Climate and security

OHIO professor lends expertise to UN and other international panels on climate change

Corinne Colbert
September 30, 2013





Just this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- an initiative of the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) -- released the first section of its 5th Assessment Report. It's the work of nearly 1,000 experts worldwide who sifted through six years' worth of scientific, technical and scholarly articles to aggregate and characterize everything we know about climate change, its potential impacts and its implications.



One of those experts is Geoff Dabelko, professor and director of Environmental Studies in Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. He is one of the world's leading thinkers on how climate change and other environmental issues -- and our responses to them -- could affect national and human security.

"Environment, peace and security linkages are multiple, diverse and contested. I find that diversity is especially challenging and rewarding," Dabelko said. "It forces us to strip away our stereotypes about the environmental sector or the military sector to pursue pressing research questions on real-world problems. Surprising to many, we find these very different communities actually share some concerns and even some similar tools."

He had lots of time to think last summer, as he flew to England in July to confer with government officials in a side meeting to the G8 Summit (he was one of only six outside experts invited), and to Slovenia for his final lead authors IPCC meeting.

A member of UNEP's Expert Advisory Group on Environment, Conflict, and Peacebuilding, Dabelko is working on the new "Human Security" chapter in Working Group II of the IPCC Assessment Report, which focuses on impacts and vulnerability.

"It's been a fascinating, if long, process," he said of his role in the effort. "Hopefully the report will get the attention the issue deserves."

Dabelko's portion of the report isn't out until March, but he will say that headlines that declare all the scientific questions answered don't help a public that already struggles with distinguishing through partisan posturing and solid research.

"To ever say that sciences is 'settled' is a mistake," he said. "The scientific method is to keep questioning, keep exploring, keep testing. We don't know all the answers, but we have observable changes in temperature and rising sea levels. We have to make important decisions in the face of uncertainty."

Those decisions are questions of policy, and that's where Dabelko has historically focused much of his attention. He was director of the Environmental Change and Security Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., from 1997 to 2012. He continues to work with the Wilson Center, and facilitates ongoing collaboration with the Voinovich School and Ohio University.

"Applying research to policy is a lot easier to say than to do," he said. Policymakers need quality, accessible information as a basis for action in the face of climate change -- and that takes more than just mailing a book or report to a congressional representative. Bringing research into policy forums requires ongoing dialogue and two-way exchange. There are no guarantees that policymakers will make decisions based on scientific findings, but it is possible to come down from the ivory tower without jumping into the partisan debates.

"Climate change is definitely high-stakes -- government, communities, and the private sector have to take it seriously," Dabelko said. "They have to have research-based information that is our best scientific understanding of some pretty unprecedented territory."

For more on Dabelko's work, see: