Time to start talking about climate change and peace

We've heard the warnings over and over. Global warming means the world is facing "a true planetary emergency" (ex-U.S. Vice-President Al Gore); in coming decades, environmental changes caused by global warming "are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict" (U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon); if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked, "the effects will be catastrophic - on the level of nuclear war" (the International Institute for Strategic Studies). When the U.N. Security Council debated climate change for the first time back in April, then British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett made a firm link with what she called "our collective security in a fragile and increasingly interdependent world". In practice, this is open to interpretation. Military planners may be concerned with the implications for national security; aid agencies might prefer to look at how local communities could end up fighting over scarce water or land. Either way, there's a growing recognition that global warming and its consequences could fuel conflict. In the face of dire predictions about climate Armageddon, switching to energy-saving light bulbs seems like a rather paltry weapon. It's tempting to simply shrug our shoulders and hope the worst of it doesn't happen in our lifetime. Last year, researchers who wrote a report for Britain's Institute for Public Policy Research on communication about climate change dubbed the most sensationalist, terrifying descriptions of future scenarios "climate porn". They argued that the common approach of advocating small-scale actions in the face of impending doom - "20 things you can do to save the planet from destruction" - just doesn't work because there's too wide a mismatch between "problem" and "solution". So maybe it's time to change the way we think - and talk - about tackling this monstrous challenge that renders us powerless. PEACE NOT WAR When the Nobel Peace Prize is announced on Friday, it could go to a climate-change campaigner for the first time (although the 2004 award did go to an environmentalist, the Green Belt Movement-founder Wangari Maathai). According to bookmaker Paddy Power, Al Gore - who made the Oscar-winning film about climate change, "An Inconvenient Truth" - is the frontrunner. Boerge Brende, a former Norwegian environment minister, and another Norwegian parliamentarian nominated Gore along with Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who has highlighted the impact of a quickening Arctic thaw on indigenous cultures. In September, Brende told Reuters, "There are reasonably good chances that the peace prize will be awarded to someone working to stop the dramatic climate problems the world is facing." Should the award go to Gore and/or another climate campaigner, my hope is it will spark a much-needed discussion - not so much about climate change and war - but about the potential links between climate change and peace. But for this to happen, there needs to be a recognition that climate change and its associated effects won't inevitably lead to conflict. Some experts who've spent time studying the causes and drivers of wars argue that climate change is just another factor that can create tensions with the potential to spill over into violence - albeit one that's growing in importance as the world drags its feet on action to curb global warming. "The links from climate change to violent conflict go in various ways, and we shouldn't think of climate change as the likely sole cause of a conflict," argued Dan Smith, the secretary-general of International Alert, at a recent conference organised by Scientists for Global Responsibility in London. "Climate change will interact with other factors like poverty, bad governance, a history of ethno-nationalist politics, and a history of relatively recent warfare." Earlier this year, International Alert came up with a list of 61 countries where existing pressures could be exacerbated by the social and political knock-on effects of climate change, making violent conflict more likely. In turn, the peacebuilding organisation argues, these states will find it even harder to adapt to climate change. It's not surprising that the list features many impoverished, war-torn states in Africa - which the United Nations says is one of the world's most vulnerable regions when it comes to climate change. But pointing out that a group of countries, a continent, or even the world faces the threat of climate-related war isn't the same as saying it's going to happen. OPPORTUNITY TO UNITE? Smith illustrates this with a scenario already being played out in parts of east and west Africa. For decades, a group of nomadic cattle herders and a group of settled farmers live peacefully side by side. But then the rains fail, the growing season gets shorter, soils deteriorate and it's harder to produce enough food and find decent grazing land. The relationship between the two groups turns increasingly hostile and tensions rise. They start to define themselves more distinctly, focusing on their differences. What happens at this point is crucial. Ideally, a mediator - probably some form of local government - would step in to cool the situation down. Potential ways to adapt to the climate-related problems might include planting a different type of crop, introducing a new breed of animal, changing the way land is used... But where there's no institution strong enough to broker a resolution, or where powerful people try to exploit the situation for their own ends, a peaceful outcome becomes unlikely. Those affected face the stark choice of fighting, running away, or both. One of the most commonly cited real-life examples of such a situation is Darfur. Many - including the U.N. secretary general - have made the link between environmental deterioration and conflict in Sudan's western region. Andrew Morton, Sudan coordinator in the post-conflict unit of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), has said it's not appropriate to call Darfur "the first climate change war", as some media have labelled it. That's because the conflict has other underlying causes and aggravating factors - not least strong political grievances on the part of the rebels. But neither is sustainable peace likely unless climatic and environmental stresses are addressed. As UNEP stated in a June assessment for Sudan: "Because environmental degradation and resource scarcity are among the root causes of the current conflict in Darfur, practical measures to alleviate such problems should be considered vital tools for conflict prevention and peacebuilding." International Alert's Smith agrees that, if there's a focus on concrete actions communities can take to resolve problems, climate change could turn out be a threat against which divided social groups actually unite. "We can use the process of adaptation to build a more peaceful world, but that depends on the decisions taken in the next five to 10 years," he says. None of this is to suggest that we should deny the risks climate change poses to peace and security. They, of course, need to be recognised and understood. It's more that we need to make sure we also acknowledge the opportunities. If the Nobel prize does go to a climate campaigner this year, it'll be a timely reminder that we - individuals, communities and governments - do still have the power to turn climate change into a positive force for justice, cooperation and peace, both in the world and in our own neighbourhoods.

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