India’s Maritime Challenges Security Dimensions of Climate Change (Part 3)

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Vol 11 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2017
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The article gives the requirement for States to maintain awareness and alacrity in anticipating and coping with the effects that climate change can cause
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM**, VSM, IN (Retd)
Monday, December 4, 2017

This is the last of three articles on the security impacts of climate change. The first demonstrated some of the more relevant manifestations of higher surface, tropospheric, and ocean temperatures that impact societal insecurity and instability at the local, national, and transnational levels. The second explored security-impacts relating to extreme rainfall events, more frequent high-intensity storms, and the melting of mountain glaciers, Arctic sea ice and ice sheets, as also rising sea levels resulting from the thermal expansion of the oceans.  This concluding article examines the possibility of partial or total ‘State-failure,’ as a consequence of the adverse effects of climate change. 

The possibility of ‘State-failure’ that is the most worrying of the several security-related risks inherent in climate-change — and yet, it is a relatively poorly acknowledged one.  ‘State-failure’ is about the whole or partial collapse and internal dissolution of a nation-State. As the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros BoutrosGhali, described it, “A feature of such conflicts is the collapse of state institutions, especially the police and judiciary, with resulting paralysis of governance, a breakdown of law and order, and general banditry and chaos.  Not only are the functions of government suspended, but its assets are destroyed or looted and experienced officials are killed or flee the country.” 

With some 369 years having elapsed since the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, ‘Conventional Wisdom’ is that the current system of sovereign states is reasonably stable.  ‘Conventional Wisdom’ also holds that in assessing climate-change risks emanating from human behaviour, historical experience is an unreliable and inadequate touchstone, since the future is likely to be very different from the past.  As with most other nuggets of ‘Conventional Wisdom’, both tenets stand on shaky foundations. In truth, nation-states are far from being either homogeneous or inherently stable and serious errors would arise if were one to treat them so.  History has repeatedly demonstrated that every nation-state suffers substantive and near-continuous internal tensions arising from the aspirations and perceived grievances of the various ethno-religious and socio-economic entities that constitute it. 

The extent to which the writ of nation-states runs is actually quite limited — certainly in robustness, and often, in geographic terms as well. The resilience of governing-structures in the face of an unexpected and large-scale crisis has frequently been found to be severely wanting.  As for historical experience, it is true that recorded history cannot readily replicate the cause of a severe crisis — in this case, climate sensitivity that has been brought (by human action and inaction) to the high end of its likely range. However, it certainly can tell us a great deal about the very limited degree to which nation-states are likely to cope.  Even recent history demonstrates that the ‘capacity’ (material wherewithal) and ‘capability’ (skill or expertise) of countries, cities, towns and suchlike is nowhere near that required to execute a mitigating strategy in the face of sudden collapse of the norms of civic structures. This is so even in economically strong societies such as the USA, as witness the readiness with which civil unrest — resulting from natural causes that are perceived to have been caused or exacerbated by inaction or wrong actions of those ‘in authority’ — degenerates into looting and the loss of respect for the rights of others. 

When these ‘others’ are already disadvantaged in one or another manner, as is often the case in more economically-challenged States, this loss of mutual respect, as also respect for some notionally ‘superior’ authority, is even more rapid and profound. In the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (November 2013), the breakdown of civic society in the Philippines remains a matter of concern.  This is not to dismiss the opposite tendency — of people, when faced with a perceived existential crisis, to cooperate and pull together (as witness the public response during recent floods in Mumbai). It is, however, a stubborn (if uncomfortable) fact that government structures tend to relinquish control rather easily (if not readily) in the face of sudden and massive adverse impacts.  By definition, ‘State-failure’ is about ‘States’.  It is by no means certain that even ‘enlightened self-interest’ will force governments to act in the greater ‘common good’. The story of one of the world’s youngest nation-states, South Sudan, where hope for a greater economic ‘common good’ (as represented by its bountiful oil trumping real and perceived injustices of the past vis-à-vis the government in Khartoum) was belied, is a depressing one.  Governments, it would appear, can quite readily plump for the option of cutting off their noses to spite their faces. 

