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Climate Security Experts Convene Workshop to Review CEPSA Progress

May 1, 2018 |

The Strauss Center hosted climate security experts for a workshop on March 29 and 30, 2018. The workshop was the culminatation of the Complex Emergencies and Political Stability in Asia (CEPSA) program and its research that covered 11 countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Participants in the workshop included a diverse group of political scientists, geographers, think tank representatives, and data experts who contributed to models, analysis, and a climate vulnerability dashboard tool that will soon be published in its final form on the Strauss Center website.

Key takeaways from the workshop included:

  • The region, South Asia in particular, is very densely populated and subject to a variety of climate hazards, putting large numbers of people at risk of death and testing governance capacity at all levels. Bangladesh, southern Myanmar, and Sindh province stood out as the most vulnerable.
  • Conflict in the region often takes the form of protest activity directed towards the state, whereas conflict in Africa is characterized by more armed conflict.
  • Countries prepared more for disasters if historically a large proportion of their population experienced disaster risks, with electoral competition often facilitating preparedness.
  • International aid and military disaster response can dampen civilian investments in preparedness, without policies and conditions designed to minimize that risk.
  • States such as Pakistan that face strong security challenges are only weakly prepared for climate change, with others like Bangladesh attuned to changing donor buzzwords like “resilience.”
  • States in the region have high regard for sovereignty, which makes cooperation over shared problems like climate change challenging.

Session 1: Conflict and Vulnerability

The first session of the workshop reviewed the findings of two strands of research, one that mapped subnational climate security vulnerability and another that tracked conflict trends in South and Southeast Asia. Both extended and deepened methodologies originally applied to Africa as part of the Climate Change and African Stability Program (CCAPS), another DOD-funded project under the Minerva Initiative. The animating questions for this session were to identify the location of climate vulnerabilities in the region, the drivers of vulnerability, the conflict dynamics in the region, the extent of overlapping climate and conflict risks, and what we know about the relationship between climate and conflict in the region.

Dr. Joshua Busby introduced the first session and reviewed the findings of the Asian Climate Security Vulnerability Model. The purpose of the model is to classify places that are most vulnerable to climate security consequences, from climate hazards such as cyclones, flooding, drought, and wildfires. Dr. Busby defines climate security vulnerability as “the risk in a particular location that large numbers of people could die from either direct exposure to a natural hazard or the follow-on consequences of dislocation and instability that the hazard might generate.” New to this updated version of the model is an indicator of heat wave events. The model combines climate, population density, household and community resilience, and governance data in additive index to generate a composite measure of vulnerability. Under the Asian Climate Security Vulnerability Model, Bangladesh, parts of southern Myanmar, and the Sindh province of Pakistan are at especially high risk.

The team sought to stress test the model through alternative versions with different model weights and sought to validate the results by comparison with other data sources such as the EM-DAT International Disaster Database, which the team also geo-coded. The two data sources produce different results, raising a number of questions about what representation of vulnerability was closest to capturing some underlying reality for the region. The discussion emphasized the challenges of modeling vulnerability, something we cannot measure directly and for which we to rely on imperfect proxy measures. Getting these questions right is important if the maps are meant to inform policy audiences about where to direct attention and resources.

Dr. Clionadh Raleigh presented findings from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED). ACLED geographically and temporally maps events of violence and political unrest, including battles, riots, protests, violence against civilians, remote violence, and strategic developments. The goal of ACLED is to develop a systematic way to collect and analyze conflict dynamics. ACLED faced challenges in backcoding violence for the entire region with countries like India having large numbers of events.

Comparing violence in Asia to Africa, Raleigh noted that conflict events in Asia in countries like India are characterized more by protest activity and riots than armed conflict, suggesting that citizens have more expectations that governments are the appropriate interlocutors to address their concerns.

Throughout the day, Dr. Busby, CEPSA’s principal investigator, facilitated discussions during the workshop to extract lessons from the CEPSA project for future research. The discussion that accompanied the sessions had some recurrent themes, notably how to model and understand governance.

An important cross-cutting theme was measuring and evaluating governance, which has major implications for understanding local vulnerability and conflict dynamics. Most of the metrics we have about governance are national level indicators. Government capacity not only varies between countries but also within countries, particularly important in large federal countries such as India. How to capture those dynamics is challenging, particularly in map form.

A related issue is how to capture local vulnerability with fine spatial resolution as highly vulnerable areas exist alongside low vulnerable areas. Maps often aggregate up depending on the resolution of the data source, which can do violence to the situation which looks messier the closer you get to the ground. Similarly, there is also a need to disaggregate by gender, as we may find differential results for different sub-populations of climate phenomena. This suggests representing governance on maps is only part of the challenge. How to think about patterns of elite authority and how this intersects with climate exposure and violence is a very important area for analysis.

Session 2: Disaster Preparedness and Governance

The second session twinned two other research strands, one on disaster preparedness and another on governance. Here, the animating questions were how governance shapes the preparations for and responses to climate hazards, how to assess variations in capacity and inclusion within and between states, which countries have done a better job preparing for disasters, and the scope and limits of regional governance to deal with common problems related to climate hazards.

