Climate Change at the Edge of Security – By Suzanne Kelly-Lyall

5 Aug


As a practitioner housed within a leading academic institution Elliott School of International Affairs in a metropolitan center recognized for innovation in energy, security and environmental policy, I have the good fortune to occupy a perch that offers both a broad overview of what has grown to be the field of climate change as well as emerging thinking about its offshoots into security, governance, and sustainable development. Each time I return to the “field” for programming, most recently in Myanmar MLICC, I do so eager to apply new scholarship and test theories with practice. PISA works at multiple levels and across sectors so we also have the chance to explore which theories are “sticky” and which are not. I am on the lookout for new ideas that push boundaries and change the way we conceptualize challenges and solve problems.


A very good example of fresh thinking was on display at a recent Webinar hosted by the Security and Sustainability Forum where Dr. Elizabeth Chalecki, Visiting Fellow at The Stimson Center was the featured speaker. Chalecki’s work on environmental security and climate change is exciting; it challenges the traditional security paradigm and seeks to expand the conceptual framework of security to include climate change both as threat multiplier and possible driver of conflict, a view as controversial among scholars in international affairs and as it is among members of the “community of practice.”

Dr. Chalecki takes a systems approach and in so doing is able to weave seemingly disparate threads of scholarship together for a more comprehensive and in my view, pragmatic take on how policy makers need to view and address climate change. That is to say, it must be a part of a broader security assessment and thus figure into policy planning. Her work asks us to consider the fundamental ways in which each decision, from base location to the energy required to fuel operations is taken and asserts that such choices must be made using an environmental assessment that accounts for climate change.

While the overall message of “securitizing” what have been considered environmental and sustainability challenges may be irksome to traditionalists, I find this weaving of security considerations and climate change useful in real world problem solving. PISA uses this prism at its Climate Change Leadership Institutes (CCLI) where we work directly with policy makers in Southeast Asia who confront challenges like balancing poverty alleviation and economic growth with sustainability. They must do so against the backdrop of a changing and unpredictable climate and the real possibility of conflict over natural resources. As one senior official confided to me, “worrying about maybe, possibly, and if when we have immediate demands for energy, health and education is not possible.” His perspective is not unique among decision-makers in the region. When we can change the dialogue about climate change and reframe it as human security it gets the attention of otherwise skeptical officials. The next step is to strengthen the case for what PISA calls climate-wise development. We need scholarship that utilizes a systems approach to environmental security as Dr. Chalecki so persuasively argues in her book, Environmental Security, a Guide to the Issues.


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