Climate Change as a Security Issue in the Indo-Pacific Region: Borders, Environmental Phenomena and Preexisting Vulnerabilities

By Billie R. Trinder
2019, Vol. 11 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

In recent years, has been increasingly framed as a security issue, with some theorists going so far as to call it the most important security issue of the 21st century. This paper will examine the relationship between climate change and human security through the lens of environmental possibilism (Sprout, 1965), recognizing related environmental phenomena as risk intensifiers. It is recognized that climate change acts as a risk multiplier to violent rather than a direct cause, where the vulnerability and ability or inability of populations to adapt to environmental change hinges on the level to which they depend on modes of climate sensitive natural capital as opposed to economic or social capital (Barnett and Adger 2007: 577). Additionally, economic standing, levels of social cohesion and effectiveness of decision-making processes in and around a state are also significant factors in predicting the threat posed by climate change.

It is suggested that the way in which these factors interact with existing borders will determine potential for conflict, as borders remain an important indication of interaction between populations, despite increasingly globalized nature of political, economic and social spheres (Starr 2002). It is also proposed that the conditional nature of environmental conflict indicates that risk can be reduced through strategic legal and political action to adapt to different manifestations of climate threat (Wyman 2013: 337) as well as to help reduce the overarching threat of climate change.

One example of climate change as a risk intensifier is the escalation of already present ethno-cultural tensions in the North of due to increased inflows of migration from Bangladesh. A significant intensification of natural environmental hazards in Bangladesh including ‘flooding, cyclones, storm surges, water-logging, salinity intrusion, and riverbank erosion and land loss’ is widely attributed to climate change (McAdam 2012: 162), resulting in the migration of between twelve and seventeen million people to India (Bhaumik 2012) to date. The corresponding ethnic redistribution in the North of India (especially Assam) has demonstrated the exemplified by political mobilization and organized violence against migrants (Gupta 2001: 33). The extent of the tensions was revealed in 2012 when a riot in Kokrajhar on the 20th of July resulted in the deaths of almost eighty Bengali Muslim immigrants and destruction of approximately 500 villages through arson, with the Indian army deployed and instructed to ‘shoot on sight’ (Bhaumik 2012). Approximately 400,000 people were displaced and forced to live in makeshift camps, and India maintains a physical wall in an attempt to prevent bangladeshi . The threat associated with climate refugees is also intensified by the fact that people who are forced to move due to changes to local environment are not currently recognized under , freeing other nations from obligation to grant ‘climate refugees’ the protections offered to those fleeing war or persecution. The link between climate change induced migration and conflict in this region is drawn by Barnett and Adger, who recognize that ‘conflict can be stimulated by changes in social systems driven by climate impacts’ (2007: 640). In understanding the dynamic between the conflicting groups, Starr’s theory of borders is highly useful, where the proximity and shared border of Bangladesh and India are a pivotal factor in enabling violence (Zipft 1949: 11).

The nature of climate change impacts in northern India is consistent with its present role as a risk intensifier rather than a direct cause of conflict. This is evident in Assam where instances of violent conflict are dependent on both increased levels of migration due to climate change as well as existing ethno-cultural tensions in this area, and autonomous arrangements have ‘always been a matter of contention’ (Barbora 2008: 314). Economic disadvantage and modes of also contribute to the area’s volatility, as the local government relies on extremely limited federal fiscal support, leading them to oppose land claims and sources of potential political opposition in order to retain relevance and security in a competitive environment characterized by migrant community opposition (Barbora 2008: 326). The combined threat of social and economic conditions as well as climate-induced migration to human security is also predicted to escalate in this region. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has conducted digital terrain modeling establishing that the habitability of approximately 16% of Bangladeshi territory would be implicated by 1.5-meter sea level rise – displacing an estimated 17 million people (Paskal and House 2007: 599).

Another significant way in which environmental phenomena attributed to climate change influences risk levels within a security paradigm is also demonstrated in the Indo-Pacific region, where reduced access to essential resources acts as a point of contention. The Tibetan Plateau serves as the primary water source to 50% of the world’s population, providing water to nations including Pakistan, India and . Control over the resource is already a source of discord (Lone, 2015) and control over the resource is recognized as an important source of leverage over neighbors (Chellaney 2013: 45). The increased rate of glacier melt due to rising temperatures is a significant threat to reliant nations, with 7,600 square kilometers (approximately 18 percent of the total) having melted since the 1950s (Dorje, 2015).

