The Climate-Security Nexus: Interview with Louise Van Schaik

Louise Van Schaik appears on the Center for Climate and Security’s podcast.

Dr. Sweta Chakraborty is the host of the Climate and Security podcast produced by the Center for Climate and Security, and here she interviews Louise Van Schaik, a senior member of the Executive Committee for the International Military Council on Climate and Security and head of the Sustainability Centre at the Clingendael Institute. Ms. Van Schaik is also Project Manager of the Planetary Security Initiative and was a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges. Her research has extensively analyzed the European Union’s performance in multilateral bodies, including in the fields of climate change, health, and food standards.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us a bit about what got you interested in the climate-security nexus.

My background is in how the EU operates in international climate change negotiations, and also other negotiations. Then I started working at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands, which is a traditional security think tank and a diplomatic academy. And all of a sudden, questions came up about the security angle of climate change. So I was asked to start investigating the topic. I was really fascinated by issues like the Arctic, but also the intensification of droughts, what it could mean for specific areas; also the link with food security that goes back to the French revolution, the Arab Spring.

In the last two years, I’ve looked into the climate-migration-security nexus. The relationship between climate and migration is a difficult one, and, in the literature, a contested one—there is hardly any data—and especially in light of the refugees coming to Europe and the migrants coming to Europe, but also the political climate. The migration security interface is very sensitive because there is a risk that if you talk too much about migration in security terms, this will strengthen xenophobia and populist ideas. But on the other hand, it also needs to be addressed. So I’ve started to work on these kinds of topics. Another strand of work that we did quite a bit on was the issue of land restoration—the issue of land degradation across the world, but especially in Africa and how efforts are being made to restore lands, but also how this is related to the conflict and security agenda. This is a rather innovative field, which is more “on the ground” than climate change. Climate change is a little bit more abstract, while land degradation and people needing to leave their land because it no longer sustains them is perhaps a bit more tangible. So these are just a few examples.

Can we start with migration? It’s a sensitive topic, as you point out. And there is not a lot of data, as you mention. So where does one even begin?  How do you tackle something like this, and what are the implications of your findings for different governments dealing with this very real, very current issue?

Well, you can imagine if climate change hits your country, and it affects food, water scarcity etc., it’s logical that you might consider leaving; same if you have a flood, or if your island is sinking in the sea. So people do see the connection between climate change and migration. But then the question is—where do they go? Do they go to the nearby city, or to Europe? And if they come to Europe, then here in Europe—I work in a European think tank—it becomes politically sensitive. And the problem is that in the field of, let’s say, migration economics, there is this very strong theory, the migration hump, which says that people only migrate if they have the means to do so, at least to Europe. And it is believed that because of climate change, they lack the means. So they will crudely say, “starve in the countryside in Africa,” or the Middle East for that matter, and not have the means come to Europe. But I always think, well, that’s not a long-term story, because people who are deprived of livelihoods, basic conditions in life, might not have the means immediately to pay human smugglers to come to Europe, but eventually they might be attracted to radicalization, and conflict might emerge, and then they might have to leave, even without the means. So I don’t think it’s a satisfactory story.

Dr. Sweta Chakraborty, host of the Climate and Security podcast

And then if you turn it around, if you think about, let’s say, the policies which are put in place to address migration from a European perspective, it’s very much about having security forces in North Africa, in the Middle East, and making agreements with countries to stop the flows of migrants coming from these countries, but not—well, to a much lesser extent—addressing these root causes of migration. And, of course, some reasons why people migrate are the attraction of “Europe is better,” and also income inequality. So that’s the push factor. Other factors, which not only have to do with climate change, though some of which can be related to climate change, that belong to the root causes of these migrations, if you start to think about how to address them—by, for instance, trying to create jobs on the countryside—then again, climate change can come into the picture: by doing renewable energy projects, land restoration projects, water projects, agricultural projects, which make the countries more resilient, create jobs, and then also maybe stop migrants. But once you openly say that, then people are angry and they say, “yeah, you’re just relabeling and repackaging development cooperation,” which might in a way be true, but at the end of the day, a lot of the development cooperation is already politicized. And then if migration is a priority, I would rather have it spent on these kinds of projects than on more security forces or a higher wall.

A lot of the things you are describing around what leads to this kind of migration and its implications—can you talk about conflict in a similar way? And if yes, let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between conflict and migration. Do they also reinforce one another? Where do you get conflict versus migration? I’m curious to see the relationship there.

Well, it’s also, to certain extent, disputed. But of course if, let’s say, in a region, a massive migration is flowing into a country—this morning we saw during the Planetary Security Conference the example of Lebanon, where now one third or so of the population is a migrant or a displaced person. And you see this is already a society where different groups are–well, it’s not easy to live together, they manage—but then it adds extra pressures on society. So I think to deny a relationship between migration and security is naïve, and the other way around, of course, security, conflict is one of the main reasons why people migrate.

So we are here at the Planetary Security Initiative (PSI) conference. This is something you have spearheaded, and it’s an incredible gathering of people from all over the world with various backgrounds contributing to the climate and security nexus. What drew you to being involved in this type of organization, and what are you currently working on?

