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New Institute Research: Studying Human Security in a Changing Global Environment

October 25, 2011

What security concerns arise in a world with a destabilized physical environment? Human societies and polities have adapted over centuries to prevailing environmental conditions, including water availability and temperature and rainfall patterns. However it is unclear whether increased intensity of extreme weather will threaten stability in key regions. While much of the former developing world is quickly increasing economic production and improving living standards, other regions are unable to afford the costs of protecting themselves and securing development gains in the face of an increasingly unpredictable climate. These poorest countries understand climate change to be a problem the wealthy nations have created, and they turn to them to pay for the costs of adapting.

The Watson Institute is positioning itself at the center of key international debates on preserving human security and improving standards of living in the face of environmental changes already underway through its hosting of Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile and UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, and by developing a cluster of student/faculty research on human security in a changing environment, under the leadership of the Center for Environmental Studies Director Timmons Roberts, the Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology, and Leah VanWey, associate professor of sociology.

The initiative reflects Watson’s ongoing extension of its security research beyond such traditional areas as war and weapons and into such non-traditional areas as human security, to address the range of health, environmental, and economic threats to individuals and their societies. Climate change is predicted to worsen steadily over the next several decades, threatening food production, water supplies, and human health in much of the tropics. These events could potentially destabilize already fragile states in Africa and creating substantial flows of refugees from regions hit by predicted droughts and floods. The uncertainty of international climate change negotiations is seen as an important part of the broader future of multilateralism under existing institutions like the United Nations. Bridging the Institute’s work in the areas of development and security, the study of human security in a changing global environment complements existing and growing strengths at Brown and provides a valuable lens for analyzing contemporary international challenges.

The student/faculty research includes three projects involving the “Climate and Development Lab,” a research group including doctoral, master’s, and undergraduate students from five departments and programs across campus. Roberts will be leading a Watson Institute delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations in Durban, South Africa later this year. Students will be investigating how nations intend to meet the promises for climate funding made in Copenhagen and Cancun in 2009 and 2010, and the role security is playing in how they will allocate those $30 billion promised by 2012. They will prepare briefing papers and provide support for the Chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDC Group), the poorest 49 nations in the world. They will file reports on the meeting on the Institute-based Global Conversation.

Upon their return, students will prepare and present a briefing paper, “The Brown Report from Durban,” in a small conference co-organized with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. The conference will be organized around the visit to Brown of former Bangladesh negotiating delegation member Mizan Khan, currently a professor at the North-South University in Dhaka.

Two research projects led by VanWey focus on global and regional food security. VanWey is catalyzing a set of research projects around the expansion of large agribusinesses into central Brazil, and its connection with international trade and the global food market, along with local and regional economic, environmental, and climate impacts. She is also organizing Watson activities to strengthen work on food security and development in East Africa, focusing in this work on to how to promote local environmental and economic stability and sustainable growth, looking to local institutions and opportunities in the absence of strong linkages with global trade.

The group will also host conferences, bringing speakers from the US and abroad to combine state of the knowledge presentations and discussions with planning for future collaborative activities. The goal is to make Watson an international hub of environmental security research and policy activities.