Fighting over the leftovers: Resource depletion and the potential for conflict

SGR Conference and AGM 2007

University of London Union, UK; 6 October

Main presentations:
'Climate change and conflict' by Dan Smith, Secretary-General, International Alert
'Energy, peak oil and conflict' by Dr Mandy Meikle, Depletion Scotland

Workshops: Water and conflict - past, present and future; Using less in our homes; Volunteering for SGR

Summarised by Stuart Parkinson, Martin Quick, Tim Foxon, Sean Macintosh



SGR's conference this year focused on the increasingly important links between the depletion of resources, including water and oil, and possible conflict. The event comprised two keynote speakers in the morning session, Dan Smith of International Alert and Mandy Meikle of Depletion Scotland, with three parallel sessions in the afternoon. Sandwiched in between, SGR's AGM took place. The event attracted approximately 70 participants.


Climate change and conflict

Dan Smith, Secretary-General of International Alert (a peace-building NGO), spoke about the potential for climate change to lead to conflict.

He began by pointing out that the impacts of climate change are already starting to be seen around the world, and these are undermining the resource base, especially water, with much potential for conflict. He gave examples including the case of water shortages in Peru, where a major retreat of glaciers has led to a reduction in the melt-water upon which local populations depend.

With the time-lags in the climate system, it can be several decades before much of the impact of carbon emissions is felt by society. So, Smith argued, even if we achieve large cuts in emissions soon, adaptation is still going to be an important part of the response to climate change. Different countries have different capacities to deal with the effects. As an example, he compared the low-lying countries of The Netherlands and Bangladesh. With the former being wealthy, having strong institutions and a peaceful recent past, it is far more capable of adapting to climate change, whereas Bangladesh is unsurprisingly much more vulnerable.

Research conducted by International Alert has pinpointed 46 nations at high risk of armed conflict resulting, in part, from a changing climate. They estimate that a further 56 nations will not cope adequately and will become politically unstable as the climate changes. Armed conflict may also result in these countries.

No war ever has a single cause, Smith said, but climate change can exacerbate other factors leading to violence. For example, in a country where many people are dependent on pastoral and/or agricultural land, they will be vulnerable to the impact of a changing climate on crop yields. This could lead to competition and then hostility between different groups of people. Ethnic and cultural differences could then become emphasised. If political leaders fail to tackle this divide or, worse, actively exploit it, then armed conflict can quickly result. Darfur, Smith argued, is a clear example where this sort of spiral has occurred.


How can the potential for conflict be reduced in vulnerable areas?

Smith outlined an important strategy which can be successful. During processes of negotiation or reconciliation, joint projects between divided communities can be very important. These joint projects can be environmentally focused, including adaptation to climate change. It can be the case that an over-arching "superordinate threat" like climate change can help bring communities together in common action.

Questions from the floor raised issues such as the role of "spoilers" e.g., arms traders, the fragility of peace processes, environmental debt, the effectiveness of mediation, and funding of development/peace NGOs to work on environmental issues.


Energy, peak oil and conflict

The second keynote speaker was Mandy Meikle of Depletion Scotland. She spoke about "peak oil" and its potential to cause conflict, as well as its relationship to the climate change issue. She emphasised that there were many common aspects between the problems of peak oil and climate change, but that they could only be successfully tackled if they were considered together.

Peak oil is the concept that, at some time, global oil production will reach a peak, after which it becomes progressively more difficult to extract oil and production declines. Many energy analysts believe the peak will occur soon (and some believe it may even have occurred) but economic problems start to become significant before the peak is reached, when demand for oil climbs above the production from easily accessible reserves. With demand from rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India increasing, this imbalance may already be starting to occur as witnessed by recent sharp price increases. The rate of extraction of oil has exceeded the rate of discovery of new reserves for many decades. Two-thirds of remaining oil is thought to be in the Middle East (though the reserves of many countries in this region are thought to be overstated) and three-quarters of reserves are in countries which are members of the Organisation for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Even the normally optimistic International Energy Agency believes non-OPEC oil production will peak by 2015, leaving the world very dependent on oil from potentially unstable countries.

There is a high potential for conflict when oil supplies become scarce, and oil has been a major factor in recent conflicts, for example the 1990-91 Gulf War, the current Iraq war (however strenuously denied by politicians) and in Southern Sudan, where China has been backing the Sudanese government. Oil and gas pipelines are being routed through many unstable countries in Central Asia, and the oil companies have been given rights to protect the pipelines from sabotage with military force.

Although increased oil prices would tend to force demand reduction, increase energy efficiency and encourage the exploitation of renewables, an arguably more common effect is the wider application of much more energy intensive processes for oil production. Examples of these include exploitation of unconventional sources such as tar sands and conversion of coal to liquid fuels.

In terms of what needs to be done, Dr Meikle said increasing public awareness of the size of the problem was vital to encourage greater acceptance of the need to reduce oil consumption. She briefly discussed the role that the newly emerging "Transition Towns" network could play in raising this awareness and developing a sense of community in responding to the challenge.


Annual General Meeting

The SGR AGM took place after lunch. Philip Webber, Chair of SGR, opened the proceedings, and the minutes of last year's AGM and matters arising were dealt with. Stuart Parkinson, Director of SGR, introduced the Annual Report, summarising the organisation's activity during the period from March 2006 to February 2007. He highlighted successful project work on ethical careers and the military influence in science and technology. He also outlined SGR's lobbying and advocacy work on issues ranging from nuclear weapons to climate change. While the parliamentary vote (shortly after the end of the reporting period) in favour of Trident replacement was especially disappointing, he emphasised that other campaign groups had been very appreciative of SGR's work on this issue. Stuart also outlined the organisational development of SGR during this period, which included moving into a new office, recruiting a new staff member, Jane Wilson, and efforts to expand the membership. The accounts were also summarised. The election for this year's National Co-ordinating Committee (NCC) were then held, with the following result:

Chair: Philip Webber

Vice-chair: Kate Macintosh

Treasurer: Patrick Nicholson

Secretary: [vacant]

Committee members:

Alasdair Beal, Roy Butterfield, Alan Cottey, Tim Foxon, Patricia Hughes, Martin Quick, Harry Tsoumpas

Stuart then gave an update on SGR activities from March up until the present, especially further activities related to Trident replacement, given there is still a possibility of stopping this. SGR's researcher, Chris Langley, described his recent work examining military involvement in universities. He also pointed out that SGR had launched a new briefing, "More Soldiers in the Laboratory".

SGR Member David Hookes next outlined a proposal for an "Alternatives to Trident replacement" competition, whereby students/ scientists etc would be encouraged to submit suggestions for projects which would use the huge amounts of money intended to be spent on Trident for something much more ethical. Discussion of this proposal was generally supportive. It was also suggested that SGR should monitor government proposals for eco-towns.




Water and conflict: past, present and future

This workshop, convened by Philip Webber, had a lively debate about the role of water in conflict creation and resolution, following on from Dan Smith's earlier presentation. The importance of water as a factor in exacerbating conflicts has been highlighted by the Global Policy Forum, the Pacific Institute and WWF, amongst others. Workshop participants highlighted a wide range of water issues, including droughts, floods, water potability and quality, irrigation and fisheries, and water-power, giving rise to different types of conflict, including over access, ownership, infrastructure, disease vectors and eutrophication. Dr Webber highlighted that water access has been used as a tool of war since 2500 BC. Several individual cases of water-related conflict were then discussed, including Israel/Palestine, US/Mexico, and in sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, an animated discussion was held on the pros and cons of the proposed Severn Tidal Barrage, following the recent publication of a report on tidal power by the Sustainable Development Commission.


Using less in our homes

Alan Cottey of SGR introduced this workshop by reminding us that sustainable living is as much about the choices we make at an individual level as at governmental and international levels. The discussion group focused on many aspects of sustainable living within the home.

Alan described how he had attended the first "Camp for Climate Action" (in 2006) and had taken a particular interest in how the camp was seeking to provide an alternative model for green living and stimulate an interest in the personal aspects of this as well as the political. The workshop then discussed personal hygiene and how we can educate ourselves to use water more frugally when bathing or showering. Many ideas were expounded such as how a basin flannel wash (instead of a shower) can considerably reduce water consumption.

The discussion then widened to others aspects of low-impact living including: solar hot water systems; the energy- and water-efficiency of dishwashers versus hand washing dishes; the sustainability of recycling if waste was shipped to China for processing; and the current regulation and practice related to the recycling of electronic waste and batteries. The workshop participants also discussed the difficulty of trying to lead a "one-planet" lifestyle when living in rented accommodation and with others less keen on sustainability.


Volunteering for SGR

Stuart Parkinson ran the third workshop whose aim was to discuss SGR activities which are or could be carried out by volunteers, and especially to look at how more SGR members could be encouraged to get involved.

Stuart began by summarising the current activities in which volunteers are involved, for example, helping to maintain the website, staffing SGR stalls at external events and, of course, being a member of SGR's National Co-ordinating Committee. The ensuing discussion covered a number of areas, including whether volunteer activity would increase if SGR were more decentralised (e.g. had local groups) and whether members were fully aware of the range of volunteer options available. Regarding the latter, it was suggested that more prominence could be given to volunteering in the newsletter and on the email-list, sgrforum. The profile of sgrforum could also be higher. The possibility of setting up a web-based discussion forum was also considered. Another suggestion was that lessons could be learnt from events/ forums such as "Be the change" and "World café".

The workshop also discussed a number of ideas for more project-orientated activity. In particular, David Hookes' Trident competition (see above) was discussed in more detail, as was possible activity on the eco-towns issue. Another idea was the possibility of SGR setting-up or hosting "wiki" web-pages for use by members, especially as one of the workshop participants was looking for a way of encouraging discussion of her new online book on the economics of climate change.


Concluding comments

Kate Macintosh, Vice-chair of SGR, summarised the workshops and brought a busy and stimulating day to a close with a vote of thanks to all those whose hard work had made the conference possible, notably Office Manager, Kate Maloney.

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