Alexander Verbeek: Climate Change is Impacting Peace and Security

Video interview with Philip Hellmich

Watch Philip Hellmich’s interview with Alexander Verbeek:

Philip Hellmich was invited by Peace Through Commerce, a co-sponsor of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, to join their team for the 2018 Forum. Peace Through Commerce was tasked with bringing a whole-systems perspective to the Forum, using their Matrix of Peace model.

Alexander Verbeek is one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, peace, and security, having served with the Dutch Foreign Ministry for over 25 years. In my interview with him, he shared how there is growing concern in the international community that climate change is impacting peace and security, especially with regard to the most marginalized populations around the world. He gave examples of population movements in sub-Saharan Africa and central America due to climate change that's making areas uninhabitable. The population movements create conflict with neighbors over resources. With the increase of climate change, it is likely we will see more “climate refugees” and the inevitable instability and conflicts that result. National governments and international agencies are increasingly looking at how to respond to the growing crisis.


So we're here in Oslo, Norway, and we've been at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum looking at how to address the climate crisis. And I'm here with Alexander Verbeek, who is one of the world's leading experts at looking at climate change and security. You were with the Dutch Foreign Ministry for 25 years, you're now a private consultant advising governments around the world, and looking at this intersection of climate change, security, the risk, what do we do, and how do we address it. And I just want to say, it's personally inspiring to know that you're looking at this. So thank you for that. When we were walking over here, you were talking about when did the governments first really start to look at this relationship between climate change and security? Could you give us a little background on that?

I think the year that is normally mentioned is 2007, so it's the year of An Inconvenient Truth, the movie of Al Gore. It woke a lot of people up, including the people in the security council that for the first time discussed about the impact of climate change on security. Rumor has it that the debate was mainly about whether they are allowed to debate about it or not, whether it should be in the security council, so we've moved forward since then I would say. It's also the year that for the first time was the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] in Vienna and a few days later NATO's ministerial council, both of them at ministerial level agreed on a declaration on the impact of climate change on security. And since then, this debate has moved on. If you look at the last year, there were three resolutions in the security council where it is referred to the impact of climate change and security as a factor in situations in different countries and regions, mainly in this case in Africa, in the Sahel zone.

And so, it seems like climate change is more and more in the media, you know, and there's some people that say it doesn't exist, and yet there's all this scientific evidence. And you're looking at what is the hard potential impact of climate change. So could you say a little bit about, just for people who might be new to this intersection, what we're talking about. How are climate change and security related?

Well, first of all, on those scientists, the scientists are absolutely clear:all the real climate scientists say climate change is man-made, it is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, mainly caused by more CO2 in the air, on top of a number of other elements. All of them differ on very specific details, but the basic science is just out there. Anybody that claims to be a scientist that says that climate change is a hoax is not a scientist, you can be sure of that.

Now how this works, I mean, there's many ways that climate change can impact security, but take for instance the situation, let's say you take a country in the Sahel region just south of the Sahara in Africa, where every year it is getting a little bit drier than the year before. Temperatures going up, rainfall is becoming less, the periods of drought are more frequent, they last longer. So the result is that if you are, let's say a herdsman with your goats, that you have less goats that survive. You need water for your goats, so you go to the area where there's still water. But there you find the farmers that are growing their fields. They need the same water. You've got a competition for the water. Combine that with other events. Take, for instance, the influx of weapons out of Libya. So whereas in the past, conflicts with water could have been fought out, whatever, with your fists, now you have sophisticated guns to kill each other in a situation where there's competition for water.

And these kind of situations you find everywhere, and they influence each other. So for instance, the situation in Libya, the fallout in 2011, which we can call the Arab Spring. We saw that all over northern Africa, and the Middle East, in many, many countries at the same time, revolutions broke out that were triggered in, to simplify it a bit, in a combination by consistent drought in many of these countries, but especially by quickly rising food prices all over northern Africa and the Middle East. Food that was produced in Russia and in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, even Australia, and there they had a bad harvest, which is three times as more likely because of climate change. This is something that scientists can calculate. Therefore the food prices rose steeply in northern Africa and the Middle East and everywhere in the world. That's triggered in combination with other reasons, all kinds of uprisings. That led to this completely unstable situation in Libya, where all the army barracks with the arms were looted. Those arms trickled down south, where you just have the situation that I described. I could go on and on.

