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Creeping Environmental Changes Disaster Diplomacy

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

Creeping Environmental Changes Disaster Diplomacy
(Also termed "creeping environmental problems" and "creeping environmental phenomena".)

Anse à La Mouche, Seychelles (2013).

Stopping the creeping environmental change of coastal erosion in Anse à La Mouche, Seychelles while constructing a picnic space.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2013.)


  • Definition of creeping environmental changes:
             Incremental changes in conditions which cumulate to create a major catastrophe or crisis, apparent only after a threshold has been crossed.

    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).

  • 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).

Looking out over the arid land plains of Colorado (2006).

Aridness, such as on the lee side of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, can creep forwards due to water overuse.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2006.)

Climate Conflict

An aerial view of the low-lying islands Russell Island and Spanish Wells / St. George's Cay of the Bahamas (2011).

Russell Island and Spanish Wells / St. George's Cay of the Bahamas will need to deal with the creeping environmental changes of sea-level rise and other climate change induced ocean impacts.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2011.)

Other Examples

  • Berg, E. 1976 (May). The Economic Impact of Drought and Inflation in the Sahel, Discussion Paper No. 51. Center for Research on Economic Development, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A., full text (2,203 kb in PDF).

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

  • Jordan, A. and T. O'Riordan. 1998. "Institutions for global environmental change". Global Environmental Change, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 171-175.

  • 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. 2014. "Climate Change Diplomacy, Island Vulnerability, and Migration". Chapter 2, pp. 16-25 in R. Stojanov (ed.), Migration As Adaptation? Population Dynamics in the Age of Climate Variability. Global Change Research Centre, The Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Brno, Czech Republic.

  • Kelman, I. 2017. "Reflections on Disaster Diplomacy for Climate Change and Migration". Chapter 12, pp. 197-210 in K. Sudmeier-Rieux, M. Fernández, I.M. Penna, M. Jaboyedoff, and JC Gaillard (eds.), Identifying Emerging Issues in Disaster Risk Reduction, Migration, Climate Change and Sustainable Development: Shaping Debates and Policies. Springer, Switzerland.

  • 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.

  • Peters, K. 2018. "Disasters, climate change, and securitisation: the United Nations Security Council and the United Kingdom’s security policy". Disasters, vol. 42, no. S2, pp. S196-S214.

  • Security implications of climate change, a project at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) which ran from July 2009 to June 2012, summary poster (1,337 kb in PDF).

  • Sosa-Nunez, G. and E. Atkins (eds.). 2016. Environment, Climate Change and International Relations. E-International Relations, Bristol, U.K.

  • Wisner, B. 2008 (September 25). Climate Change and Migration: Scientific Fact or Leap of (Bad) Faith?, full text (17 kb in PDF).

  • 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).

Beach engineering in Norderney, Germany to stop the creeping environmental change of coastal erosion (2012).

Beach engineering in Norderney, Germany to stop the creeping environmental change of coastal erosion.
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2012.)

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