It is a truism in British and American government circles that climate change does and will continue to lead to conflict, both between and within states. Yet, a yawning divide exists between this group and their academic counterparts. Environmental security academics in the Anglophone scholarly community are far more dubious of its impact, an empirical evidence remaining highly contested – for example, conflict in the Sahel is often linked strongly to climate change driven resource competition, even though the area of arable land is increasing in the region. This has led to intellectual analysis of policy truisms regarding climate change to remain missing in action. The lack of such a critical factor does not bode well for our ability to effectively navigate the onrushing threat of climate change. Action must be taken to understand and address this disconnect.
What is the divide?
In his first address to the United Nations in 2009, President Obama directly linked climate and conflict, saying “More frequent droughts and crop failures breed hunger and conflict.” In 2010, the Pentagon followed suit, naming climate change as a major threat to US security – a theme it has continued with in varying intensity over the last decade. The UK’s Development, Concepts, and Doctrine Centre concurs, as do many other nations and leaders around the world.
Given the seeming consensus of policymakers, one would be forgiven in assuming similar agreement among academics. In fact, the notion that climate change and conflict are linked is the subject of serious debate. Scholars like Marshall Burke and David Lobell have argued that higher temperatures are tied directly to increased incidence of conflict. But sceptics like Nils Petter Gleditsch argue this is unfounded in the literature; while Halvard Buhaug directly challenged Burke and Lobell’s thesis as based off inaccurate modelling. Tor Benjaminsen found that comparing conflict data and weather records in Mali, “offers little support for the notion that climate variability drives intercommunal conflicts.” The closest thing to a recognisable consensus position was articulated by a 2019 roundtable of eleven leading environmental scientists, which concluded that, “climate has already increased the risk of armed conflict, but the effect is small relative to other factors.”
This academic position and debates surrounding it are clearly a far cry from the arguments made by policymakers and politicians. It is true that academics can afford caution, while governments must prepare for the worst. Nonetheless, the certainty of governments, compared to the uncertainty of academia, speaks to a worrying divide. It suggests that policymaking is perhaps not based on the best available academic evidence. This is made more concerning still by the mounting challenge of climate change. As its impacts worsen, does the infrastructure which would allow climate academics to inform policymaking exist? The current state of affairs suggests that it does not, and in turn that security practitioners may make decisions without a full grasp of the environmental facts on the ground.
How did this divide occur?
A key factor explaining why environmental security scholars do not seem to interact with defence is that they often view securitisation of environmental issues with deep concern. Environmental security is a sub-set of social science and geography, both of which tend to analyse governments from a highly critical perspective. Some also believe – not without cause – that securitising climate change will not help those directly impacted by it. These tendencies are exacerbated by their ‘outsider’ status. Defence think tanks like RUSI, IISS, and CSIS have the ear of policymakers. And, while said organisations do increasingly consider climate change as part of their portfolio, there are no dedicated equivalents which centre their research and policy recommendations on environmental security. Moreover, in the US in particular, defence academics often rotate through policy jobs – environmental security scholars tend not to have the same exposure to government. Given this scepticism and isolation, it is unsurprising that their work does not cross into the policy world.
The defence community is not blameless in this. Strategic studies academics generally do not publish on climate change. Leading national security websites like War on the Rocks, Strategy Bridge, and Strife have relatively few pieces on the subject. Those that do tend to engage more with the development and human security implications of climate change, rather than operational and strategic impact. As one academic told me in 2019, “strategy and climate change live in different universes.”
This state of affairs is difficult to change. Given the underrepresentation of climate change in defence literature, writing on it is more time consuming and less likely to pay-off in career rewards than a more conventional topic. Creating modules and supervising PhDs in the field is similarly complex. While this issue is particularly acute for career academics, think-tankers are also subject to it. Audiences in government are often more interested in great power competition or than climate change.
One last factor is folk International Relations knowledge. This is the habit of ingrained assumptions about international politics seem sensible but may not survive scrutiny. For example, resource scarcity is generally assumed to drive conflict. In fact, that is highly contested. Some work, dating back to Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, argues that it does. But more recent scholarship tends to disagree, noting that conflict is generally more prevalent in times of relative plenty, as armies require a minimum level of resources to field and sustain. These assumptions are generally unconscious, yet they do influence how institutions look at problems – potentially making them less receptive to academic work which goes against the grain.
How can we solve the problem?
Much more work is required to fully understand the nature of the split, but the above analysis suggests that building trust between policymakers and academics, and increasing access to the field, would pay dividends.
First, the UK or US governments could make a concerted effort to reach out to environmental security scholars. For example, an annual conference examining climate and conflict would provide academics with a consistent platform to speak to defence policymakers and soldiers, in the vein of RUSI’s Land Warfare Conference. This could help drive research by making it clear that the defence establishment is listening. On a similar note, authorities should invest more money in grants to help direct work on particular areas of interest within the climate change field. Given the impact of COVID-19 on the academic job market, this might be especially effective now.
Second, defence academics could assist in increasing accessibility to the field, for both authors and readers. Environmental security scholars, on the whole, write on either personal blogs or in journals. This limits the audience for their work. It also makes it harder for interested students and early career researchers to break into the field. The defence community in particular has an extensive network of websites and blogs with high circulation which could deliver scholarship to relevant stakeholders. Finding ways to collaborate with academics to highlight research on these popular sites could drive engagement and debate on the subject, including bringing it to public attention in ways which may lead to productive advocacy – or at least greater scrutiny of policy on climate and conflict by the public.
Climate change is and will continue to reshape the world in dramatic and unforeseen ways. There is a significant divide between governmental positions and academic consensus on its security impact. This is not due to failure on either side, but rather interlocking structural pressures and perception gaps. Modest interventions in partnership and publishing could start to bridge the gap, creating better policy and more effective scholarship.
Matthew is a third-year student doing War Studies. He has worked as an intern in a number of security consultancy firms. His academic interests gravitate loosely towards understanding challenges and opportunities for Anglo-American strategy in the 21st century (and also being snide about Captain America’s command ability). He is an editor at Wavell Room, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter: @AderMatthew.