But all these complex relationships impact each other. And the impacts of climate change makes you realize we're only at the beginning. We're now only worldwide at one degree rise in temperature, with huge local differences. So in the Arctic it goes much faster, for instance. So we're only at the beginning to see this impact. We're at the same time in a combination, in the period we're in, population growth is still rapid. But what is especially rapidly growing is the number of people in the world that manage to escape poverty, and live the life, like what you call the world middle-class, people that drive a car, people that eat meat, people that maybe sometimes fly in a plane. Roughly you could say that between 2010 and 2030, the world middle-class is growing from a bit more than two billion people to five billion people, who all want to consume and live. And for each and every individual that manages to get out of there, that's an amazing progress, and I'm happy for them, but it's only possible on this planet that is not growing, if we do things differently, if we organize our lives differently.

Whereas if we keep the same lifestyle of massive consumption and burning of fossil fuels that increases climate change that causes the shift, I just want to acknowledge first of all, several factors here. A, the influx of weapons. I personally saw this with sub-Saharan Africa, where small weapons just flooded the market in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, just went into hell. So that's a factor. And then we have fragile states, governments that, especially ones that are coming out of civil war, those are fragile states. And then you bring in this factor of what you're describing, of food shortages, water shortages, movements of population, instability, people dealing with conflicts, instead of peacefully, dealing with them with deadly violence. This is a pretty scary scenario here.

Yeah, it is.

And so you've been seeing this already playing out, is that right?

Well, we've been seeing this, yeah, there's already a lot of examples. I think the first one that was quoted already in, soon after 2000, was the Darfur situation. Now there's people often refer to the situation in Syria. But if you look at a more local level, you can find examples everywhere. I would say, if you go like, take Honduras, where people grow coffee on a mountain slope. So the powerful people that for generations owned the right zone on the mountain are suddenly having bad crops, whereas the poorer people that lived further up on the mountain have now better crops because of temperature rise, the good zone has moved up. That gives tensions and conflicts as well, so you could go on and on in all kinds of areas which are less obvious, which is not on the evening news. But it leads to a lot of conflicts.

Yes, and a lot of population movement, and then also it's the people who are really, what's the word? The most vulnerable people are to be, I mean, we're seeing fires in California, but yet they have the resources to deal with it. I mean, they are horrific fires, and yet the most vulnerable people in some of these more fragile states, lives are really at risk here.

Yes, and keep in mind that they are the countries that have contributed practically zero to the development of climate change. They're the innocent ones, so it is created first of all by America and Europe, and nowadays the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is China, which at the same time is also doing a lot on developing renewable energy, there's a bit of two-face there, but the kind of countries we were just talking about, take, whatever, Burkina Faso, or Mali, or a country like that, they have... you can put it at zero; it's not literally zero, but of course their contribution has been absolutely minimal. And they get the worst climatic impacts, and on top of that they have the least what we call resilience to deal with it. This capacity the way that you described it, and their government structures, and the way that the economy is organized, and in the way that they are dependent on the food that they eat or the water that they have. Generally those countries are so much worse off to have the flexibility to deal with these impacts.

So you're in the midst of these conversations. You're talking with the German government, the Swedish government, you're talking to all these different levels. How serious are governments now taking this relationship between climate change and security?

I think that increasingly people see it probably. Because it used to be, I think when we discussed it in 2007 for the first time, it was a little bit like a theoretical concept. You could understand it, so you understand that if it gets drier that people start to move and that there's tensions. But we didn't see it so much. Now that we have seen it happening, especially in the case of the Arab Spring, but you could also look in other places, you see maybe not between countries, but within countries, you see a lot of tensions. So we have more examples.