History also shows that the response that most governments have when faced with sudden, traumatic societal impacts is the immediate application of massive physical force, often involving the deployment of paramilitaries and even militaries. Thus, even if one were not to delve further into the specifics of intra-State politics, it is obvious that in terms of climate change, it is eminently possible to assess the risk of state failure by a process of historical reference.  In fact, this is probably our only reliable bellwether.  Quantification along measures of the scale of people affected versus the scale of the disaster in question is only one of several quantitative techniques that need to be used.

Although a global consensus on what exactly constitutes State-failure continues to elude us, there are a few common characteristics that might be used in assessing the degree to which a State has failed or is failing:  (a)  A significant inability to provide security to its population resulting from failure to retain a monopoly on the  legitimate use of force, (b)  An inability to provide and equitably distribute expected goods and services, (c) a serious erosion of the power to make and enforce collective decisions, (d)  the involuntary movement of populations including refugees.  From a sociological perspective, two features predominate. The first is that the monopoly of power as a basic function of the State is destroyed and the police, judiciary and other bodies serving to maintain law and order have either ceased to exist or are no longer able to operate. In many cases, they are used for purposes other than those for which they were intended to the point where ‘privatization’ of the State leads to its criminalization.  The second is the brutality and intensity of the violence used following the breakdown of State institutions.  There is a radicalization of violence, the irrationality of which stands in stark contrast to politically guided and systematically escalated use of force.

The adverse physical impact of severe climate change fallouts (global temperature crossing 5.5°C pre-industrial levels) is quite likely to lead to State-failure in a number of nation-states — predominantly already seriously economically-challenged ones in Africa, but also in already climatically-challenged areas such as West Asia, and some parts of South and South-East Asia.  Take for instance, demographic shifts into India from drought conditions in Afghanistan and, as a consequential domino effect, from Pakistan; from incessant flooding and loss of land territory in Bangladesh.  Add to this (a) India’s own increasingly evident internal demographic shift (from rural to urban areas and the consequent increase in population density in what are likely to become minimally-governed urban-sprawls), (b) the greatly increased frequency of cyclones and compression of monsoon rains into periodic intense, destructive squalls resulting in the regular inundations of very-high-population-density coastal cities such as Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai, and (c) the large scale influx of refugees from Bangladesh and Afghanistan-Pakistan.  Any large scale influx of refugees, with their own requirements of economic and political settlement, could cause serious, especially security problems. Once again it may be seen that an adverse global event (climate change) acting upon an external State entity can cause a significant reduction of ‘internal’ security of another State.

A variety of models and theories of ‘State failure’ exist.  Some NGOs, such as the Fund for Peace link ‘failure’ to a lack of democracy. However, this is a peculiarly western-liberal notion and may not be as globally relevant as its votaries would have people believe.  In much of Asia and in Africa, for instance, there is tacit (if not overtly articulated) recognition that it is ‘fair and just governance’ that matters far more than the form of government.  Thus, one finds large ‘paper democracies’ whose adherence to global norms of elected representation in government are impeccable, but whose governance is poor, as well as large ‘authoritarian governments’ where governance is far better than traditionally expected, with impressive adaptive and mitigating strategies already in place.  The actual degree to which governance is and is perceived to be just and fair would appear to matter far more than the form that this governance takes.  This should not be confused with apparent adherence to law and order, since that can also be achieved through brutal internal repression by the State.  State systems that demonstrate a consistent degree of ‘just’ and ‘fair’ governance and strong concern for the present and future wellbeing of their peoples — at a level as close to the individual as possible, are less likely to suffer state-failure. 

The fact that several NGOs dealing with the assessment of risks associated with climate change are turning for mitigation not to the nation-state itself but to its smaller constituents: cities and towns, and even smaller groupings lying just above the level of individuals, reflects a tacit but growing recognition of the narrow limits of both, receptivity and resilience, on the part of the nation-state, and hence seeks to execute mitigating strategies at sub-State levels.  It is a worrisome thought that these very mitigating strategies might well end-up emphasising narrower interests of specific constituent groups and in the bargain, actually increase the possibility of State failure by emphasising sub-national identities in the face of large scale adverse climatic impacts. 

