12 September 2022

The future of climate security scholarship: An interview with Dr. Josh Busby

I recently spoke with Dr. Josh Busby, Center for Climate and Security (CCS) nonresident senior research fellow and associate professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs, about his recently-published book States and Nature: The Effects of Climate Change on Security. In the book, Dr. Busby examines the circumstances under which climate change might lead to negative security outcomes. Using paired case studies with similar climate impacts but different security outcomes, he identifies the characteristics which place certain countries at greater risk of negative security consequences from climate change. Dr. Busby spoke about his book and the field of climate security in general–where it’s been and where it should go next. 


Brigitte Hugh: Starting at the beginning, what led you to write this book now? 

Dr. Josh Busby: I felt like there was a need for a qualitative case study-driven book on climate and security that could connect the dots between cause and effect and be a good read. The literature on climate and security has really matured over the last decade, but much of the field is quantitative, better suited to article formats. 

I also thought there was an opportunity to take up Marc Levy’s constructive critique of the earlier generation of environmental security scholarship which relied on single case studies of countries that experienced environmental change and conflict. Levy argued that what was missing were paired cases of countries that experienced similar environmental exposure/change but where outcomes were different. Comparing paired cases would allow scholars to surface why some places experienced negative security impacts and others did not.

I say negative security impacts rather than conflict because the field has tended to focus narrowly on conflict when there are other outcomes with security implications – such as instability, humanitarian emergencies, and migration – that policymakers care about.

Hugh: If a policymaker only gets the chance to read one short paragraph about your book, what do you want them to know? What’s the book’s bottom line up front? 

Dr. Busby: Countries at most risk of negative security consequences from climate change have (1) limited state capacity to deliver services, (2) exclusive political institutions where some groups in society are not represented in government, and (3) where foreign aid is blocked or delivered in a one-sided manner. Investments in state capacity to address specific hazards and risks like drought and famine risk or cyclone exposure can be highly effective. Foreign aid can help build that capacity. However, it is harder for outside actors to influence political inclusion, meaning local elite buy-in is key. That’s particularly important because hard won gains can be undone as we’re seeing in Ethiopia at the moment.

Hugh: This book represents a culmination of your two decades of work at the nexus of climate and security—how have you seen the discipline shift over that time and what do you think the future should look like? 

Dr. Busby: The climate security field started out focused on the causal connections between climate and armed conflict, with an emphasis on civil wars. It has since diversified to other sources of violence like communal conflict as well as other sources of contestation like riots and strikes. The early quantitative work explored the direct correlations between proxies for climate change like drought and temperature change and the onset of conflict. 

We have seen a move to explore the indirect drivers of conflict through causal pathways like agricultural disruptions, migration, and disasters and an appreciation of the mediating role played by domestic institutions.

We are starting to see more coverage of other negative security outcomes like disaster impacts and humanitarian emergencies as well as how maladaptation to climate can drive negative security outcomes. With an emergent practice of environmental peacebuilding and climate security, we are also seeing scholarship on what works and what does not, though it is early days yet.

I’d like to see more work on the potential for cascading risks across the world, from climate disruptions in food or energy markets in one part of the world radiating out to impact social and political dynamics in other countries. My next book project is going to examine the geopolitics of the clean energy transition, a topic more relevant now in light of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s use of natural gas as a coercive tool.

Hugh: You had already done the bulk of the work on this book before joining the Department of Defense (DoD) as a Senior Advisor for Climate; is there anything you would change in the book, or anything that you’re going to do differently in your scholarship now that you’ve had the experience of being in government? 

Dr. Busby: I should say that my comments here are in my professional capacity as a professor at the University of Texas-Austin and do not represent the official views of the US government. 

In my government service, I learned that academics may have an understanding of the literature and what factors are most likely associated with the onset or duration of conflict. However, they typically lack an appreciation for the specific tools and levers that are available to governments and other institutions to affect change and which ones are not. 

They understand tools in a general sense like military capacity, foreign aid, sanctions, but most academics have limited awareness of specific bureaucratic programs, their authorities, their limits and how one might leverage them to make positive change in the world.
The internal bureaucratic pulling and hauling to get things done and make sure they don’t make situations on the ground worse requires a different skill set and knowledge base. Academics can ask the right questions and be fast learners, but they need to have some humility when they engage and enter government. 

In their scholarship, they also need to focus more on some of these dynamics of program formulation and peacebuilding, particularly as we understand more and more that responses to climate change may be maladaptive and contribute to conflict as much as the physical consequences and impacts of climate change themselves.

Hugh: The book focuses on three paired case studies, one in Africa, one in the Middle East and one in Asia. Are there other regions or cases you considered or would like to consider next? 

Dr. Busby: I would like to see if my argument can travel to other regions, namely Central America, where drought has contributed to large-scale migration out of the region to the United States. I’ve got work in progress on that topic with a number of collaborators.

I also am interested in exploring how my argument can help us understand communal conflict, particularly violence between farmers and herders in West Africa and the Horn of Africa. There is already some fantastic scholarship out there by Leif Brottem and Eoin McGuirk and Nathan Nunn. Relatedly, there was a piece some years ago by Kevane and Gray on Darfur that noted that although a drought had preceded the civil war, neighboring countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger had not experienced conflict. The paired case of Darfur with those others would be interesting, particularly since countries like Mali have since descended into violence. Whether climate drivers have anything to do with that conflict would be worth exploring. 

Hugh: Did you have a particularly exciting analytic surprise while conducting your case studies? 

Dr. Busby: I wouldn’t call it exciting but a sobering surprise came with the realization that not only can foreign aid be blocked by recipients as we saw with Myanmar during Cyclone Nargis, but it can also be withheld as we saw in the lead up to the Syrian civil war and during Somalia’s famine. In Syria’s case, the UN appealed for small amounts of foreign assistance to support Syria in the wake of its drought, about $20 million in 2008 and $40 million in 2009. Perhaps the Syrian regime was already something of a pariah state, as the United States did not contribute to either effort and both were ultimately underfunded. It is a difficult counterfactual given other drivers of the Syrian civil war, but it raises the question whether $20 to $30 million in drought assistance could have forestalled the awfulness that later befell the country.

Hugh: You note that the academic community is uncomfortable with future conjecture, and the policy community is so often mired in the problems of today that they also forget to be forward-looking. In a world that is fast entering an era without historical parallels, how do you think the discipline can bridge those gaps and become more anticipatory in its analysis? 

Dr. Busby: Here, how scholars responsibly talk about unknown and uncertain futures is really important. There is a critique of much of the scientific modelling literature (or at least the way journalists use these studies) to suggest that there is too much depiction of climate models that have super high future emissions as business as usual (namely RCP 8.5). In fact, that’s not the trajectory we are on or even likely to be on. That said, the path we are on is bad enough. 

I just saw studies on reduced snowpack in the Rockies and that we’re experiencing the worst drought in the Southwest in 1200 years. Policymakers need to grapple with the fact that some of these changes in water in the American Southwest and around the world are likely to be permanent, perhaps requiring wholescale relocation of communities, new technologies of water capture and recycling, even the possibility of large inter-basin transfer of water as we have seen China carry out. 

Providing policymakers with grounded scenarios of future realities would be a contribution, particularly if scholars can show how action now on both mitigation and adaptation can help minimize the worst consequences of climate change.

We need to grapple thoughtfully with ecological security or what we’re experiencing which is ecological insecurity and possibly existential risks for some ecosystems with cascading negative effects on humanity. And it’s not just climate change. Climate change is interacting with other sources of environmental degradation to make situations worse. The steep decline in insects for example is something few security analysts have on their radar. 

We have to do better to raise the alarm without being alarmist. That is a delicate endeavour.

This interview was first published by the Center for Climate and Security on 22 August 2022
Photo credit: James Marvin Phelps/Flickr