And I think the other thing that is happening is that now, here in the West, in the northern hemisphere, in this terrible summer of heat waves in 2018, you must have been blind not to see that something is changing. That was not just the weather, I mean, it's, theoretically it could have been... we've always had heat waves, but everywhere, all over the northern hemisphere, you're seeing these heat waves, seeing that the four warmest years ever were the past four years and that 19 of the 20 warmest years ever were in the last 20 years. So you see the climate change happening in front of your eyes, you see the kind of conflicts that are developing. So governments are becoming aware, also you see that international organizations start to write it in their strategies. They're not that far yet, you see it a little bit, that they're actually changing their structures. So I think we are at the beginning, only at the beginning of an awareness that something's fundamentally going to change.

Okay. And if, when we were talking walking over here, the challenges, there's already in motion the potential of more horrific weather changes. And so that's already in motion... let alone if we do not decrease the carbon output, it could be exponential. So how do we prepare? How do governments prepare? How do people prepare for what's happening? How to reduce the emissions is one thing; how do we prepare for this vulnerable situation... the lack of security?

Well, the first thing you already mentioned, the most important thing is as soon as possible, bring down the emissions. Where you should first of all focus on the use of fossil fuels for our energy, and there's a lot of other things you can do in reducing the way we produce, et cetera. But especially, stop the use of fossil fuels — that's the easy line to remember. But then how do you prepare? That's much more difficult because it is such a complex thing, such a complex network of measures you should take.

In 2015 the whole world agreed in New York on the agenda of 2030. Basically, what shall we do in the world to prepare for a better world so that we can get sustainable development? That was split up in those colorful squares, that you often see the 17 sustainable development goals, or the global goals as they are called. And there lies a bit the answer. If you really want to prepare for a sustainable world where everybody can live in a way on this planet that we are not taking something from the planet, but that we give it back in the same quality to the next generation, then you have to take those 17 boxes. We're actually down to 69, they split them up in smaller parts of what should be done. That means that you have to take care of the water, of the food. You have to tackle poverty, you have to work on plan change, you need good governance, and I could go on and on.

You need to work on all of that. That means you need international solidarity and cooperation, you need good governance, and maybe that is, if there is one word that we need. Also in the past two days, when we discussed here at the forum what is really needed most of all, we did a poll, it was all the people in the room, just before Al Gore spoke, you could choose some options, what you think it is. Everybody said... most people said we need better governance. That is so essential right now.

Before we go into that question there, it seems like the climate change is forcing humanity into collaboration. Like this challenge is presenting a situation where we're gonna have to collaborate at a level that we've never done before. And so speak with me or tell us a little bit about what you're seeing evolving there, and any fundamental shift of this human mindset about 'there's me and mine, there's me and my family, there's me and my country, now it's me and this whole world.' So speak with us a little bit about what you're seeing on this potential around collaboration mindset.

Yes, I think collaboration, the way we have organized our... the way we work on this planet, already for many centuries, is that states work together, and states come together in international meetings to make decisions. We set up the League of Nations after the first World War, and then after the second World War, we had the need to do differently, we have the United Nations. So normally we work between countries. Increasingly now you see that, between countries it's been difficult, because everybody points at another one. Somebody else should start first.

And we see this very much with the climate change debates, where first we had a treaty that was very strict, but hardly anybody joined in. And then we tried one that was so broad that everybody wanted to join in but there was not much in it, and then finally we had the Paris Agreement that was a bit of a mix of the two — you kind of set your standards, you agree on a number of principles, and how much warmer we can maximum allow the planet to go, but then we are quite firm on checking each other, to summarize it very simply. But is that enough? Well clearly it is not. If we would now, if all the countries would fulfill their commitments under the Paris Agreement, we would still see a rise of, let's say about three-and-a half-degrees Centigrade, which is way too much. It sounds like nothing, but it's...

Okay, what does that mean?

