Climate change preparedness – what about the risks that may come with adaptation and mitigation?

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On June 10 CSW was at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, attending a roundtable discussion titled The Conflict Potential of Climate Mitigation and Adaptation. Discussion of climate change policy thus far has focused on what climate change impacts will look like (globally and regionally), and how we can prevent impacts from becoming severe through emissions cuts (mitigation) and seek to prepare for impacts we cannot avoid (adaptation). We haven’t yet started seriously assessing the associated security risks and conflict potential that may arise from adopting and implementing mitigation and adaptation plans. Taking this next step was the main focus of this roundtable discussion.

Post by Rebeka Ryvola

Video Archive of webcast will be here.

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars events.

See end of article for related CSW posts on mitigation, adaptation, and security.

The Conflict Potential of Climate Mitigation and Adaptation

Geoff Dabelko, Director of Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, moderated the discussion, with the following scholars participating: Alexander Carius, Co-Director and Co-Founder, Adelphi Research, Berlin, Germany; Cleo Paskal, Associate Fellow at the Energy, Environment and Development Programme, Chatham House, UK; and Stacy VanDeveer, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of New Hampshire.

Dabelko opened the roundtable with a discussion of projected global climate change impacts and how they may increase societal vulnerability. He distinguished between direct climate impacts, secondary impacts, and third or fourth order impacts.

A substantial amount of research has been conducted to expand our understanding of the changing climate system, Dabelko said, and we must continue research on the direct, or first order, impacts produced by a warming climate.

He then added that we also need research to increase our knowledge of how these direct impacts will affect human systems: What will happen when the sea level rises? How will impacted people adapt? If relocation is necessary, where will they go? Dabelko referred to these questions as secondary impacts or responses to the direct impacts.

However, Dabelko continued, while an understanding of direct and secondary impacts is vitally important to climate change preparedness, we also must begin to talk seriously about the “third or fourth order” impacts: potential conflicts or opportunities for partnership stemming from the “variety basket of mitigation and adaptation policy responses” to climate change impacts. 

He emphasized that potential consequences of mitigation and adaptation need to become part of the climate change conversation regardless of how far along we are in our understanding the specifics of projected impacts. By looking at the likely social, political and economical repercussions of the various mitigation and adaptation paths, we’ll begin to have a better idea of which measures can help us move safely towards a more sustainable economy, he said; the alternative is finding out down the road that our attempts to deal with climate change produced unexpected vulnerabilities.

Dabelko then turned to the panel for their insights on the relative risks of different mitigation and adaptation strategies. While the panel members expressed many concerns about prospective mitigation and adaptation policy responses, they did not make specific recommendations; the discussion was centered instead on the consequences of the policy responses themselves.

Due to the diverse backgrounds of the panelists, the discussion encompassed a wide range of nationally and internationally-centered problems that need to be considered as we weigh the implications of mitigation and adaptation policies. Among the US-centric topics raised were the conflict potential of shifting from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based on clean energy, the peace and conflict potential of geoengineering, and how the US is to adopt the safest mitigation and adaptation strategy possible.

Stacy VanDeveer discussed the implications of transitioning from a fossil fuel-dependent economy to one based on renewable energy sources. Bending the carbon emissions curve down may not be strictly a good thing, he said; it is difficult to know how nations that depend on fossil fuel exports will react if they are left high and dry. While some commentators, like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, have said that pulling out support for current petrol states could actually open up the potential for democratic transition, VanDeveer questioned whether this would realistically be the case. He argued that a move towards cleaner energy will be much more complex than mainstream discussions have indicated thus far.

Cleo Paskal was asked to weigh in on the implications of shifting to a renewable energy-based economy;  Dabelko inquired whether we will merely be trading one dependency for another. Paskal said that the answer to that question largely depends on the rare earth mineral markets. These minerals, upon which much of new green technologies like wind turbines, hybrid vehicles and solar panels depend, could bring many complications as more and more nations take on large-scale green energy expansions, Paskal said. 

