The rush to put biofuels in our gas tanks has given people analyzing natural resources and conflict some work to do. How are European and American policy mandates to dramatically increase the use of biofuels affecting the places that grow biofuel inputs? It seems fair to say that little consideration has been given to the potential conflict and equity impacts of this surge in demand for palm oil, sugarcane, and corn.
After President Bush's 2007 State of the Union address, which called for massive increases in biofuels, we heard stories of skyrocketing corn tortilla prices and resulting social disruptions.
Now we have stories coming from places like West Kalimantan, a remote region of Indonesia where the rush to plant palm-oil plantations is generating conflict with Indonesians who grow rubber trees and other crops on their small plots of land. The NGO Friends of the Earth Netherlands has a new report calling out the unethical practices of some palm-oil companies that clear existing crops first and make payouts (maybe) to the farmers who own the land later.
It strikes me that this particular link between natural resource management and conflict offers an avenue for addressing one of the traditional shortcomings of environment and conflict research.
Scholars, policy analysts, and even military officers are breaking down climate change's impacts into what they hope are more manageable topics for examination. The migration that climate change could cause is one such topic. For instance, the Center for American Progress recently posted a piece entitled "Climate Refugees: Global Warming will Spur Migration." The International Peace Academy analyzed "Climate Change and Conflict: The Migration Link" (PDF) in a May 2007 Coping With Crisis working paper. Climate change-induced migration also figured prominently in the security perspective offered by the CNA Corporation's Military Advisory Board in its report, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change."
In many respects, these pieces are careful in their discussion of the topic. But allow me a few words of caution on climate change and migration, based on what we learned from a series of programs on the topic in the late 1990s here at the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
My friend and colleague is in jail. Unjustly.
Her name is Haleh Esfandiari, and she is a grandmother. In early May, she was thrust into solitary confinement in Iran's Evin Prison with a single blanket. She hasn't been allowed to meet with her friends, family, or lawyers since then. This picture shows Evin Prison nestled within the leafy northern suburbs of Tehran at the foot of snowcapped mountains, but the prison has none of the bucolic qualities that the image suggests. "Notorious" is the ubiquitous descriptor.
Haleh's "crime" is doing what we do every day here at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.: provide a safe space where scholars, policy-makers, and ordinary men and women can learn from one another through open, nonpartisan dialogue on today's most pressing issues. Or at least we thought it was safe.
On April 17, the UK will use the prerogative of the chair of the UN Security Council to devote a day to the security implications of climate change. UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett is scheduled to deliver a major address meant to put climate-security links squarely on the high table of security policy.
John Ashton, the UK special envoy for climate change and an adviser to Beckett, has been making the case for treating climate as a security issue since he took up the post last fall.