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Creeping Environmental Changes Diplomacy

in association with
Radix:  Radical Interpretations of and Solutions for Disasters

Disaster Diplomacy for Creeping Environmental Changes
(Also termed "creeping environmental problems" and "creeping environmental phenomena". Includes climate change, global warming, and ice ages.)


  • Definition, from both of the Glantz (1994) references listed below:
    Incremental changes in conditions which cumulate to create a major catastrophe or crisis, apparent only after a threshold has been crossed.

  • Description by Ilan Kelman (17 August 2007):
             Creeping environmental changes such as desertification, salinization, and climate change significantly impact all spatial scales, frequently crossing borders, making them useful cases for disaster diplomacy. Examples are droughts in southern Africa from 1991 to 1993 and from 2002 to 2003; relocation of coastal communities due to sea-level rise including on small island states; changes to the Aral and Caspian Seas; and the impact of precipitation changes on Fouta Djalon, the headwaters in Guinea from where the Niger, Senegal, and Gambia Rivers start. Disaster diplomacy failures, such as the Eritrea/Ethiopia contribute to the analysis. Spin-offs include Environmental Diplomacy, examining whether or not environmental management issues and treaties could lead to lasting, positive diplomatic outcomes beyond environmental management.
             Lessons, mirroring other disaster diplomacy work, include:
    -A useful form of cooperation amongst hostile states or within states with conflicts occurs through scientific and technological processes, for instance fundamental research and operational forecasting. Successes related to disaster diplomacy could result because diplomats and politicians are not involved in, or are unaware of, this work.
    -Transboundary issues become prominent even when bilateral or multilateral relations are not the overriding influence on the political or environmental situation.
    -Early warning for long-term threats would not necessarily positively impact the diplomatic situation.


  • Commentary by James Lewis (15 May 2007):
             The article is important because it brings together the many dimensions and consequences of climate change which, previously and often, have been considered separately. Heavily focused on the continents, especially Africa, this makes for a mammoth piece of work but I must boldly point out one or two shortcomings.
             The situation of island states is underplayed and bypassed in the same paragraph by the larger scale global and continental impacts of sea level rise (p. 8). You will know that I have written for years on the proportional impact of hazards upon island states, the impact upon them of sea level rise being no exception. Other countries have some place else to go within their own territories, the occupants of coral atolls usually do not.
             Sea level rise, as a threat to human security, was identified by islanders themselves several years before the concept of security was "introduced first" by UNDP and others (p. 3), one of the earliest field missions on the issue in Tuvalu and Tonga being commissioned in 1988. The Maldives government had raised the issue before the 1989 "Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise", which it hosted and at which the Association of Small Island States was initiated with this concern foremost on its agenda. The Conference was reported in the journal Disasters and the issues for Tuvalu were described in Ambio (references below). Islands and islanders are not as small children in a grown up world; they are ancient civilisations, cultures and societies without which the world will be a poorer place. Neither, however, is any island "entire of itself" and therefore every islander also is a piece of the global continent and "a part of the main". Islands and islanders should be a significant part in an otherwise deeply considered work of this kind.
             In his 1624 "Meditation XVII" Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne wrote "No man is an island" - which I regret to have to say makes the reference to it inaccurate (p. 11). The full quotation is "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee".
             I have given the quotation in full because I believe it to be more useful to your purpose than in the simplified short version - even when accurately given! John Donne's words on this issue are given in full and conceptually explored in my "Island Anthology" at http://www.islandvulnerability.org/anthology.html
             I do hope that these few observations will serve to further enrich an already richly rewarding documentation of the consequences of climate change and sea level rise upon all nations, no matter what their size or political significance.

    Lewis, J. 1989. "Sea-level Rise: Some Implications for Tuvalu". Ambio, vol. 18, no. 8, pp. 458-459; Appropriate Technology, vol. 16, no. 2 (September), pp. 26-28; and The Environmentalist, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 269-275.

    Lewis, J. 1990. "Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise". The Environmentalist, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 141-143 and Disasters, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 77-78.

    Lewis, J. 1990. "The Vulnerability of Small Island States to Sea Level Rise: The Need for Holistic Strategies". Disasters, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 241-248.

    Lewis, J. 2003. Island Anthology. Published on Island Vulnerability.

  • Commentary by Ilan Kelman (2 December 2009):
             Can disaster diplomacy work to address climate change? AlertNet, full text (11 kb in PDF).

Other sources:

  • Buhaug, H. 2010. "Climate not to blame for African civil wars". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 107, no. 38, pp. 16477-16482.

  • Buhaug, H. 2010. "Reply to Burke et al.: bias and climate war research". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 107, no. 51, pp. E186-E187.

  • Buhaug, H., N.P. Gleditsch, and O.M. Theisen. 2010. "Implications of Climate Change for Armed Conflict". Chapter 3, pp. 75-101 in R. Mearns and A. Norton (eds.), Social Dimensions of Climate Change: Equity and Vulnerability in a Warming World, The World Bank, Washington, D.C.

  • Buhaug, H., N.P. Gleditsch, and O.M. Theisen. 2008 (25 February). Implications of Climate Change for Armed Conflict. Presented to the World Bank workshop on "Social Dimensions of Climate Change", The World Bank, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., 5-6 March 2008.

  • Burke, M.B., E. Miguel, S. Satyanath, J.A. Dykemae and D.B. Lobell. 2009. "Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(49): 20670-20674.

  • Burke, M.B., E. Miguel, S. Satyanath, J.A. Dykemae, and D.B. Lobell. 2010. "Climate robustly linked to African civil war", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 107, no. 51, p. E185.

