Dynamic mapping, other techniques enable Strauss Center scholars to pinpoint African areas most vulnerable to climate change

Feb. 1, 2010

Since the Cold War's end, the source of threats to America's security has shifted from great powers to failing states.

Terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Genocide in Darfur and Rwanda. Peacekeeping and disaster relief efforts threaten to strain an already stretched military.

Now the Defense Department is considering a new factor in political instability—climate change—and it's enlisting the aid of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin's Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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"Bringing multidisciplinary knowledge together to produce cutting-edge, policy-relevant research is what the Strauss Center is all about," Strauss Center Director Francis J. Gavin says. "We are excited to be able to leverage the extraordinary talents of The University of Texas at Austin and our research team to bring a fresh analytical perspective and original thinking to an emerging global issue."

In October, the center's Program on Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS) received a $7.6 million Defense Department grant to identify how climate change will affect the continent's political landscape and provide practical guidance to minimize its effects.

The five-year, collaborative endeavor includes leading scholars from across the United States and Europe.  It will also work to develop partnerships in the U.S. and international Africa policy communities. Researchers will combine case studies and interviews with cutting-edge quantitative analysis, thematic map creation and spatial analysis using Geographic Information Systems to tackle this complicated and far-reaching issue.

Africa on the Edge

Although climate change remains a politically sensitive topic, most scientists agree greenhouse gas emissions have altered Earth's atmosphere enough to affect weather patterns. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts extreme storms, droughts and floods will damage the environment and displace millions of people.

Africa could be hardest hit. Although Africa's geography ranges from vast deserts to lush jungles, the plants, animals and human populations have adapted to each region's particular weather patterns. Climatologists believe even a small change in temperature or rainfall could throw intricate ecosystems off-balance, create water shortages or lead to famine.

Exacerbating the problem is the continent's widespread poverty. Twenty-two of the world's 30 poorest countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is very fragile as a continent.

"Africa is very fragile as a continent," says Ambassador Gregory Engle (Ret.), associate director of the Strauss Center and a key investigator on the CCAPS project. "It has the highest proportion of people who are at or below the poverty line. Many of its governments have great difficulty delivering even a basic level of service to their people, let alone responding to the complex emergencies climate change might impose."

This confluence of sensitive ecosystems, impoverished people and vulnerable governments is the heart of CCAPS research.

Where to Look

Engle, a career U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to the Togolese Republic, says the hardships will not be shared equally. Some countries will fare better than others. And some countries are of greater concern to U.S. national interests than others.

"There are 54 countries in Africa. We can't do a case study on each one," Engle says. "Part of the program is to determine in which countries climate change will have the greatest impact on regional stability."

In addition to asking climatologists to create more detailed predictions of changing weather patterns, CCAPS is creating a set of computer-aided analyses and spatial models. These technological tools will help investigators determine where and how climate change threatens political stability.

Strauss Center Distinguished Scholar and LBJ School Professor Joshua Busby, along with Clionadh Raleigh of Trinity College Dublin, leads an effort to create multilayered maps called Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments. These assessments map the historic incidence of climate-related disasters and then add layers of data, including indicators of community health, conflict, population and ethnic groups.

"We want to see where multiple dimensions of vulnerability—geographic, household, political, and demographic—come together. We want to be able to say not just that Ethiopia is vulnerable but which parts of Ethiopia are vulnerable and why," says Busby, who has written extensively on climate and security issues.

This is not your typical ivory tower exercise. Strauss Center Director Francis J. Gavin

The detailed maps can then be compared to U.S. strategic interests across the continent.

"The maps in general should serve to guide policymakers on where to concentrate resources and attention," Busby says.

The Information Gap

Though researchers are working to connect the dots between climate change and political instability in Africa, an information gap remains. Data on environmental events, such as droughts and floods, has not been correlated with factors such as warfare, crime and communal violence.

Two Strauss Center Fellows and University of North Texas professors—Cullen Hendrix and Idean Salehyan—are aggregating thousands of data points to create a comprehensive dataset that will explore possible connections between climate, climate change and violence.

"This will be a major resource for scholars, government agencies, journalists and international organizations," Hendrix says. "The creation of widely available, comprehensive datasets is one of the most basic ways to increase quantitative research on the climate change-conflict nexus."

Adaptation through Aid

If vulnerability maps and dataset creation weren't enough, Busby and Strauss Center Research Coordinator and LBJ School Professor Kate Weaver lead another critical component of the program.

"Who has been giving development and humanitarian aid for climate change adaptation efforts? Where is the money going? How is it being used?" Weaver asks. "There hasn't been a systematic mapping of climate change aid in Africa—probably because it's a new issue."

So new in fact, that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) only began tracking climate-change-related assistance at the start of this year.

Weaver and Busby will work with scholars at the College of William & Mary and Brown University to develop a comprehensive and searchable dataset of the thousands of international aid projects for climate change adaptation in Africa. Aid agencies, such as the World Bank and USAID, as well as private philanthropic groups, could then use the information to coordinate their efforts and to conduct program evaluations.

Creating Opportunities

The researchers' sophisticated approaches give a new dimension to the CCAPS work. Researchers can confront complex questions using techniques that were unavailable even a few years ago.

This is not your typical ivory tower exercise. Strauss Center Director Francis J. Gavin

"Innovative research techniques and tools, combined with the explicit drive to produce concrete policy solutions that can be implemented, mean that this is not your typical ivory tower exercise," Gavin says.

In fact, it could hold the key to preventing war over shifting resources, or saving lives when a natural disaster strikes.

Graduate students will be able to participate in a two-semester research seminar that will analyze whether African governments have the ability to handle complex, climate-change-related scenarios.

Including graduate student research is an important component of CCAPS.

"We want to advance scholarship in this field," Engle says. "We also want to develop the next generation of scholars."

Future Trends

Footing the bill for all this research is the Defense Department's new Minerva Research Initiative—a fact that has turned more than a few heads.

Engle is quick to dispel worries that the military might harbor ulterior motives or try to censor CCAPS research. Everything—the vulnerability assessments, datasets, case studies, policy briefs—will be available to the public through the CCAPS Web site.

"We hope that, with all we will have learned through our CCAPS research," Engle says, "the Strauss Center and The University of Texas at Austin will be able to provide useful guidance to policy makers in the United States and Africa and be able to lead on this topic into the future."

For more information, contact: By Todd Gernert