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The futurologist: an interview with climate conflict expert Ian Shields

  • 10 Aug 2012, 15:30
  • Ros Donald

The next few decades may be unsettled ones. Global stability looks under threat as new global powers rise and a changing climate puts pressure on populations in vulnerable areas. That's part of the conclusion of the latest report from the UK MInistry of Defence's Global Strategic Trends programme, which aims to map the threats and opportunities of the future world.

If you thought climate change was just going to be warmer summers and fewer winter deaths, it makes for sobering reading.

The report says higher temperatures and food and water shortages exacerbated by climate change could play a part in bringing tensions between different groups to a head. But it's not easy predict where or how it might happen. The limited literature on climate change and conflict suggests it's premature to make a direct link between the changing climate and increased geopolitical tension. So we spoke to Ian Shields, a former MoD forecaster who worked on the report, about how researchers and the military try to make sense of the relationship between climate change and conflict.

Future planning

Shields spent 32 years in the Royal Air Force as an aviator before becoming an academic later in his career. At the Global Strategic Trends programme, he worked on long term strategic planning, of which climate change forms a major theme. The findings of the programme are used to inform MoD planning, says Shields, and also broader governmental planning, "since only the MoD appears to undertake this sort of long-range analysis."

Shields says the programme considered three key climate issues: "The impacts of changing rainfall and how that will affect food production, with hunger possibly leading to instability and conflict. Desertification is another key issue that will have a profound effect on North Africa, a region that is already unstable and close to Europe. Finally, we also looked at melting Arctic ice, which has profound implications for access to resources and to shipping lanes and again may lead to disputes over borders and ownership of resources."

The MoD worked closely with the Hadley Research Centre at the Met Office to undertake the work, and it was noticeable, says Shields, that when they compared their findings with similar surveys from across the world - including the USA, Canada and Japan - the outcomes were very similar.

A threat multiplier

A recent literature review published in the journal Science suggests there isn't enough research to directly link climate change to conflict. Shields agrees that we may not be able to link climate change and conflict directly at the moment, but believes that this will change: "The impacts of climate change are insidious and may not directly cause conflict, but as evidence grows and the impacts of climate change increasingly threaten human security, I anticipate that this will change."

Global Strategic Trends calls climate change a "threat multiplier" in an attempt to capture that it can exacerbate the pre-existing issues that cause conflict. Shields explains: "While it is too early to attribute conflict directly to climate change as the sole, or main, driver for conflict, what is already true is that the worst effects of climate change are affecting areas of the world already stressed. It's likely to add yet more threats to human security, increasing the likelihood of conflict.  So while climate change in itself may not  - yet - cause conflict, its impacts multiply the threat of conflict by increasing pressures and making conflict more common."

One of the studies in the review suggests that at the moment existing legal structures, like water treaties or the international laws governing the Arctic, may be restraining some areas of potential tension. But Shields says that's not guaranteed to continue. "These treaties will only avert conflict if the potential disputing parties recognise and abide by the treaties, or the international community is willing and able to enforce the treaties. To date, water treaties seem to be holding good in general, and give some cause for satisfaction, if not optimism," he says.

The Arctic

Following rapid sea ice loss in the Arctic over the past five years, the world's attention has focused on the region as symbolic of the changes the planet is experiencing. In geopolitical terms, Shields sees the Arctic as a special case because as the region loses ice countries are showing ever more interest in issues such as oil exploration, fish stocks and transport. He says:

"Given that the Arctic has several cases of disputed boundaries and is a very fragile eco-system on one hand, and the rapacious appetites of some of the Arctic nations on the other, I see this as a potential flashpoint for conflict in future decades.

"Will [current] treaties themselves be enough to avert climate-related threats in the future?  That's unlikely, but it is a good thing that they exist as they offer both a structure and a degree of stability in the international order, and offer at least a partial way forward."

The future - a new face of war

Looking to the future, Shields believes we face a new kind of conflict. The wars between states that abounded in the last two centuries will be less common, but conflicts will still be at least as likely to break out as they were then, he thinks. The new face of war will be "multi-faceted and far more complex in both origin and solution,"he says.

"We presently have a relatively stable international order based on the state. But as demographics and the impacts of climate change challenge demand for resources - including food, water and living space, the dichotomy of national interests and needs versus international cooperation and the interdependencies of the globalised world offers both threats - and great opportunities."

Ian Shields is a tutor on the Global Energy and Climate Policy course at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and is in the final year of his PhD in International Relations at Cambridge University. He is the founder of Cambridge Advanced Strategic Training.

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