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Science Panel to Link Rising Temperatures With Rise in Unstable Nations

By Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter
March 27, 2014; 10:27 AM ET

The links between climate change and migration, wars and political instability will for the first time be the subject of the world's most authoritative body of scientific knowledge on global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which will be released in Japan on Monday, is not expected to draw conclusive evidence of rising global temperatures driving conflict. A leaked summary of the report notes that there is "medium confidence" that climate change will directly boost the chances of civil war or increasingly shape national security policies.

But researchers who work in the field say the IPCC's scientific caution about the still-nascent field of academic study masks a growing certainty in security circles that climate change is dramatically destabilizing already-vulnerable communities.

"For many of these emerging questions about climate and security, there is not a consensus. But that doesn't mean we can conclude there is nothing important going on," said Marc Levy, deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University and an author on the IPCC's human security chapter.

The IPCC findings will cover a broad range of global warming impacts from groundwater supplies to crop yields. The decision to include human security as a full chapter in the report, researchers said, was a direct result of governments expressing concern and wanting to better understand the implications.

"My first reaction was, 'It's about time,'" said Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who has written extensively on the nexus of climate change, conflict and migration.

He said that in the past, the IPCC reports, while "scientifically solid," have focused too much on modeling and the impact on ecosystems, missing what he called "political connectability" of climate science.

"What we will be dealing with in the policy world is not the question of whether temperatures rise a degree more or less," Werz said, but rather preparing for migratory movements, protecting supply chains and planning for contingencies.

Smoke is discharged from chimneys at a plant in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Along with the enormous risks global warming poses for humanity are opportunities to improve public health and build a better world, scientists gathered in Yokohama for a climate change conference said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

'Much more challenging' world

So what will the IPCC say about the links between climate and migration or conflict? Authors like Gerard declined to speak about the report until its formal release. But the leaked summary and some recent new studies offer clues.

On conflict, different types of researchers have reached opposing conclusions. The draft summary notes that climate change "indirectly increases risks from violent conflict in the form of civil war, inter-group violence, and violent protests by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks."

It cites "medium evidence" for and "medium agreement" on the conclusion that climate change in the 21st century will lead states, especially small islands, to "face major challenges to their territorial integrity" and notes that some transboundary impacts like changes in sea ice and water resources "have the potential to increase rivalry" among nations.

The differences likely stem from the debate explained in a recent special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change that notes that while research has found strong statistical correlations between climate impacts and violent conflicts, "the causality for such correlations has triggered virulent debates," particularly between quantitative studies -- based on numeric analysis -- and qualitative studies less focused on data than on understanding trends through techniques like interviews.

"It's ambiguous. It's complex. It's not going to be this simple 'climate causes conflict' narrative, but rather climate impacts things we know are connected to conflict. It's still very contested," said one person close to the report.

Joshua Busby, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, who has done major mapping projects of climate change and conflict in northern Africa, said he's unsure how useful the conflicting outlooks will be to governments faced with addressing potential threats.

"I think the impact will depend on how coherent the findings are," he said in an email. "The split between quantitative scholars on whether there is a strong climate-conflict signal will likely get reported ... making it more difficult for policymakers to draw strong conclusions about what the policy implications are."

But for researchers like Werz, the uncertainty over whether a direct link can be made between climate and conflict are merely academic.

"Uncertainty is information itself. It means we don't know, so we plan for the contingencies. If you cross the street and the traffic light is out, you take twice as much precaution," he said. "You have to be prepared. But there are no mixed signals in the fact that we are likely to have a world in the foreseeable future that is much more challenging than now."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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