Climate Change and Security from an African Perspective

Empty shell: women walk past the ruins of houses burnt down by Boko Haram in western Chad in 2015. Image: dpa / Alamy

Focusing on the climate–security nexus in the Sahel neglects the real problem: the lack of a strong and capable state.

The securitisation of environmental issues reflects the fears and insecurities of those who see it as an African problem which must stay there.

As one commentator, Serge Michailof, put it, the blowback from failed geopolitical adventures has merely heightened the fear that Africa’s crises will end up in the banlieues of Europe.

Yet the securitisation of climate issues neglects the real cause of insecurity – conflicting interests and actors (foreign powers) and a lack of a political solution.

The solution for a problem that is not climate-related is to use climate issues as a cover for non-governmental assistance in places like the Sahel, where the state is absent or weak and lacks the resources to provide basic services for such a vast area.

In the end it is about the relations between the state and its citizens and the distributive problems over scarce resources. This takes place in a context where state formation, and the control and management of resources, has struggled to take shape in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras.

Insecurity in one area has spill-over effects in other areas and leads to an insecurity spiral. The crisis in the Sahel has not been tamed by French Operations Serval or Barkhane, and suggests that further militarisation is unlikely to succeed.

Three conditions are necessary for peace and security. First, there must be a clearly recognised cause of the conflict. Second, actors involved in the peacebuilding process must have clear agency. Third, actors must have the ability to credibly act to build peace and be able to separate conflicting parties, persuade them to cease fighting and give them a stake in state formation.

As long as fundamental geopolitical interests and national political stability are not assured, communities will not be resilient to climate risks

There are several points pertinent to the climate–security debate that touch on these three conditions.

First, climate insecurity is entangled with a range of other issues and solutions cannot be found by treating it in isolation. Only political solutions can produce better development outcomes. Developmental insecurity is the cause of climate insecurity, which leads to a vicious circle and further entrenches underdevelopment.

The possible inclusion of climate and security as a thematic focus at the UN Security Council did not get the support it needed. It was not supported by all Security Council members (both permanent and non-permanent).

Second, the influx of aid money to deal with climate security perpetuates a structural problem: external influence and interests tend to be superimposed onto local issues.

The securitisation of underdevelopment merely lends itself to further securitisation, and the climate lens does not escape this orientation either. In any case, localising the issue should not shift attention away from who is responsible for climate change in the first place, and the burden of cost remains a long-standing concern in every international climate deal that has been signed.

Third, the securitisation of climate change also diverts attention and resources away from the core problem – the need to invest in development and political stability, and to build strong state institutions.

As long as fundamental geopolitical interests and national political stability are not assured, communities will not be resilient to climate risks – a pure climate-security lens papers over what is a political and developmental issue.

Climate change is a global phenomenon with no single source, whereas identifying sources of conflict within specific geographies is much easier to do

Fourth, climate change is a global phenomenon with no single source, whereas identifying sources of conflict within specific geographies is much easier to do. Climate change is a monster with many heads, a ‘hyperobject’ as the philosopher Timothy Morton called it – so large and untameable that it lives with us, but yet we continue to pretend we can slay it.

Fifth, one should not lose sight of the fact that promoters of the climate–security nexus as a theme within the UN Security Council – particularly non-permanent members – want to leave behind personal legacies. This can often colour their motivations and give importance to a new theme and dimension, without adding much to resolving the cause and agency problem. However, gaining support for thematic resolutions may be good for legacies but do little for changing facts on the ground.

Finally, there are dubious claims of climate–security links, such as the shrinkage of Lake Chad that purportedly led to the rise of Boko Haram. The Lake Chad–Boko Haram link is devoid of causal evidence and the counterfactual may also be true: if Lake Chad had not diminished, there could still be a Boko Haram and then we would be searching for other causal explanations.

Isolating the climate problem does not guarantee peace nor prevent conflict. The reasons for conflict are many, but the lack of a credible Leviathan – meaning an inclusive state with the means of violence that can assert authority over areas where power is anarchic and distributed – reduces the chances of peace. Distributed power creates a chaotic situation where power, interests and allegiances are fluid, and there is ample evidence for this in the Sahel.

Prevailing epistemic communities and practices on the climate–security nexus produce a new reality for an old problem, one which has been manifesting in Africa with varying tempo and volatility for some time.

It is harder to do development in troubled places and much easier to engage in non-governmentalisation of services, but this does not necessarily resolve a primordial problem in the Sahel in which recurring weather shifts have gone hand-in-hand with recurring power shifts, leaving the place sometimes stateless and at other times at the mercy of an authoritarian Leviathan.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Saliem Fakir

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