Rethinking securityClimate change and environment security is underexplored in Nepali policy circles
As human-induced climate change is considered to be the most prominent challenge of our times, it has become the poster child for global diplomacy. News of scorching heat gripping many parts of the world—from India, Bangladesh, parts of Canada, and the US—are routine. In a similar vein, reading about increased occurrence of flash floods, cyclones, windstorms, and forest fires have become the norm rather than the exception. The world, in short, is losing the war against climate change, but we still do not seem to be prepared for it nor consider it a serious threat. At the root of all of this, is our conception of security.
A traditional understanding
Usually, discourses on national security have focused on safeguarding nations from threats such as terrorism,
war, and espionage. The traditional understanding of security, that is one defined in terms of state and military, rules the roost as it has remained a respected element of the security doctrine into the 20th and 21st centuries. Such a parochial understanding of security, however, excludes threats that are typically non-military in nature. In recent times, security challenges emanating from the environment—such as climate change—pose a great risk to countries and their citizens.
The environmental sector encompasses broad fields of threats to security. From issues of survival of the species to large-scale concerns such as minimising the impact of catastrophic floods, non-traditional security threats like a changing climate are manifold and often surpass national boundaries. What’s more, it is difficult to define non-traditional threats in more concrete terms. Since they focus on the relationship between human civilisation and the planet, and not on the relationship between the states themselves, they demand different response strategies.
Changes in average temperature, increasing frequency of extreme weather events, and shifts in the seasons have become increasingly common realities. Global warming entered our vocabulary 30 years ago when the potentially disruptive impact of heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and rainforests became front-page news. In the intervening three decades, the average temperature has continued to soar and Arctic ice caps and glaciers have melted, while sea levels have risen significantly.
For example, according to a report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the average mean temperature in 1987 was 0.33 degree Celsius, while in 2017 it was 0.9 degree Celsius. In fact, 2016 was the warmest year on the planet with an annual mean temperature rising as high as 0.99 degree Celsius. The report mentions that 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. Similarly, the same report reveals that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland have been losing mass since 2002. Sea levels, on the other hand, have been rising at 3.2 millimetres per year. Even in the case of Nepal, a 2015 study by the World Wildlife Fund shows that in the last 30-year period from 1963-93, the glaciers have retreated in volume by nearly 8 percent.
Climate change impacts are a threat multiplier, reflecting a worsened ability for families to provide for themselves, increasing refugee and migration flows, and even acting as a catalyst for the spread of diseases, potentially causing or exacerbating lethal pandemics. Economic, social, and political systems underpin each nation-state. And climate change will categorically have a bearing on all of them. The effects of climate change on resource availability have already led to mass migration, and increased competition over scarce resources in hotspots like Sudan, the Central African Republic, northern Kenya and Chad have stirred local conflicts.
Although it would seem a little too farfetched to say that weather fluctuations can prompt wars, a few examples from around the world suggest so. In Nigeria, although climate change did not really lead to the rise of Boko Haram, a severe drought that the country suffered, coupled with the government’s inability to cope with it,
helped create the political and economic volatility that militants exploited to create mayhem. Sudan’s Darfur
region, which at one point was known as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, was reeling under an acute drought, making it worse for those living—and fleeing—during the deadly conflict. In fact, in 2007, the former UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon identified the conflict in Darfur as the first climate-induced conflict.
Two years ago in Nepal, Samjong village in Upper Mustang, which lies at an elevation of 4,100 metres, had to be relocated to Namashung village in the same region following an acute drought for almost a decade. This might be a small case study of relocation, but it merits closer analysis to understand the implications of climate change and human mobility. If such problems occur on a larger scale, say, across Nepal, the issue of environmental security, exacerbated by the onslaught of climate change, calls for timely policy intervention.
A 2010 report by the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) reveals that due to effects of climate
change, out of 75 districts in Nepal, 29 are highly vulnerable to natural hazards. Of the 29 districts, 22 are drought-prone. Since the situation is already concerning will it seem prudent to allow alarming environmental trends to continue more or less unchecked? Human development and security are an integral part of national security, and failure to cope with the risks associated with climate change will pose serious challenges to it.
The concept of security is dominated by a realist understanding that values territory, state and military. An all-encompassing view of security must be adopted to understand new debates in security. Climate change and environmental security are underexplored in Nepali policy circles. It is high time we changed that.
Pandey is the Op-Ed editor at The Kathmandu Post.