  • Burke, M.B., E. Miguel, S. Satyanath, J.A. Dykemae, and D.B. Lobell. 2010. "Reply to Sutton et al.: Relationship between temperature and conflict is robust". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 107, no. 25, p. E103.

  • Dinar, A., B. Blankespoor, S. Dinar, and P. Kurukulasuriya. 2010. "Does precipitation and runoff variability affect treaty cooperation between states sharing international bilateral rivers?" Ecological Economics, vol. 69, no. 12, pp. 2568-2581.

  • Glantz, M.H. 1994. "Creeping Environmental Problems". The World & I, June, pp. 218-225, full text (1,275 kb in PDF).

  • Glantz, M.H. 1994. "Creeping environmental phenomena: Are societies equipped to deal with them?" Pages 1-10 in M.H. Glantz (ed.), Creeping Environmental Phenomena and Societal Responses to Them, Proceedings of Workshop held 7-10 February 1994 in Boulder, Colorado. NCAR/ESIG, Boulder Colorado, full text (627 kb in PDF).

  • Glantz, M.H. (ed.). 1999. Creeping Environmental Problems and Sustainable Development in the Aral Sea Basin. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.

  • Hartmann, B. 2007. "Climate Refugees and Climate Conflict: Who’s Taking the Heat for Global Warming?". Paper delivered at the panel on Climate Change, 4S Annual Conference Montréal, Québec, 11 October 2007 and draft in progress, full text (66 kb in PDF).

    Ben Wisner's 25 September 2008 introductory commentary and invitation to debate this issue Climate Change and Migration: Scientific Fact or Leap of (Bad) Faith?, full text (17 kb in PDF).

    See also Issue 31 of Forced Migration Review on "Climate Change and Displacement" full text (as a webpage).

  • Hsiang, S.M., K.C. Meng, and M.A. Cane. 2011. "Civil conflicts are associated with the global climate". Nature, vol. 476, pp. 438-441.

  • Kelman, I. 2003. "Beyond Disaster, Beyond Diplomacy". Chapter 7, pp. 110-123 in M. Pelling (ed.), Natural Disasters and Development in a Globalizing World, Routledge, London, U.K., more information.

  • Kelman, I. 2006. "Island Security and Disaster Diplomacy in the Context of Climate Change". Les Cahiers de la Sécurité, vol. 63, pp. 61-94.
    Full text in French (643 kb in PDF).
    Full text in English (89 kb in PDF).
    More information.

  • Kelman, I., M. Glantz, and R. Paxton. 2008. "Learning Lessons from Disaster Management Diplomacy". Presentation at Climate Change Diplomacy, Malta, 7-8 February 2008, full text (17 kb in PDF) and slides (158 kb in PowerPoint).

  • Paxton, R. 2007. Climate change as a catalyst for rapprochement in international affairs, full text (73 kb in PDF).


    Disaster diplomacy has been used as a framework for analyzing the changes in international relations between traditionally hostile states following natural disaster events. Environmental diplomacy is similarly used regarding international environmental agreements. They are found to, on occasion, catalyse rapprochement between conflicting parties through improved diplomatic relations. This study analyses whether or not the threat of climate change has an equivalent effect by increasing cooperation, and extending this cooperation into new political areas. It argues that several characteristics of climate change and its policy responses, especially within its current multilateral regime, hinder bilateral cooperation between hostile states, though the implementation of transboundary flexibility mechanisms has the potential to spur cooperation. In contrast, the study found that diplomacy between negotiating states has been extended to unrelated policy fields, especially during the ratification stage of the Kyoto Protocol.

  • Rosvold, E.L. 2015. Climatic disasters and armed intrastate conflict, full text (1,559 kb in PDF).


    This thesis covers the relatively unstudied connection between hydrometeorological disasters and the duration of armed intrastate conflict, and aims to discover how abrupt climate changes affect the prospects for conflict termination. By performing several Weibull-distributed survival models, it specifically examines the effects of the rapid-onset climatic disasters floods, windstorms, waves, and extreme temperatures on the risk of conflict termination. The central hypothesis leans on a number of theoretical arguments holding that disasters have the capacity to act as catalysts for peace. The results of the analysis do however indicate that disasters reduce the risk of conflict termination, but with the caveat that this effect might reverse with time. With somewhat indistinct empirical results, the thesis falls in line with existing research on the topic arguing that closer, more disaggregated analyses of the mechanisms at play between climatic disasters and conflict dynamics are in demand..

  • Security implications of climate change, a project at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), summary poster (1,337 kb in PDF) and project website.

  • Smith, D. and J. Vivekananda. 2007. A Climate of Conflict: The links between climate change, peace and war. International Alert, London, U.K.

  • Sutton, A.E., J. Dohn, K. Loyd, A. Tredennick, G. Bucinia, A. Solórzanoc, L. Prihodko, and N.P. Hanan. 2010. "Does warming increase the risk of civil war in Africa?". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 107, no. 25, p. E103.

  • Wisner, B., M. Fordham, I. Kelman, B.R. Johnston, D. Simon, A. Lavell, H.G. Brauch, U.O. Spring, G. Wilches-Chaux, M. Moench, and D. Weiner. 2007. Climate Change and Human Security: Policy memorandum by scientists regarding the UN Security Council's first discussion on climate change, full text (231 kb in PDF).

  • Zhang, D.D., P. Brecke, H.F. Lee, Y-Q He, and J. Zhang. 2007. "Global climate change, war, and population decline in recent human history". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 49, pp. 19214-19219.

  • Zhang. D.D., J. Zhang, H.F. Lee, Y.-Q. He. 2007. "Climate Change and War Frequency in Eastern China over the Last Millennium". Human Ecology, vol. 35, pp. 403-414.

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