RSIS-SIPRI Report Launch on “Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk” by Dr Dan Smith, Director of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

The State of the World

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) latest report divulges the global twin crisis that the world faces – environmental deterioration and a darkening security horizon. From a security perspective, the number of war casualties in the second decade of the 21st century is twice that of the first decade, and the number of refugees in 2020 has doubled since 2010, due to armed conflicts and climate-induced displacement. Military spending is reflective of how the world perceives the global outlook and in 2021, global military spending was 2.1 trillion, nearly doubling since 2000. The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has further exacerbated the security crisis, and nations are scrambling to defend themselves. From an environmental perspective, the 21st century has witnessed 19 of the 20 warmest years. Every region is progressively getting warmer, from unprecedented warming in Greenland to an alternation between terrible flooding and catastrophic droughts in Somalia. Sea level rises are harrowing due to intermittent sea level surges that used to occur once every 50 years but will occur more than once a year from 2050 onwards, posing a seismic threat to human security.

The Conflation of Security and the Environment

The deficiency of governance links environmental and human crises, and governance has failed in the management of natural resources and services provided by the biosphere. There is no purely environmental problem, for these problems are manufactured by human relationships with the natural environment. Environmental crises lead to insecurity, which consequently lead to conflicts and disputes within society. These conflicts and social unrest may escalate towards violent conflict and internal armed conflict, as seen in Somalia. In Somalia, when sudden shocks like floods occur, governments are slow to react, and the first response parties are usually politically dangerous entities. In the case of slow onset droughts, agricultural workers are forced to sell animals and livestock at an unsustainable lost and are subsequently displaced to slum areas. These circumstances offer the displaced little to no prospects, and the youth may feel aggrieved and unsettled, and present recruitment opportunities for Islamic extremists in Somalia to tap into the resentment of those affected by climate-induced disasters and recruit them. Conversely, where there is conflict, there is greater difficulty in handling local environmental problems. There is a critical urgency for those who deal with security issues to understand that one of the biggest sources of insecurity is environmental change, thus environmentalists and security associates need to understand each other’s language. Climate and conflict are so closely interlinked, that if one damages the environment, one damages peace and vice versa. If peace is enhanced, there is a chance to protect and enhance the natural environment, and potentially foster peaceful relations which are fundamental to tackling the twin crisis.

Guiding Principles

Cultivating the ability to identify risks and exercise strategic foresight is quintessential to a nation’s ability to counteract climate and security threats. These are one of the guiding principles set out by SIPRI, and countries ought to adopt this principle as a guiding framework in policymaking. ASEAN hosts 8 of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, therefore the principle of strategic foresight is pivotal to this region to detect potential threats early to minimise the damage to infrastructure and the loss of human lives. Furthermore, when countries possess foresight and are able to anticipate risks, they will be able to design policies that protect citizens from both climate and security threats. These policies may include humanitarian aid in the event of a crisis, or the creation of climate-resilient infrastructure to minimise displacement and enhance safety.

Ensuring a just and peaceful transition, from a carbon-emissions heavy economy to one that decouples resource use from environmental degradation, is another guiding principle proposed by SIPRI. Ministries in charge of security and the environment alone cannot carry out the transition, given the numerous other factors at play. When Sweden wanted to be the first fossil-free social democracy in the world, it was astonishingly difficult to move the statistics along and achieve the improvement. Carbon emissions barely changed, and it was realised that transitioning to a green economy is a mountainous challenge. The challenge is to continue operating with a degree of familiarity and efficiency while unsustainable practices are phased out. Operating in the given state of the global economy is destructive, however a just and peaceful transition entails involving all stakeholders in the inclusive transitional process, using the principle of “by us, for us”, to ensure that workers and communities have the time and space to adapt. Backtracking on 150 years of economic models and practices will not be achieved in a day or two, and instead requires global cooperation to allow for minimal disruption and inconveniencing.

Adaptation and resilience are also salient traits that will be definitive of a countries’ success in the face of the twin crisis. Singapore for instance is a nation that has displayed innovative adaptation in the face of a warming globe, using anticipatory urban planning to combat rising temperatures. Seeking alternative clean sources of energy such as hydropower is of paramount importance to phasing out the burning of fossil fuels, however, there have been human rights issues with the construction of dams historically, and adequate legislative measures and regulations must be put in place to ensure fair and just adaptation that does not occur at the expense of workers.

Challenges to achieving an Environment of Peace

Given that environmental issues respect no boundaries, likewise international cooperation must transcend boundaries. Nations must get together to engineer solutions, and multilateralism is a pre-requisite to resolving complex transboundary problems. Nations will act in their own interests and in the case of environmental deterioration and the darkening security horizon, cooperation is undoubtedly in the interests of nations. Regionalism is a positive starting point, for example the European Green Deal which strives to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Individually, governments are more risk-averse, however they may be willing to take up more risks if the risks are taken at a regional level.

International cooperation is inescapable, as seen in the Covid-19 pandemic, where vaccine nationalism cost the world over a trillion dollars, and ironically helped the illness persist and further exacerbated inequalities. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs is exemplary is demonstrating the benefits of international cooperation, in this instance an important East-West contact point at a scientific expertise level. The collaboration of scientific experts on an international level has played an integral role in reducing the risk of armed conflict and confronting nuclear dangers since scientists first convened in 1957 and serves as a successful blueprint for the benefits of multilateralism.

Each nation faces different problems, thus the report offers guiding principles through which problems should be approached. These principles include identifying risks and strategic foresight, ensuring a just and peaceful transition, and effectuating adaptation and resilience. Although nations face differing challenges, the world is facing the twin crisis concurrently and as such international cooperation is not merely an option but an imperative. There needs to be a global radical shift in mindset, to think fast, act quickly and think ahead for the long term to achieve an environment of peace.