The objective of the initiative is to bring these different communities together—to have a good mix of people from across the world, but also from the PSI “spotlight regions”: Mali, Iraq, Lake Chad, and the Caribbean—to really think about what can be done there to reduce and reverse security risks emanating from climate change. And this focus on, let’s say, “doable” action is very much a thread throughout this conference and I hope also in its aftermath. With the Planetary Security Initiative, over the years we’ve managed to go from awareness on this topic—which was already in existence before we started, since about 2007 when the whole debate on climate as a threat-multiplier started off—until now, let’s say the last two, three years, where it’s recognized in specific regions, in the UN Security Council, and there are first actions being undertaken to do something about it.

This is also very much in line with my own recent work. For instance, we are working on a background paper for the Global Commission on Adaptation, and this centers very much around the question of how climate adaptation measures can also contribute to conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts, and really showcasing practical examples and making the case that if you undertake actions—not necessarily projects, but actions—to adapt to climate change, this can also have “broader benefits” than just development. I mean, that’s already super beneficial, but then you can also help with creating more stability and peace, basically, in a country. And then you should think about concrete projects about water cooperation, land restoration, strengthening food security, climate resilience, agricultural activities. And all these climate adaptation activities can also really help in creating jobs for youth, and livelihoods.

So there are many benefits here, and it’s also about adapting.

Yes. And also these projects that manage to bring together groups in society that would otherwise be at loggerheads. The moment you start discussing how to share the resources that are becoming increasingly scarce, whether it’s energy, or food, or water, land—the moment you get together and you talk about it, and climate change is perhaps your common enemy—it can have wider spinoffs. It’s maybe a very optimistic, maybe even naïve picture, but I think it should be possible, and we have seen already many examples where better natural resources management helps to build peace.

And, of course, we should also recognize that there is the risk that, for instance, the increased adaptation funding, which is expected, is going to be, like normal development corporation, being used in a wrong way. There’s examples that it was used to help the farmers, but then the herders in the same region were not happy with it, so you should avoid maladaptation. But I think the general message is that it can also have this peace dividend.

On land degradation—you were talking about how you’re working on this report for the commission. What’s an example of how to solve some of the land degradation issues?

There are several examples of good land restoration projects; for instance, the work that the Commonland is doing, or what happened with the Loess Plateau in China or in RAN lab by USAID—several interesting projects were implemented. But, of course, one of the biggest examples where also this peace aspect is more prominent is in the Sahel region: the Great Green Wall, but also activities by the Triple S initiative—sustainability, security, stability—where they try to make an effort to restore lands and contribute in that way toward a more positive agenda that also creates stability in the region. And this is, of course, a super sensitive region with huge population growth forecasts; it’s close to Europe, and has terrorist organizations and recruitment. So that’s of great significance.

We have people reading this or listening to the Climate and Security podcast from all over the world who are thinking, there’s such interesting work going on, but how can I contribute to it? What do you say to those who say, “I’d like to get involved, and what can I do to help your cause and to help further your progress?”

I think there are several NGOs that are active in this space in multilateral organizations. Of course it would be great if we could halt climate change, we need to reduce emissions, and try to get on the one-and-a-half-degrees, or two-degrees path. But we also need to accept that nevertheless, consequences of climate change will mean security risks, and you can take governments’ intentions to prepare for these risks into account in your voting/news preferences.

So, there is greater support in America than ever before for the fact that climate change is happening. We’ve tipped the scale to 70% of Americans believe it. But I wonder, what is the attitude in Europe towards climate change awareness, and how does it compare to the US, and what do Europeans think about how Americans think about climate change?

If I speak for my own country, the awareness is super high at the moment, and there are now a lot of government proposals that are being discussed to get the Netherlands onto a path of 49% emission reduction by 2030, and going carbon neutral by 2050. It’s sensitive because there’s a bit of resistance in society to this, but if these plans are adopted, it will really make a difference. There is a youth movement coming up here in the Netherlands, and also in other European countries, protesting for climate. And we see people preferring to eat more sustainably, eating less meat. Flying, taking airplanes is more contested.

Government policy changed a lot because gas exploration in a part of the Netherlands caused some small earthquakes, and that caused a lot of anxiety among people in the region. It was decided that we should stop gas exploration, so we had to make changes. That being said, it’s really a challenge to have this not as a kind of “elitist project,” and also make sure that the climate measures that are eventually chosen are the ones that also take account for, let’s say, an equal share of the burden, because it will take an investment to make this energy transition. The costs, for instance, for getting a household out of gas are enormous. If it’s considered as only the households who have to pay it and not the big multinationals, then yeah, it’s going to be politically difficult. If it’s going to be perceived as a very elitist project, so if the rich can still afford to refurbish their houses and buy an electric car, and what have you, but the everyday person cannot, then it’s going to cause political issues.

Thank you so much for your time and the work that you do with your think tank and the Planetary Security Initiative.

Thank you for having me.

This article is part of a series on climate, peace, and security in partnership with the Center on Climate and Security. It was first published as a podcast on the Center on Climate and Security website.