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The Role of Young Professionals in Climate Security

For those of us in international politics, responding to the challenge and taking action on climate change needs to consist of an admission that the limited purviews of our fields will not be sufficient for our future aims.

Cover Image for The Role of Young Professionals in Climate Security
United Nations Security CouncilPhoto Credit: Reuters
March 17, 2022

In more detail and urgency than ever before, the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report has laid out how climate change chips away at fundamental pillars of societies the world over. At a time of great crisis for much of international politics, the IPCC calls attention to this cross-cutting risk which is demanding urgent attention.

In light of this risk, the next generation of professionals in development, security, and climate needs to have the ability to speak to all three. Climate change interacts with security and development in complex ways – often with unexpected and far-reaching results. Yet, while climate security has rapidly gained political recognition, actual action has been much slower to emerge. As international political actors search for expertise and ideas, young professionals have the opportunity to shape their respective fields and step up to the challenge of a rapidly shifting landscape in security, development, and climate. All of us wishing to enter these fields should become fluent in the languages of other disciplines and build our understanding of the climatic interlinkages shaping our future work.

Academic and grey literature has revealed that even today, climate change impacts peace and security across the world. There is a striking overlap in the areas most exposed and vulnerable to climate change and the world’s most fragile countries. Whether, and how, dangerous effects materialize depends on a variety of compounding factors and pre-existing risks: Where governance is weak and conflict resolution mechanisms are absent, risks are more likely to emerge.

However, how climate change interacts with security is not limited to these places. A changing global climate impacts competition around scarce natural resources, threatens livelihoods, and creates strong incentives for human mobility. The fallout from extreme weather events, if not managed well, has called government legitimacy into question whilst food price spikes are strongly associated with civil conflict, and poor climate and security policy design has caused violence in France, Lake Chad, and beyond. All of these risks are interlinked and will only grow in complexity and severity, and all of them concern not just climate, security, or development in isolation, but cut across all three.

Luckily, these issues have now received sustained political attention. From the U.S. Department of Defense to the UN Security Council, and G5 Sahel to the Alliance of Small Island States, conversations about the risks are regular, engaging, and urgent. While the Security Council has not adopted a resolution – most recently due to a Russian veto – the topic regularly features on the Council’s agenda. Development agencies try to incorporate climate security into their programming and NGOs as diverse as WWF and IRC have spoken on the issue. Yet, all of this should not be taken as a sign that climate security has truly found its way into programming. Climate mitigation and adaptation projects remain largely unconcerned with the impact of conflict. In 2019, the ten most fragile countries received a mere 4.5% of all climate funding. Meanwhile, peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts often fail to consider the changing environment in which they are implemented – contributing to continued crises, such as in the Lake Chad Basin.

Many of these gaps are a result of the – on the scale of international politics – rapid rise of international attention on climate security linkages. Project teams in development and security agencies, as well as domestic ministries and departments, often do not combine the expertise in development, security, and climate which is necessary to consider the multitude of interactions on the ground. Efforts to connect experts and fields have to transcend chasms of knowledge, language, and sensitivities – ranging from conceptual differences to wildly diverging time frames and approaches to communication. Place all of this in the siloed structures and strict organizational hierarchies and hiring patterns that continue to dominate our political spheres, and it is easy to see what an uphill battle we face in effectively incorporating climate change and security across programming and politics.

For us, as aspiring professionals in any of these impacted fields, these challenges are both an opportunity and a call to action. We have a unique chance and – if I may be so bold – duty, to respond to the growing necessity to incorporate climate change across international programming and policy – and to hire staff who can do so: Our perspectives and ideas will have to shape our respective fields and enable them to remain functional in the future.

To be able to do so, students, scholars, and young professionals should look beyond the boundaries of their own fields and become knowledgeable and fluent in other disciplines. University curricula do a poor job at treating climate change as the cross-sectoral reality at hand. It is therefore up to us to find ways to broaden our understanding within the confines of our education and institutions. International security majors should become aware of the shifting geopolitical landscape due to decarbonization and the real risks of localized conflict that climate change creates. Development practitioners should understand global environmental change well enough to plan not for a continuation of the environmental status quo, but to foresee how changing rainfall and heat waves will impact agriculture and mobility. Aspiring climate policy advisors should not repeat the mistake of communicating their work solely as a necessary tool to fight off the destitution of global warming. They should realize and capitalize on the intersection of energy and national security, the ability of climate policy to lift communities out of poverty, and the risks it can pose to social cohesion and the planet if done poorly. This list is far from exhaustive, of course, and it is up to each reader to engage with the many ways in which cross-cutting education can deepen their impact and make their work truly sustainable.

All of this is not to say that everyone will be, can be, or needs to be a jack of all trades. Specialization and depth of knowledge will continue to be necessary across politics, international organizations, and NGOs. Yet, without the ability to connect to colleagues of adjacent disciplines, to identify and ask for appropriate support, and to communicate across fields, we cannot overcome the struggles faced in programming today. This will harm all our future efforts, from climate mitigation policy in the EU, to security in South-East Asia and just transitions and economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For those of us in international politics, responding to the challenge and taking action on climate change needs to consist of an admission that the limited purviews of our fields will not be sufficient for our future aims. Making the jump into a different field is daunting, both intellectually and administratively, within the confines of degree programs and organizational departments. However, even a little effort will go a long way in making sure we can answer the IPCC’s call to action.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.