Talking about Climate Change: Recognising second-round impacts in our conversation

by Sabrina Lambat

When we talk about climate change, we tend to emphasise the ‘first-round’ global impacts (rising sea levels, extreme heat or cold, etc), or the risk of finding ourselves at a fundamental, systemic tipping point. But tipping points are also socially contingent: ‘second-round’ socio-economic impacts of climate change have significant global consequences too. These have been categorized by the Stern Review (2006) in terms of conflict, migration, or capital flight due to climate pressures. Conflict and migration are major concerns, especially in terms of national or regional security. Political instability, economic weakness, food insecurity and demographic change (including migration and urbanization) are some of the key risks that should be informed by the climate discussion.


Inevitably, with climate change as the impetus, states struggle to honour the ‘social contract’ – with such a sweeping set of policies to address that they are likely to be overwhelmed by the scale of the responses required of them. Competition (sometimes violent) over resources is likely to aggravate and amplify human rights violations. Secondary effects of climate change are likely to be most evident where populations are concentrated and where the capacity to resolve attendant conflicts and disputes is weak. 

Climate change is more than a change in the weather or a drama that will be experienced by countries with weak governance or low-lying coastlines. The conversation on environmental changes addresses issues that do not respect borders and that easily spill across national boundaries, creating situations of climate conflict that would render irresponsible climate policies that fail to embrace a wider geography and a broader picture.

Water vs. Security?

Climate tensions over water already include key regions, such as the populous Bay of Bengal, Central Asia, Victoria Lake Region (Mara River), Chadian Lake Region, the Levant, and elsewhere. Rivers in these and other regions are diverted by states at the expense of other states or cities, creating political and economic stresses that are particularly problematic when a militarily strong state or region sits downstream from a weaker one.

Some cases are still managed on the basis of historical agreements, signed during colonial rule. This is true of the Nile Basin, where Egypt’s use of the river is at the cost of other weaker and poorer states such as Ethiopia. In contexts such as this, climate change effects can rekindle, old hydro-political flare-ups, illuminating numerous human rights concerns – from food and health, to the right to life, among others. Management of the Nile basin provides an important opportunity to understand how the international system might assist states to realize the right to water cooperatively, without jeopardizing security at large.

Are trade agreements relevant in this context? For example, Lesotho trades water with South Africa, bringing income to Lesotho and secondary benefits to other states downstream, such as Namibia. For the moment, these gains are not evenly distributed among the population, and climate change impacts are not yet high priorities on Lesotho’s political agenda (reflecting the fact that revenue-generating ‘hydro-diplomacy’ is led by elite interests). But as climate change reduces water levels and rainfall, a range of issues will need to be confronted: should Lesotho breach its trade agreements in order to protect its own environmental or water security? What might be the human, political or economic consequences elsewhere in the region? Gains from these types of trading agreements help sustain priorities for other human rights issues; if disparities that lead to breaches over water rights grow, will support in other adaptive strategies wane? 

Supporting Cooperation

Both regions, the Nile and Southern Africa, reflect our interest in extensive inferences of cooperation, with regard to second-round climate issues as well. These are not just elements of a standard conversation of first-round climate thinking: they include a whole host of policy debates, from competition over resources, such as water, to migration, conflict, and economic investment. These need to be addressed in their own terms.

A standard climate change conversation will not clarify such issues. For instance, no international regime guarantees protection of or assistance to climate-induced migrants; we are still caught in debates about whether terms like ‘environmental refugee’ are appropriate. Yet, why does it not seem sensible to talk about these critical issues before an international crisis forces policy decisions? Doesn’t this dearth reflect blinkered vistas of decision-making arenas, possibly illustrated in cases like the food crisis in the Horn of Africa? 

Participation and empowerment, especially of the marginalized (the most affected by climate change) is not just central to planning for the future but is also crucial in building stabler solutions. Talking about climate change implies thinking in terms of institutional flexibility and innovation as well, essential to a sustainable environment in an uncertain climate. 

Charles Darwin said: “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin”. As our natural climate changes, we too must adapt the thinking of our institutions, to include, to cooperate and to alleviate misery.

About the Author:

Sabrina Lambat is a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) where she works in climate change adaptation. She has worked on adaptation decision-making tools, migration, conflict, capital flight, human rights as well as the knowledge sharing collaboration platform www.weADAPT.org.

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