Dr. Jennifer Bussell presented findings from her briefs on Natural Disaster Preparedness. This research also built upon the CCAPS program as well as research reflecting preparedness in South Asia, drawn from case studies of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. Dr. Bussell assessed variation in government preparedness for natural disasters by examining a variety of potential explanatory factors included perceived risk, economic strength, electoral incentives, political development, internal actors such as civil society and NGOs, and external actors including foreign aid. Significantly, the analysis by Dr. Bussell, Shabhanaz Diya, and Asim Fayaz found that countries tended to prepare more when a large proportion of the population historically faced hazards and for which future hazard forecasting was relatively feasible. Another important factor was electoral competition. More electoral competition was associated with preparedness, provided this was an area where local authorities had some control over outcomes and could get credit for their actions.

Dr. Paula Newberg and Dr. Jason Cons contributed research on development and policy-related planning related to climate vulnerability in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as coastal cities in South Asia. Their briefs on Exploring State Vulnerability and Climate Change, and Climate Vulnerability and Governance underscored the importance of governance challenges in South Asia. Based on Newberg and Cons’ analysis of resiliency planning and policies, climate is just one of the many problems that weak bureaucracies overwhelmed with security threats address in terms of “resiliency” or “vulnerability.”

Many coastal cities in the region face some of the same climate risks from sea-level rise to cyclones to water scarcity. They could learn from their common problems but the jealous regard for sovereignty in the region makes such shared learning problematic. This is also true for cross-border challenges such as the Bengal delta where India and Bangladesh have limited scope for developing some common approaches to climate hazards.

Discussion in the session revolved around thinking about the “political imaginary” of the state and how it might respond to crises but not so much in the every day lives of citizens in the region. The challenges of city governance and planning at the local level loom large in a densely populated region with main urban areas located in flood plains. The role of regime type also loomed large in the discussion, with patronage networks in democracies such as India, a hybrid regime in Pakistan with the military in a prominent role in foreign policy and security with civilian leadership in other arenas, and a narrow elite in control in countries like Myanmar. This does not exhaust the variation in the region but raises questions about what regime type plays in both climate/disaster preparedness and response. In Pakistan, for example, the military historically has played a prominent role in disaster response.

The role of external aid also featured in the discussion. In Dr. Bussell’s previous work on Africa, she assessed whether external aid might encourage moral hazard: do states prepare less knowing that external actors will provide assistance in times of need. In Africa, donor conditionalities encouraged preparation. There was some evidence in Asia that both international aid and domestic militaries both discourage civilian preparedness, though that was not inevitable. In Cons’ research on Bangladesh, aid had a different effect on the development trajectory, with local agents tailoring project pitches and language to try to capture donor attention and support for the latest development fad, climate resilience, with much ambiguity about what it actually meant. Together, these observations speak to the need for more careful assessment of what role outside actors have, could, or should play in buttressing local capabilities and development trajectories.

During the workshop, another CEPSA researcher, Dr. Catherine Weaver, also provided an overview of her work on Climate Finance and Disaster Risk Reduction in the region. Unlike Africa, where the CCAPS aid team found relatively robust information from donors to assess climate finance, the same was not true for Asia. The primary discovery of this research team was the limits of transparency by the donors which made assessing the universe of aid in the region a challenge. Given the limits of data availability, the team focused its research on Bangladesh, and even then, data was only available for a subset of donors. This underscores the point above that it is very difficult to assess the role and effectiveness of outside finance, given how opaque the data is.

Session 3: Complex Emergencies in Asia Dashboard

Finally, Ashley Moran presented the Complex Emergencies in Asia Dashboard tool, a culmination of the CEPSA project that allows users to explore interactive data on climate vulnerability, political conflict, disaster relief spending, and disaster preparedness activities in South Asia in order to explore the relationships between climate and security. The tool provides some pre-set versions of the climate security vulnerability model and country case studies. In addition, some external datasets of possible interest are pre-loaded, and users will have some scope to upload their own data.

The tool provides policymakers and professionals with a deeper understanding of which states and regions may be vulnerable to extreme weather and climate changes that could exacerbate humanitarian crises, security threats, or political instability.

Here, the discussion centered on how best to disseminate the findings and conclusions of the research team to a wider audience. Social media, webinars, and other means were discussed as possible strategies to generate interest in the dashboard. Integration with new platforms such as the World Resources Institute’s PREP data and UNEP’s MapX both seem promising.

Conclusion: Future Research and Implications
Throughout the workshop, scholars reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of their findings and methods, proposing new ideas for ongoing climate security scholarship. Climate security as a growing field of scholarship will benefit from more and higher quality data collection and careful selection of useful proxies for measures like governance and vulnerability.

The degree to which climate hazards make conflict more likely remains contested by the wider literature and even among those who participated in the workshop. That said, climate change can present security challenges to states and the wider region whether or not it contributes to conflict. Humanitarian emergencies from extreme weather events were the most notable example, but security practitioners are also interested in other climate impacts on migration, food systems, and beyond that can complicate governance in strategically important countries and the wider region. Understanding the configurations of climate risks, conflict, separately and together, and other destabilizing factors provide policymakers with better understanding of the kinds of challenges they will face in the future.

Scholars and policy experts who provided valuable insight during the workshop included Dr. Alex de Sherbinin from Columbia University, Diya Sabhanaz, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Fellow and CEPSA researcher, Shiloh Fetzek, Senior Fellow for International Affairs at the Center for Climate and Security, Neil Bhatiya, Climate and Diplomacy Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, Dr. Adnan Naseemullah, Lecturer in South Asia and International Relations at King’s College London, and Dr. Todd Smith, a food security scholar at the University of Reno and CEPSA researcher. Learn more about the CEPSA program and research here.