a “force-multiplier” in undermining state stability and human security, principally in the developing world.

The report would be useful simply by way of the impressive breadth of research brought together in one place—its 277 footnotes provide an impressively comprehensive list of the extant literature on climate and conflict, drawn from governmental, intergovernmental, think tank, and academic sources. But perhaps most valuable is how the report speaks to the circumscribed way we still frame any study of how climate change interacts with armed interstate conflict, a function of the challenge of measuring the respective weight of different drivers of conflict for any one country.

Identifying Vulnerable Regions

The major geographic areas of concern remain South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, The Gathering Storm posits that states in the developing world, already dealing with development challenges, will be faced with an added layer of stress. Climate change will have different impacts on different regions, but in the aggregate EJF says we should be worrying about how resource scarcity, particularly water, accelerated migration by populations facing new severe weather patterns, and a general decline in governance from dealing with climate change effects may increase the chances for conflict within or between states.

The Gathering Storm highlights Bangladesh as an example of a country particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, a finding only reinforced by Gardiner Harris’ article in today’s New York Times (“Borrowed Time on Disappearing Land”). EJF notes how the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and neighboring India may be thrust into crisis if many Bangladeshis are forced to flee their inundated country, given previous tension over past migration into bordering Indian states.

The Bangladesh example is a clear-cut one, however. In many ways, the climate change effect on conflict is much more ambiguous. How much climate change should foot the bill for causing any one contemporary conflict is a contested assertion. The fact is, state weakness in many of these cases predates much of the contemporary manifestations of climate change. The report is very clear that it is merely one factor among many, describing it alternatively as a “threat multiplier” or “aggravator.” Unfortunately, this means these effects will fall on countries that, in many cases, lack the resources or institutions to deal effectively with them on their own.

Forming an International Response

Effective international response will also be hamstrung by the fact that sudden changes in the stability of the underlying climate system may be extremely disruptive, overwhelming local capacity and throwing into disarray any pre-existing efforts at adaptation or mitigation, as well as any plans the international community may have to assist effectively. These scenarios are the nightmares of military planners who have to assess future political risk (many of whom are cited through The Gathering Storm).

The central question is whether or not these fragile states can grow their economies (and their politics) to the point where they can afford to build resilience on their own, without that growth contributing to the very climate change causing problems in the first place (through accelerated greenhouse gas emissions). The challenge of green growth will determine whether the conflict scenarios contained in The Gathering Storm remain in the realm of the largely plausible or enter into the arena of the highly likely.

EJF’s recommendations are modest and probably the least developed part of the report. Aside from advising the United Nations to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change, EJF limits itself to calls for more diplomatic and legal work on aspects such as transboundary water agreements, more research into the topics the report raised, and the building of political will to address climate change. Certainly more robust and specific measures are required, and there is a growing debate over the proper pathways. Among the issues to deal with: the question of binding commitments on emissions, and a serious discussion on climate finance and adaptation funding. Where conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy fit into this hierarchy remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, one should not diminish the effort and accomplishment of this report in raising these issues in the first place. The Gathering Storm provides a lot of fodder for future research, especially as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is due to release the final version of its Adaptation Report next week in Japan. If press reports of the leaked version are any indication, it will only reinforce the message about fragile capacity conveyed by EJF.