An important quantitative approach in determining the risk of state failure appears to lie in the correlation between economic losses accruing from the adverse impacts of climate change and the ‘Real GDP’ of a country in terms of both, its absolute value and its growth percentage. The moot question is ‘At what percentage value would state-failure occur?’  Clearly, this cannot be answered through a simple multiplication of the world average by some factor in excess of ‘8’, since the resilience of the economies of different states would be very different.  Nevertheless, it does point to a probably useful approach-methodology for risk-assessment, which may now be subjected to statistical analysis.

A very important contributor to the GDPs of large developing economies such as those of India and China is external trade.  Today, the ratio of ‘External trade to GDP’ (Openness Index) is approximately 40% for India and 46% for China.  These are enormous figures and have significant implications.  Indeed, with national borders remaining generally impermeable without mutual consent, intercourse between sovereign nation-states in the post-Westphalian global construct most commonly occurs as a function of external trade.  External trade has the most profound impact upon politico-economic structures at the sub-national, national and supra-national levels. 

Exploiting the vulnerability of structures of State governance to trade disruptions has historically been a central part of economic and military strategies amongst adversarial or potentially-adversarial states, even outside of actual belligerency. While the effects of trade disruption are widely recognised as being calamitous in the extreme, it is important to distinguish between ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ and to recognise that no matter what the cause — in the instant case, ‘climate change’ — the effect will be equally deleterious.  The bulk of international trade is seaborne and hence any significant disruptions of maritime trade will always have very serious effects. 

As the adverse impacts of climate change diminish the surpluses of commodities that were earlier being traded on the basis of comparative cost, trade disruptions will occur. On the one hand, this could lead to severe social unrest in the recipient nation.  On the other, it could lead to conflict.  Indeed, the manner in which nation-states trade is far more complex than the mandarins of various ministries of commerce in the world would have us believe.  There is adequate historical evidence to refute the simplistic argument that nations that trade extensively with one another intrinsically have a lesser chance of entering into conflict than do those whose trade interdependencies are comparatively negligible. 

There is also no gainsaying the fact that international patterns of bilateral trade create domestic economic-models in each of the countries involved.  At a given point in a nation’s development and in a given condition of world trade, it might be cheaper for that country to import a commodity (coal, for example) rather than having to develop, at far greater cost, the internal logistic-supply lines and infrastructure to transport the same commodity from its source to its points of consumption.  Subsequently, as global geopolitics change, the nation concerned may find itself denied the import it had become reliant upon.  Faced with the social, political and fiscal cost of rejigging its economy to now create the requisite internal logistic-supply infrastructure and the social mechanisms that would permit the internal transportation of the commodity, the nation concerned may well find it cheaper and more expedient to simply threaten the import-source with conflict or even to actually go to war.  Once again, should the underlying cause of stoppage of import be driven by climate change, the end result might well be the same.

At what point would such denials and deprivations result in a degree of social unrest that would lead to State-failure?  At which point, for example, does the loss of fish-catch revenue lead an increasingly desperate population to take to piracy as a means of economic livelihood, as in the case of Somalia?  Once again, a statistical correlation between a severe deprivation and the consequent percentage of loss of GDP might offer quantitative answers that are amenable to extrapolation.

Finally, the fact that several NGOs dealing with the assessment of risks associated with climate change are turning for mitigation not to the nation-state itself but to its smaller constituents: cities and towns, and even smaller groupings lying just above the level of individuals, reflects a tacit but growing recognition of the narrow limits of both, receptivity and resilience, on the part of the nation-state, and hence seeks to execute mitigating strategies at sub-State levels.  It is a worrisome thought that these very mitigating strategies might well end-up emphasising narrower interests of specific constituent groups and in the bargain, actually increase the possibility of State failure by emphasising sub-national identities in the face of large scale adverse climatic impacts.