Okay, three-and-a-half degrees means something like that huge areas on this planet will be so hot certain times of the year that nobody can live there anymore. It means massive reduction in our food production. It means tremendous challenges of still providing fresh water for everyone, probably in a way that we're not able to do it unless we do very creative inventions. That might lead, if we talk about climate and security, to a lot of tensions between different groups within countries, and between countries.

You already see... it was in Europe, we stopped fighting each other already a long time ago, but take for instance River Rhine, which is one of the arteries of transport in Europe. That was now, after the summer, down to only a quarter of its capacity of being able to transport routes. These are the kind of, we won't start fighting about it, we will help each other in dealing with this problem, but that is with only one degree warming, and not even for a long time, we just hit the one degree. You already see these kind of huge impacts. Imagine this on a much bigger scale in countries that are more vulnerable and have more tensions, where more people depend on it.

I think especially if you look at that kind of scenario, three or four degrees maybe, you can look at South Asia, where so many people are living. And then there's like one or two billion people probably dependent on the water that comes from the Himalaya, the glaciers on the Himalaya are melting fast. Sometimes at the wrong period a lot of water comes down, but in other periods we don't have enough water for a people that need it to grow their food and to live on it. So it will lead to basically, a terrible deterioration of the quality of life for billions of people. So we want to avoid that, so therefore we need what they call the mitigation, less and less fossil fuels, less greenhouse gases... I drifted off a little bit. Apart from states working together, you need all kinds of cooperation possibilities. That could be cities, that can be business communities, it can be in NGOs. So we need all hands on deck to tackle this crisis.

Al Gore was saying all hands on deck, and we've been hearing people from the finance sector, it sounds like the finance sector and businesses are really moving into this, where some governments, like the U.S. government right now, is stumbling on it.

Some businesses too, by the way.

And some businesses. And then others are stepping up, cities are stepping up, and the fact that you mentioned that, and Al Gore mentioned, that you can't deny the science. Opinion is one thing, science is another. So we are seeing a lot of people stepping up, and it is all hands on deck. So for people who may listen to this interview, why, this balance of being aware of the threat, and the dangers, and this relationship between climate, security, deadly conflict, lack of food, and taking action, and then the hope and inspiration. What is your vision of what success would look like? What is your vision in hoping what you can give the people?

I think success looks like cooperation to tackle this issue between the countries. It's a lot of solidarity; you need more equality on this planet. We're on the wrong trend, we got more inequality, we need more equality. So that means solidarity and helping those countries that are impacted by the effects of climate change, which is a moral, ethical, right thing to do. But even if you have no moral values at all, and you only think about your own interests, don't think that this is only somebody else's problem far away, because the food that you eat, or the products that you use, and even the people that come to your country, if you want to use that argument... we are on one very well-connected planet. So we're in this together. So I would say use cooperation.

I think a good example is an initiative that I'm involved with, which is called GMACCC — it's the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change. These are senior military leaders, often just retired. They're former generals or vice admirals from all over the world, many countries. They work together to warn the general public and governments about how they as military people perceive this threat. Because they are used to assess a threat while you don't have all the details, I mean, there's typically, military people are trained to make decisions on the best information available. And all the best information that they have now available, they are warning the world saying, "We as military people see that this will be the cause of potential conflicts, on a lot of misery, and we call on action. Let's now prepare for what is coming." And often in a lot of countries, you see that the military people are... or the military organization is the best organization in the country. So that might also lead, let's say in disaster relief, that they should also be active.

You know, I'm really glad you mentioned this. As you say, some of the forward thinking on climate change and security has come from military there. And you mentioned the report by Captain Porter and Colonel Puck Mykleby, and you get a grand strategy issued by the Pentagon, and they came out with climate change being one of the greatest threats to security, and what they talked about education they'd need, and then collaboration.

