Climate-change and War (Part Two): Atmospheric Intervention

Dr Jasper Humphreys, Director of Programmes, Marjan Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Environment, Department of War Studies, King’s College London

While one can debate whether climate-change and war are currently locked in a dialectical dead-end or observe Geoffrey Parker’s unwillingness to nail down the connection between climate-change and conflict in his Global Crisis: climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century, there is actually plenty of disconcerting data about the link between the outbreak of conflict and climate-change. Solomon Hsiang and Marshall Burke, for example, evaluated fifty rigorous quantitative studies in their paper, Climate, conflict and social stability: what does the evidence say’. They considered conflict and social instability as one, defined in their words as ‘where regular patterns of dispute resolution fail or social orders change’.

     For Hsiang and Burke ‘the majority of studies suggest that conflict increases and social stability decreases when temperatures are hot and precipitation is extreme, but even in situations where the average temperature is already temperate, low temperatures may also undermine stability’. In another paper, ‘Quantifying the influence of climate on human conflict’, Hsiang and others interrogated the impact of climate across multiple regions, adopting a mathematical formula used for economic forecasting. This evaluated hundreds of papers which referenced both weather and three different types of human conflict: personal violence such as murder; inter-group violence such as civil wars, and abrupt changes such as revolutions.

     To evaluate their findings, Hsiang and colleagues converted climate-change variables into units of standard deviation. For example, they found that a one unit shift towards hotter conditions caused the likelihood of personal violence to rise by 4 per cent and inter-group conflict by 14 per cent. For these researchers, the link between climate-change and violence was clear, made possible by bringing modern research techniques to previous data analysis to harden their conclusions. Inevitably, though, not everyone agrees with such conclusions, especially Halvard Buhaug.

     Thinking about the generation of conflict within the context of climate-change, however, can also be considered more broadly. The concept of Atmospheric Intervention also needs to examined. This is the emerging intellectual architecture that broadly rests on the pillars of Just War Theory and the necessity of United Nations involvement in a jus ad bellum manner. It focuses on issues such as definitions of ‘security’ within the context of climate-change – who is liable for transgressions that harm the environment: is it the state, businesses or both? How can ‘rogue’ states/corporations be brought into line if the international community does see them as transgressors?

     In keeping with Professor Robyn Eckersley’s pessimistic thoughts about the chances of interventions to save biodiversity per se – however threatened it may be by the effects of climate-change (such as water depletion or habitat loss) – it seems clear that any form of military intervention would be highly unlikely. This is because there is a clear bias in the international community’s mind-set towards seeing malicious human activities as more important than the mishandling of environmental issues.

     However, if the threat was a series of coal-fired power-stations being built as figures showed the planet still heating up, or a dam-building programme that seriously compromised down-stream neighbours, the geo-political stakes would be significantly raised and the idea of military intervention may be an option under consideration by any aggrieved parties. And even if full-scale war is not sanctioned there are a number of alternatives that could be used. These could be loosely categorised as ‘international discussions’, ‘soft war’ and ‘jus ad vim’ (force just short of war). Regarding the last two options, Adam Betz’s seminal paper ‘Preventive Environmental Wars’ explains the situation: ‘the question is’, he writes, ‘what to do about those environmental wrongdoers given that peaceful remedies have failed. I have suggested that coercive measures short of war, such as ‘soft war’ and ‘jus ad vim’ tactics, should be tried. If and only if those measures prove ineffective should a policy of preventive environmental war be entertained, and even then, hope of success considerations might militate against it’.

     Under the ‘soft war’ heading, Betz lists using social media platforms to manipulate information and to release counter-propaganda; using cyber-warfare in terms of viruses and malware, and also economic embargoes. Concerning jus ad vim, Betz suggests that it consists basically of ‘soft war’ tactics only with greater teeth, such as ‘no-fly/no-go zones’ or economic sanctions with greater penalties.

     The application of Just War Theory in relation to intervention was embedded – but not endorsed – within the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change which stated in December 2004 that:

the international community does have to be concerned about nightmare scenarios combining terrorists, WMD and irresponsible states, and much more besides, which may conceivably justify the use of force, not just reactively but preventively and before a latent threat becomes imminent.

The Global War on Terror was justified as part of a general right of states’ protection, shaped by the fact that in Western countries during the Cold War national security was Structuralist: that is, security and society were broadly ordered and controlled in a structured, hierarchical manner. However, since the end of the Cold War, as Sir David Omand, the former head of the UK’s GCHQ, has observed:

there is a state of trust on the part of the citizen that the risks to everyday life, whether from man-made threats or impersonal hazards, are being adequately managed to the extent that there is confidence that normal life can continue.

Climate-change for an increasing number of people falls well within Omand’s definition of a national security issue and this link between risk, security and climate-change defines how climate-change is now being securitised. While the international community basically only allows preventive wars to stop atrocities, it should be remembered that natural disasters caused by climate-change also kill and displace millions even if they are not traditionally seen as an area for military intervention. What if a government decides to neglect climate-change prevention measures and spend its money on military items, as North Korea has done, or use its military to block humanitarian relief like Myanmar did in 2008 following a cyclone that killed and displaced many thousands of people? If we expect governments to protect their citizens from natural disasters yet observe that they do doing nothing to do so and actually endanger people’s lives, then is the level of blame attached to that government the same as allowing or supporting terrorist groups?

     Policy-makers today contemplating Atmospheric Intervention would, though, have to provide a multi-level justification case. Firstly, the process should involve a wide group of states, such as were mobilised for the Gulf Wars, and, secondly, a case must be put to the UN Security Council (the P5) which would include both the rationale and proportionality of the war strategy, echoing the Just War Theory, and under the UN Charter Chapter VI and Chapter VII, Article 39.

     Betz’s Just War thinking in the context of climate-change is unambiguous. He feels that preventative war does fulfil the conditions for a ‘just cause’, justified not only to defend present-day life but also the future. However, Betz notes that, on balance, the combination of the sheer destructiveness of war along with the valid list of alternatives, as mentioned above, rules out the jus ad bellum last resort condition, and therefore war must be discounted. He does, though, urge vigilance: ‘if the majority of climate scientists are correct, climate-change is a grave threat to humanity, exceeded perhaps only by large-scale nuclear war’.

     Given the responsibility invested here with the P5, it should be remembered that they are among the worst carbon emitters and thus their credibility may be compromised, even if the proverbial tanker is slowly turning as regards climate-change.

     Given the primacy of the P5, however, maybe it is time to look back to the future. In 1991, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) established the UN Centre for Urgent Environmental Assistance (UNCUEA), influenced by the Chernobyl disaster. The following year the P5 endorsed the fact that ‘the non-military sources of instability in the economic, humanitarian and ecological fields may become a threat to peace and security’. Switzerland, meanwhile, advocated setting up an environmental ‘Green Cross’ comparable to the Red Cross and it was backed by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). From this idea, Germany, Switzerland and other countries supported setting up a ‘Green Helmets’ national environmental task-force that would also be available globally.

Mikhail Gorbachev, deeply scarred by the impact of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, helped establish Green Cross International and invited the United States to join, an offer that faded with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, as Linda Malone has remarked: ‘environmental disasters with transboundary effects, loss of a vital global resource, or actions in violation of international environmental law can no longer be regarded as matters of “domestic” jurisdiction’.

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