In a recent article about the upcoming climate change conference (COP21) in Paris, Michael T. Klare states:
‘A failure to cap carbon emissions guarantees another result as well, though one far less discussed. It will, in the long run, bring on not just climate shocks, but also worldwide instability, insurrection, and warfare. In this sense, COP-21 should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference – perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history.’
In a recent speech, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, echoed these sentiments stating:
‘…the reason I have made climate change a priority in my current role as Secretary of State is not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment. It’s because – by fueling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world – climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and, indeed, to the security and stability of countries everywhere.’
I support Klare’s assertion that COP21 should be viewed as a peace conference – there is a lot at stake and, if we do fail to cap emissions, we are looking at a very bleak, possibly conflict ridden, future. Having said that, the tacit assumption that Klare, Senator Kerry, and many others are making, that climate change will lead to conflict and war, feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree, for reasons that echo Klare’s, that if we do not dramatically cut our emissions of greenhouse gases then we will be facing changes in climate that could make conflict more likely. This outcome, however, need not be an inevitability. In every conflict situation we have the choice between war, and peace.
I believe the way the links between climate change are being drawn assume that, as a species, we are incapable of living in peace. Whilst I am not ignorant of the fact that the world appears to going to ‘hell in a handcart,’ I believe we should be focussing more on how climate change can lead to peace, not war.
A great deal has been written about the direct/indirect links between climate change and conflict. The dominant discourse, which has been popularised by activists and NGOs urging action on climate change, points to a direct causal link between climate change and conflict and sees certain conflicts, such as Darfur and Syria, as clear evidence that climate change can be a root cause of conflicts within and between states.
Perhaps the most useful way of viewing climate change in terms of conflict, is, as the Pentagon describes it, a ‘threat multiplier.’ A threat multiplier is an agent which:
‘…has the potential to exacerbate other drivers of insecurity. This includes factors such as water, food and energy insecurity. In this context, climate change is unique in that the risk emanates not from climate change per se, but from how climate change interacts with these other environmental, economic, social and political factors.’
If you look at a map of the world which shows those areas that are already impacted by water stress, food stress, ethnic tension, and/or resource based geopolitical conflict, and you overlay a map of the potential impacts of climate change, then it does not take long before it becomes clear that the impacts of climate change could aggravate some of the tensions that lead to conflict, thus acting as a ‘threat multiplier.’
The situation is obviously bleak, especially when some leading climate scientists believe 2°C – the target for the talks in Paris – will lead to catastrophic climate change. The question, however, remains, should we tacitly accept the inevitability of conflict arising from the impacts of climate change? It is clear the impacts of climate change are likely to aggravate the political, economic, environmental and social tensions that have given rise to conflict since time immemorial but, can we not choose to react to climate change in a peaceful, rather than an aggressive, way?
The crucial thing is not to focus solely on the links between climate change and conflict; rather, it is to look at how, by creating a new narrative around climate change, we may be able to avoid the likelihood of conflict or mitigate the severity of that conflict. If we assume the world is going to become a much less stable place as a result of climate change, then we should start doing something really quite profound to address the threat. What is currently being proposed by those with money and power is not profound, it is merely a ‘greening’ of the business-as-usual approach. It is a tinkering at the edge of the dramatic systemic change that is required.
Climate change has been caused by a specific way of seeing the world and the stories we have told about what constitutes progress and the ‘good life.’ These stories have created a capitalist economic system that has disrupted the climate system. At present, most discussions around addressing climate change are focused on how to sustain the current system, rather than looking at new ways of living that allow both people and planet to flourish. Climate change will definitely lead to conflict if we do not construct a new discourse around the issue.
We need a new story about climate change; a story that acknowledges the terrible situation we are in but uses the crisis as an opportunity to grow and change as a species. Climate change discourse needs to introduce new words into its lexicon. Whilst words and phrases like technological progress, carbon neutrality, climate finance, and conflict, have their place, we urgently need to see new words appearing in the discourse – words such as: peace, love, connection, freedom, compassion, fairness and flourishing.
The discourse of climate change has largely been constructed around the concerns, and agendas, of scientists, politicians, economists and a concerned civil society; however, now more than ever, we need a cultural response to climate change. Thankfully, we are starting to see artists, writers, photographers, performance artists , and musicians, engaging with the issue. One organisation to which we all owe a debt of gratitude is Cape Farewell who have been working tirelessly to envision a new future using creativity as their starting point for change.
Obviously, Sound Matters is particularly interested in exploring how sound, and music, can help connect people to the issue of climate change. Climate change is currently a visual issue – we are used to seeing images of the impacts of climate change but what does climate change sound like? How can sound make the issue more accessible? How can sound lead to a new understanding of climate change? Importantly, how can sound, and music, help us understand the links between climate change and conflict? In this regard, we are particularly interested in how the process of active listening, and the making of music, can alleviate the tensions between individuals, groups, and nation states. Perhaps music really is ‘the weapon of the future!’
Conflict from climate change is not an inevitability, it is a choice. We can choose to take the necessary action to address the threat. We can choose to love, not hate. We can choose to show compassion rather than enmity towards our enemies. We can choose to tread lightly on this planet rather than exploit it for short-term economic gain. We can only make these choices, however, if we are willing, collectively and in solidarity, to write a new story about how we can live as one on Earth, our only home. Climate change provides us with a wonderful opportunity to create a new world where conflict is less, not more, likely.
Climate change, as a shared existential threat, has the potential to bring people together. It will only do this if we stop trying to address it with the same fear and greed based stories that underpin the politics and economics of the modern era. We need to see climate change as an opportunity for globalising stories of trust, sharing, equity, cooperation, compassion and flourishing. If we build such narratives around the issue then, even if impacts are severe, conflict will not be guaranteed. From here on, we need to see climate change as a ‘peace multiplier,’ not as a ‘threat multiplier.’
 Five Colleges Professor of Peace and World Security Studies.