The answer to the question of which nations will benefit from a greener economy also depends on how one views the geopolitics involved. Paskal said that China, for example, has been much more strategic in ensuring energy security than the more commercially-oriented US. This difference in trading approaches can lead to complications when the resources in question are scarce, like the rare earth minerals: strategic traders will have a much wider range of options for interacting with the nations that have the scarce resource than commercial traders that expect that “the market will provide,” Paskal says.

Dabelko then steered the discussion toward the 2009 meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, or COP15, asking why the delegates had been unable to develop an international emissions reduction agreement. 

Paskal said that in the lead-up to the conference, much of the international climate change discussion was intentionally kept very narrow, restricted to the warming of the climate and the need to reduce carbon emissions. The only focus on the security risks of climate change was in the context of poor nations with limited capabilities needing to adapt to impacts like desertification or flooding. A narrow focus on emissions reduction allowed wealthier nations to skirt the issue of climate change as a resilience weakener (e.g. increased vulnerability to extreme events) and conflict aggravator (e.g. an escalation in resource disputes) that impacts all nations, said Paskal, which allowed them to avoid a more ambitious, and therefore costly, conclusion in Copenhagen.

Here Paskal mentioned how the maladaptive actions taken in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are a good example of how an “accurate perception of the security risks” associated with climate change was lacking leading up to COP15: simply curbing carbon emissions without consideration of the danger of rebuilding on vulnerable coastlines and floodplains will not decrease future instability in the Katrina-impacted region. Hurricane Katrina is only one example of what a lack of vulnerability awareness will mean for wealthier nations as extreme events happen with greater frequency and intensity, Paskal said. 

Now, with Copenhagen behind us and COP16 in Cancun approaching, Dabelko asked Paskal to elaborate on how we are to broaden the previously narrow discussion on climate change impacts from the “developing country context” to one encompassing vulnerability and conflict threats to all nations – a topic that her book, Global Warring, focuses heavily on.

Climate change preparedness is a multi-faceted, all-encompassing problem with many players and as many solutions, Paskal said; in order to develop optimal adaptation and mitigation strategies, we must frame this massive problem in a way that is more accessible to the general public. “This isn’t one problem, it’s a million different problems and is going to require a million different answers from a million different sectors.”

City planners are one group that has enormous potential to move human society toward a more sustainable future, Paskal said, and although they don’t currently have the tools to incorporate large-scale environmental change into the way they do planning, “as soon as they do, they [could be] really solid allies.” She mentioned how British and Canadian city planning councils both had climate change as major themes for their annual conventions this year and for the first time focused on adaptation in addition to mitigation.

VanDeveer finished with a warning about the role that climate change deniers play in the fight to establish effective mitigation and adaptation strategies. These opponents, he said, “can be counted on to use whatever rhetorical strategy with whatever audience on whatever day.”

As long as deniers with a vested interest in the status quo are involved, monitoring and countering climate change disinformation will continue to be essential. Holding deniers and distorters accountable is especially important if we are to heed Paskal’s advice about the need to unify solutions from many sectors to address to the complex problem of mitigating and adapting to climate change, a mobilization that requires an accurate public perception of the risks involved. 

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L – R: Cleo Paskal, Stacy VanDeveer, and Geoff Dabelko (not pictured: Alexander Carius)

Recent CSW posts on the mitigation and adaptation discussion:

Text of remarks by Obama science adviser John Holdren to the National Adaptation Summit (May 28)

Holdren at Adaptation Summit: We’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions (May 28)

Tom Karl discusses plans for NOAA Climate Service (March 27)

NRC: US should act now to cut emissions, develop a national strategy to adapt to inevitable impacts (May 26)

On mitigation, adaptation and national security:

AMS Climate Briefing Series takes on national security implications of climate change (June 8)

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