Intractable Conflict: A "Climate Change-Class" Problem

Guy M. Burgess

Heidi Burgess

Spring 2017



The energy behind Moving Beyond Intractability's new Massive Open Online Seminars is, in large measure, driven by the firm belief that society's inability to constructively address a wide range of intractable conflict problems constitutes as big a threat to human society as does climate change.  In fact, we believe that it is our inability to constructively handle conflicts over climate change-related issues that is making that problem so intractable.

This post makes the argument that the peacebuilding and conflict fields (taken quite broadly) are roughly where the climate change field was in the late 1970s when only a relatively small number of experts recognized the seriousness of the problem and the need to undertake sustained large-scale long-term effort to address the problem.

While societies worldwide spend countless trillions playing the same old destructive conflict game, they spend almost nothing trying to change this game. We urgently need to figure out how we can attract and wisely use levels of support comparable to what the climate change movement currently enjoys. Doing this will require credible strategies for addressing the legitimate concerns of the skeptics and the tough problems that lie at the frontier the field.

Like the climate change movement in the early 1980s, our challenge is to figure out how to mobilize support for such an effort.

Questions to Think About and Discuss

  • What did climate scientists do right to get the climate change issue as visible as it is?
  • How can conflict and peace scholars copy their successes?
  • What did climate scientists do wrong that may have contributed to the “climate-denier” backlash that is currently hampering effective response?
  • How can conflict and peace scholars avoid such mistakes?

We also welcome you to discuss these questions on the D1 discussion board (see part 3) of that set of questions. 

Video Transcript

Heidi and I thought a good place to start the Moving Beyond Intractability seminar series might be by explaining why we think that intractable conflict is what we call a "climate change-class" problem. Complex, large-scale intractable conflict is, we think, a threat to humanity every bit as serious as climate change. In both cases, failure to solve the problem will, over the next several decades, lead to widespread catastrophe. Climate change will severely damage the ecosystem, yet the societies that face destructive conflict threats are even more wide-ranging. There's obviously the terrible catastrophe of large-scale violence. There's also political tyranny, which commonly arises from divide-and-conquer strategies used by tyrants to exploit conflict to exert control over society. There's also the problem of failed revolutions.  The inability to deal with conflict effectively can make it impossible for societies to escape the bounds of tyranny. There's also the soft tyranny of plutocracy where the 1% of the 1% dominates a society. The threat of fragile and failed states and the anarchy that accompanies them is also present in many places. 

Even more worrying are perfect storm conflicts in which a wide range of destructive conflict dynamics conspire to produce truly catastrophic confrontations like the First World War. Finally--and in many ways, this is even more important--destructive conflict dynamics can make it impossible for society to wisely and equitably deal with a wide range of other problems, including climate change, infectious disease, or something that's being called “secular stagnation” these days. (Secular stagnation is the failure of global economies to provide for the needs of their citizens.)

So what can we learn from the climate change movement and what might that have to say about how to deal with these terrible problems of conflict?  Years ago, when I was just out of graduate school, I had the opportunity to work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research at a time when they were just starting to combine data from sites like Mauna Loa showing alarming increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide with the physics of the greenhouse effect and global observations of climate change as evidenced by things like shrinking glaciers. What's remarkable is that over the next several decades, the people who originally recognize the climate change problem were able to build a global movement of scientists, public policy experts, and grassroots citizens capable of calling attention to the problem, the need for action, and putting together concrete options that could really make a difference. In 2007, the Peace and Conflict community recognized the great accomplishments of this movement by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC. Among the many things that they were able to do was to put together a large scale social movement focused on making sacrifices for future generations for societies that were far too focused on immediate gratification. This was an enormous accomplishment. In addition, they were able to mount a powerful challenge to the carbon fuel industry and promote the creation of a wide range of new carbon free energy technologies.

They also supplemented their efforts to prevent climate change with the recognition that some degree of climate change was inevitable and society needed to plan for that in ways that would limit its adverse impact. In pursuing all of this, they were able to move forward despite enormous uncertainties. This was a project undertaken at the frontier of human knowledge. All of this resulted in a powerful global climate change movement that is made enormous progress as is evidenced by the recent Paris agreement. Still, obviously, decades of hard work remain.

But the success of the climate change movement has led us to ask an obvious question. Are there other similar problems out there? In this context, we adopt a nomenclature from the U.S. Navy. The Navy names ships after the first ship of each class. So a Ticonderoga-class cruiser is any cruiser that is built the same way as the Ticonderoga was built.  So in this sense, a “climate change-class” problem is any problem that has similar characteristics to the climate change problem.  By that we mean that the problem is largely unrecognized but poses grave threats to humanity. It will take decades of sustained high level, creative effort to address.

As I said at the beginning of this post, we believe that destructive conflict dynamics constitute such a climate change-class problem.  Intractable conflict dynamics, in their own right, can lead to incredible suffering. They are a major obstacle to society's ability to solve other kinds of big problems—like, as I talked about before, infectious disease, or economic stagnation.

Now you might say that we are already spending lots of money on conflict--and that's true. But we’re spending money to play the “same old” destructive conflict game.  We are spending almost nothing on efforts to change the game--through the work of organizations like the United States Institute of Peace. So the big question is “how can this be changed?” We believe that the current state of the Conflict and Peacebuilding Field is analogous to the state of the climate field in the 70s and 80s.  How can we learn from and repeat their success?

That's one of the big questions we want to address as we try to use the format of this Massive Open Online Seminar to discuss the big issues on the frontier of the peace and conflict. In doing this we’re not just calling for more funding for the field, though that would be nice. We have to do this in a way that persuasively answers the concerns of the skeptics and cynics. While “Kumbya solutions” may be unrealistic, it's also unrealistic to believe that we can't do a whole lot better in the way we deal with a wide range of conflict problems. In order to do this we have to increase the utilization of existing knowledge with “learning accelerator” strategies capable of overcoming the limits of today's business-as-usual, conflict learning.  We also need to increase the rate at which new knowledge is generated.  The Alliance for Peacebuilding, for example, has been producing a series of publications:  Peacebuilding 2.0 and then Peacebuilding 3.0 and so forth. We need to do that field-wide: keep pushing the envelope.  We also need to expand the scope of the field beyond its core of conflict resolution and peacebuilding to include security, advocacy. and many, many other fields. The only way in which we can deal with these problems is a massively parallel effort involving the full range of human expertise.

We also need to think long term. The conflict problem is a lot like the war on cancer: something that will take decades of sustained effort in the fields of basic research and applied research and practice to make real progress. None of this, of course, will be possible unless we are able to attract a lot more people to the field along with the resources needed to support this work.

All of this gives rise to a number of questions worth thinking about.  First of all, what did climate scientists do right to get the climate change issue as visible as it is?  How can conflict and peace scholars copy their successes?  What did climate scientists do wrong that may have contributed to the “climate-denier” backlash that is currently hampering effective response?  How can conflict and peace scholars avoid such mistakes?

We also welcome you to discuss these questions on the D1 discussion board (see part 3) of that set of questions. 

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