Natural Disasters as Threats to Peace

Published: 
February 15, 2013
By: 
Frederick S. Tipson

As natural disasters and extreme environmental events increase in severity, it is time to consider how vulnerabilities brought on by population growth, urbanization, economic fragility, and climate change could lead to deadly conflict. This new report argues that policymakers should look beyond the familiar, more imminent threats and make plans to deal with the natural security implications of less likely but higher impact scenarios.

Summary

  • Natural disasters and extreme environmental events are expected to increase in number and severity on a global scale, elevating levels of economic, social, and political stress that could provoke both civil and international conflicts.
  • Population growth, urbanization, economic fragility, and climate change are major factors in an interactive pattern of growing global vulnerabilities, compounded by widespread political inaction to address them.
  • Enlarged urban and coastal populations in strategically important locations are at heightened risk of massive casualties, political strife, and increased regional tensions from major earthquakes, floods, and disease.
  • Large natural disasters could also degrade key dimensions of the global economy—food, water, energy, medicine, supply chains, livelihoods—arousing widespread popular anxieties that could provoke preemptive protective measures.
  • Intelligence agencies, think tanks, and academic specialists should increase their focus on the potential for major disasters in various parts of the world to cause economic, social, and political “ripple effects” that lead to deadly conflicts.
  • Reducing the direct harm of such disasters will require initiatives in three areas: increasing local resilience, improving relief capabilities, and, where unavoidable, facilitating relocation from the most vulnerable areas.
  • Avoiding adverse secondary consequences to political stability and human security will require both national and international collaboration to elevate the priority of preventing violent conflicts that could arise from these “natural assaults.”

About the Report

This report was completed by the author as a Jennings Randolph senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) during 2011–12. It highlights increasing dangers to U.S. citizens and international threats to peace from expected increases in the number and scale of extreme natural events across the globe. Population increases and concentrations, economic weaknesses and climate volatility, combined with the vulnerability of food, water, and public health systems, present risks of major casualties and disruptions. Political dysfunction and inaction compound the risk that popular anxieties will provoke protective political actions, which could lead to aggressive competition for scarce resources, heightened political tensions, and even violent conflicts.

About the Author

Frederick S. Tipson is an adviser to the USIP Center of Innovation on Science, Technology, and Peacebuilding. His career has included positions in the UN Development Programme, Microsoft, Hongkong Telecom, AT&T, the Markle Foundation, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the University of Virginia Law School. Tipson received a BA in history from Stanford, an MA in international relations from Yale, and JD and PhD degrees from the University of Virginia.

February 15, 2013