Yeah, yeah. It's interesting to see that the United States was the first and the best in, especially the Pentagon, was coming out with studies on how these things are interrelated. They've also done a separate study that was more the combined intelligence agencies, specifically water in 2012, which there's a large part of that is publicly available, where they warn on the... it's very much climate related, the impact of lack of access to water for many people in the world, what kind of security impacts that will have. So the U.S. has been at the forefront of the research and publications, and the Quadrennial Defense Reviews you see is coming back. So you would hope that all governments in the world, including the United States government, would read those reports and then take action on climate change.


And hopefully U.S. government will be. And just a brief comment on that, 'cause I know Al Gore was very direct that the U.S. government right now is actually the voice against climate change. How are other governments responding to the U.S. official stance?

Well, countries are very outspoken. It's the only country in the world that has announced that they would leave the Paris Agreement on climate change, and all countries are outspoken that this is the best agreement we could get. It is a really good agreement. The U.S. has actively negotiated and played a very positive role in getting this agreement, so it is bad for the planet and bad for the U.S. to announce, to step out of this agreement.

And then we heard today how cities like New York and the state of California are really stepping up, and businesses also.

I think in the Al Gore speech, he said at a certain moment, and he got a big applause, he said, "Let's remember everybody, I just want to tell you that Donald Trump is not the same as the United States of America." And then people applauded, and of course, if you think about what, let's say the state of California is doing, it will be the first economy in the world that will be independent country. They are very active in, they said, very progressive targets. I think they are moving towards 100 percent renewable energy or electricity. I'm not sure, I heard two versions, in 2045. Or see like the city of New York, there's many more, there's many cities and also businesses in America that have said, "Well, maybe our fellow government might announce to step out of the Paris Agreement, but we as our business or our city or our organization, we commit to what was said in the Paris Agreement." And that gives a lot of hope.

That's wonderful. Well we're gonna wrap up here, so just a couple questions. For an individual, listening in their home, whether in Europe or Africa or U.S., any insights or implications for action, hope, and action?

Well, as an individual, speaking to you now in the camera, looking at me, there's a lot of things that you can do. You don't have to wait for your government to take action, although I would encourage you if you're in a country where you're free to vote, vote for a party that takes climate change serious, because it's important not just for you, but also for your children and the next generations that are coming. But there's a lot you can do apart from just voting. For instance, use more public transport, or fly less. Take a holiday destination that's nearer to home. Or stop eating meat. That's one of the best things you can do. The production of meat takes enormous amounts of resources of this planet, and produces a lot of CO2. On top of that, it's much better for your health, and it's also much better for the animals, because the suffering that we do to the animals to produce that meat, that is immeasurable, and I won't talk about it, but Google some movies about how you treat your animals before you eat your next steak.

So think about what you can do. Also reduce waste. Use less plastic, for instance. Same thing — Google what plastic is doing in the oceans, what happens to marine life, but also, that's also something for your own health. The plastics break up in microplastics. They come back in food chain. At the end of the day, they end up on your plate. You're eating somebody else's plastic. Let's just stop using plastic that is thrown away after using once, and if you throw it away, do it in a wastepaper basket, but don't throw it in the ocean. I could go on for a long time. I'll stop here.

And then how do people learn more about you and your work?

I'm quite big on Twitter, I got two different accounts — together they are like more than 200,000 people, so it's @Alex_Verbeek, making a bit of a commercial here for myself. So you can follow me on Twitter, or on Instagram it's my full name, AlexanderVerbeek, is one word. I do a lot of public speaking, so yeah, I'm either online or offline, so people can find me.

Well, I want to thank you, and also thank you for what the Dutch government has been doing around the world.

Thank you very much. We remain very active on social media.

Yeah, well I personally appreciate their support in Sierra Leone.

I'm not representing the Dutch government here, I should say, I've done that for a long time in my life. I'm now independent, but I'm still Dutch, so I'm glad to hear good things about my government.

And so here we are in Oslo, Norway, Nobel Peace Prize Forum, with Alexander Verbeek, and so stay tuned for more. So thank you very much.

Thank you.

Click here to read Philip Hellmich's article about his experiences — and watch the video interviews he films — while at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo, Norway in December 2018:

Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 2: The Interview Issue