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Creating the Future

Painter 4

Illustration: Graphite crayon and pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

My new class on “Climate Change and Security”–which I am co-teaching this Spring at a local university–has proceeded with supersonic speed due primarily to the students in it.  In one week’s time, they have demonstrated impressive capacities for agile thinking and reframing new concepts.  This is a good thing as, whatever your optics on the world, surely it’s clear that seizing and shaping the future(s) we face requires all kinds of agility today.  Our course alone requires us to move across disciplines as diverse as geology, biodiversity, land management policies, and international law.  (Due to the diversity of knowledge required for this topic–a diversity exceeding most people’s cognitive capacity–we always are on the lookout for guest speakers!)

At the outset, our class covers the science of environmental changes right down to the molecular level, and then–in a way that could be dizzying to some–moves rapidly into broad subjects related to concepts of national, global, and human security.   We zoom in close on a careful consideration of the chemistry and geophysical interaction of the biosphere and then, often in the same class session, zoom right out into the worlds created by man. Together we examine the evolution of international security studies and quickly weave in newer work on global risks, resilience, and broader notions of security.   This year, the World Economic Forum’s report, Global Risks 2014, is featured early in the reading assignments.

Looking at the larger context of global risks helps us see  right from the get-go that environmental security issues have much in common with–and are interconnected to–other global risks and challenges. Having people from around the world in the class always makes for richer discussions!  The discussions this past week have stuck in my mind, so perhaps jotting down a few notes here will make some ideas easily recoverable for later projects, links, posts, and so forth…

While this blog left off with a post last week on the notion of serial innovators (and their innate capacities for valuing the “whole”, including the whole team, the whole organization, etc.), the discussions in our brand-new class last week were a powerful reminder of the importance of cooperative (and iterative, “nonlinear”) sense-making abilities across disciplinary, national, and even generational boundaries.  Serial collaboration skills are coming into vogue, involving the abilities to rapidly form teams and networks able to leverage geographically dispersed expertise, technologies, and data. There is simply too much to know, or wonder about, for one individual, organization or even a single nation! In so many ways, our responses, organizationally, may need to mimic the nature of the challenges:  interdependent, diverse, flexible, and combining a bifocal capacity for short-term and long-term sensibilities.  “Progressive” lenses, that’s what we need! 🙂

So far the class has discussed how “security,” the concept, means different things to different people, primarily due to diverse contexts and values.  We had a presentation from one student based on the assigned readings, which highlighted that concepts of security are linked to given values, such as job security, cyber security, and national security.  The bottom line, as he saw it, is that the definition of security relies entirely on the environment in which it is presented.  Students’ short papers also emphasized, based on assigned readings, that prevailing views of security are out of step with emerging realities.  One suggested that a main challenge today is “our inability to change our way of thinking and reform institutions at a pace fast enough to deal with reality.”

Students have identified that a strictly state-centric perspective in security discourse can be a limiting factor, in the context of environmental security issues, and needs to change.  The concept of human security, already 20 years in the making, may offer a way to “shift to people and societies in discussions and discourses on security,” wrote one student.  This shift will be crucial to designing appropriate responses to the emerging challenges related to climate change.  In many ways, dealing with environmental security challenges requires “a longer-term, more complicated, and integrated response,” said a student.

Up to now, security studies have emphasized external threats to states and so, as some of the experts whose work we are consulting in the class, such as Simon Dalby of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Ontario, Canada, the very concept of security sometimes may be a detriment to providing it.  One student pointed out that security generally implies protection of the status quo and against change.

The students are grappling with the conflicting conclusions of the IPCC assessment reports regarding the link between climate change and security.  They also are reading about the fact that climate change threatens to “exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities on an international scale” as, according to one student’s paper, “the poorest populations are simultaneously the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to climate-induced impacts.”

Among the remarks made in the discussion were that effective responses require international cooperation, not rivalry. Participants in the class wondered whether this “security” challenge is like other global threats, such as the Ebola crisis, where required responses involve more than the military.  In addition, the discussion surfaced issues of risk assessment and perception, communication strategies, and public engagement.  Clearly it is going to be a busy semester! I am glad I just have one class! 🙂

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