The threat of this environmental phenomenon poses to global security is greatly increased by a major population boom which also contributes significant strain on water resources in the region. World Bank figures indicate that in the time since 1981 the population in China has jumped by over 37% by 2015, India’s by 82% and Pakistan by just under 130% (2015). Additionally, threat posed by water tensions is greatly increased by a history of economic competition and disputes over territory in the region. This contributes to a fragile dynamic, in which China is unwilling to consider resource-sharing agreements and India has made controversial action in securing resources (Albert 2016). Across the region, poor water management on both a national and transboundary level also exacerbates the issue. On a national level, water management suffers from a lack of funding and decentralized modes of governance, resulting in a gap between policy and implementation relative to the issue (Price 2014: ix). On an international level, there is presently no binding international legal framework addressing regulation of water resources (Albert 2016: 2). The dynamic between nations competing for water resources in the Tibetan Plateau represents a significant threat to international human security, involving both the second and fourth largest national economies (China and India respectively), both of whom have demonstrated a tendency to protect national water resources at cost to neighboring populations.

The threat of climate change to security in the Indo-Pacific region is also exacerbated by the possible implications of sea level rise on legal territory based on international maritime law. This is a significant potential threat as strategically important regions may be disputed due to topographical changes (Paskal 2007: 3). One example of such a region is the Bay of Bengal, where the nation’s maritime claim is based on a coastline considered highly vulnerable to increased flooding and sea level rise by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The nation already experiences between 13 centimeters to 2 meters of flooding annually, submerging up to 50% of the nation’s territory (Paskal 2007: 4). The changeable and vulnerable nature of this boundary raises questions about Bangladesh’s claim to the Bay of Bengal which, according to the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea, is based on a law granting 200 miles from an area they suggest is already being encroached on by neighbors India and Bengal (Rashid 2006). Implications of sea level rise on claims to maritime territory is also a potential threat to security in the South China Sea, where military outposts have been established on low lying coastlines and land formations. The UNCLOS maritime law tying land to maritime territorial claims means that sea level rise and subsequent flooding would result in legal ambiguity surrounding this strategically important area. Intensity of conflict for the region is also predicted to escalate due to climate change induced energy resource scarcity, with 22% of hydro stations predicted to drop more than 30% in energy production capabilities worldwide by 2050 (Dodds 2009). The link between legal borders and topographical features in the South China Sea (Starr 2013) manifests in the relationships between borders and conflicting national interests and the subsequent bearing on possible outcomes.

The role of human and factors in security risks in the South China sea is evident in the contentious nature of claims to the region, where interest in abundant oil and gas reserves in the region has served as motivation for overlapping claims based on the Parcel Islands (presently controlled by China but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam), and the Spratly Islands (subject to claims by six nations), both of which have seen instances of violent conflict. The potential for greater conflict is tied to US/China competition, where US interest in deterring Chinese control lies in impeding their rise as a ‘great power’ (Reed 2015: 5). This is evident in a June statement made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that ‘the US is going to make sure we protect our interests there’, and that islands manufactured by China were not a legitimate, going on to promise that ‘we are going to prevent international waters being taken over by any one country’ (Blanchard and Brunnstrom 2017).

Possible Solutions

Due to the complex and widely ranging implications of climate change on , issues must be addressed on both a national and international level. At a national level it is important to address increased migration flows due to implicated inhabitability of some nations. At present, most assumed immigration channels do not have immigration policy to specifically address significantly increased flows of people, however some have provisions for immigrations which could be interpreted as a basis for environmentally related immigration (Wyman 2013: 337). Existing migration channels could be gradually increased to accommodate climate related immigration, helping to avoid sudden and destabilizing influxes of immigrants. In order to encourage such action, the definition of refugee in the international refugee convention should also be amended to address climate refugees, as this is a significant influence on domestic immigration laws (Barnett and Adger 2007: 2).

In order to address competition over scarce resources, focus should be placed on development of resource sharing treaties rather than competition for access for such resources. One instance where this may be considered is amongst countries reliant from water from the Tibetan plateau. As this is an area of contention, with most countries looking to secure national access to resources, negotiations would be best led by an international agency like the , who could address the lack of binding international legal framework relative to regulation of water resources (Albert 2016: 2).

Conflict related to changed topography and subsequent ambiguity of maritime claims is difficult to address on a national level due to conflicting state interests for example in the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal. One way in which states could help neutralize competition in such regions is by addressing national reliance on fuel sources found in such areas, through a shift in focus to renewable energy sources (Stern 2006: 92), which would also help neutralize the overarching threat of climate change. On an international level, international maritime law (specifically UNCLOS) should be amended to more specifically address climate change related legal ambiguities to national territorial claims in order to prevent controversy and opportunistic legal interpretation of changed geographical territorial circumstances.

Therefore, using the framework of environmental possibilism and Starr’s theory of borders, it is recognized that the intersection of environmental factors with human and territorial ones is highly effective in understanding conflict as an apparent reaction to environmental phenomena. Climate change is seen as a risk intensifier and thus a significant influence on international security, at times promoting or escalating conflict, especially in areas made vulnerable by preexisting conditions including a high reliance on , ethno-cultural tensions and contentious borders. The complex and wide-ranging effects of climate change mean that successful mitigation of security threats relies on action at both a national and international level.


References

Barnett, J and Adger, N (2007) Climate change, human security and vilent conflict. Melbourne: The School of Social and Environmental Enquiry, University of Melbourne

Blanchard, B and Brunnstrom, D (2017) China says will protect South China Sea Sovereignty. In: Reuters. URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-southchinasea-idUSKBN1572M4

Chellaney, B (2013) Water: Asia’s new battleground. Washington: Georgetown University Press

Dorje, Y (2015) Tibetan Glacial Melt Threatens Billions. Voice of America News. URL: http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/1737521532?pq-origsite=summon

Lone, A (2015) How can climate change trigger conflict in South Asia? URL: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/20/how-can-climate-change-trigger-conflict-in-south-asia/

Kaplan, R (1994) The Coming Anarchy. The Atlantic. URL: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/02/the-coming-anarchy/304670/

McAdam S (2012) Climate change and Australia - warming to the global challenge. In: Climate Change and Australia. Sydney: Federation Press

Pascal, C and House, C (2007) How climate change is pushing the boundaries of security and foreign policy. London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs

Sprout, H (1965) The Ecological Perspective on Human Affairs. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Starr, H (2002) On Geopolitics: Spaces and Places. International Studies Quarterly. 57(1) Carolina: University of South Carolina

World Bank (2015) Population Data 2015. United Nations Population Division. URL: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL

Wyman, R (2013) The Effects of Population on the Depletion of Fresh Water. Population and development Review. 39(4) New York: Population Council.

Zipft, G (1949) Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort. Cambridge: Addison Wesley Press.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

In 2010, over 250,000 Syrian farmers were forced from their land due to water shortages. Lack of water left these farmers dangerously food insecure, so they moved, en masse, into Syrian urban centers. This strained an already overburdened infrastructure which increased tensions between urban dwellers and the displaced farmers (El... MORE»
Advertisement
In Gallup’s 2016 environment poll, 64 percent of U.S. adults are now worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming, with a record 65 percent attributing warming primarily to human activities (1). These poll results come several months after the pivotal Paris Agreement taking place at... MORE»
In December 2009 the Danish capital, Copenhagen, hosted a convention of approximately 45,000 participants including 120 Heads of State and Heads of Government, for the purpose of formulating an international response to the issue of climate change.1 The negotiations took place during the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the... MORE»
In December 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognized the universal human right to food. Most recently in July 2010, the U.N. General Assembly adopted resolution 64/292 that recognized the human right to water as well. While food and water are of vital importance to the security... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in Political Science

2019, Vol. 11 No. 03
Radical thinking among the far-right is a growing security problem for modern western society. Over the past several decades anti-government ideologies have been gaining legitimacy due to controversial interactions between Millennialist fringe religious... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 02
The Haitian Revolution of 1791 – 1804 was a successful slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue that began in the wake of the French Revolution and went on to influence subsequent liberation movements for decades to come. The... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 02
American politics today operates in an arena where truth and objective reality are bent to the designs of particular interests, powerful people and commercial profiteers. All facts are questioned; the truth has purposes. Populist and nationalist... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 01
Globalization is generally studied as a process that extensively impacts nations and peoples across every aspect of society. Empirical and theoretical research largely focuses on this effect, seeking to discover the impact of an increasingly globalized... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 10
The following paper seeks to elucidate the complex processes involved in the Mexican State’s loss of authority and the subsequent acquisition of this authority by armed criminal groups operating in that country. In theoretical terms, this... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 07
The Polish populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) overturned the mainstream consensus in Polish politics by returning to power in 2015 with a populist platform, decrying a selfish elite and advancing policies that critics saw as illiberal and authoritarian... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 05
Texas introduced Senate Bill 277 as its first wind energy siting law during the 2017 Legislature. The bill combats radar interference between wind and military equipment by exempting any wind farm within thirty nautical miles of a military base... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

5 Tips for Publishing Your First Academic Article
Finding Balance in Graduate School
How to Manage a Group Project (Video)