DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City.
I'm sitting here today with Joshua Fisher. He is a research scientist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City.
Great to have you here today, Josh.
JOSHUA FISHER: Thanks very much for having me, Devin.
DEVIN STEWART: So you are looking at I would say an emerging field, looking at climate change resources and societal conflict. Can you tell us briefly what that field looks like today and what your research is about?
JOSHUA FISHER: I am focused on natural resource management, conflict, and climate change. And what that means is I look at the relationships that people have negotiated with each other. We all depend on natural resources for most everything in our lives. We depend on gold from a mine for the circuitry in our iPhones and computers; we depend on forest products for food, for medicines, for our livelihoods. And on a larger scale we depend on ecosystems for fresh water, for air, for climate regulation.
We all depend on the natural world and natural resources. Our societies are built around economies and institutions that regulate how we interact with each other in the world and how we interact with the world.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you give some examples of what you mean by people negotiating with one another? Do you mean about who gets what and who has access to resources and things like that?
JOSHUA FISHER: Exactly. Who has access to this stand of trees; who has access to this subsurface resource, like oil, like gas, like gold? We all try to use the natural world to meet our livelihood needs and to meet our cultural needs. Everyone trying to meet their needs creates some conflicts—"I need access to this space for this reason; you need access to the same space for a very different reason."
When we are faced with a conflict like that—a conflict being a difference in position, need, interest—we have to negotiate who actually gets access to this space and for what reason, and what are the terms on which I can access this space or this resource?
Climate change becomes an important driver of conflict because it changes the natural world. It changes the amount of water in a space. It changes the amount of ground cover, the type of ecosystem and ecosystem services. As that changes, we have to renegotiate our relationship to each other because suddenly there is less of a pie to access or more of a certain pie to access. As that pie changes, we have to renegotiate our relationship with each other, and that negotiation space becomes the point at which conflict can occur.
If we have a long history of constructively engaging with each other, of cooperating, then as the system changes we can rely on that history to renegotiate our relationship and our access to resources very effectively.
If we have a distrusting relationship or if we do not have a very well-established relationship, then we really have to feel each other out and we have to really understand how you operate, how I operate, how we operate together, and we have to build a history of interaction that we can then use to renegotiate our social relationships to the natural world.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you give a few examples that illustrate this type of interaction?
JOSHUA FISHER: Yes. One place I work is in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where there are several large industrial gold mines. These gold mines are really water-intensive, so they require a lot of water to extract the ore from a rock to deal with the waste products that are produced in the refining process.
Papua New Guinea is also on the development curve. They are trying to improve their economy; they are trying to improve their standard of living for their population. But in the rural parts of Papua New Guinea most people are dependent on either rainwater or river water for all of their household needs. Local communities and extractive industry operators—gold mines—have negotiated relationships with each other such that the mine can use this water source for waste disposal, for resource extraction, for fresh water for their personnel. The community, on the other hand, harvests rainwater and at times will use river water. That is a longstanding relationship. The company has a legal permit to do exactly what they are doing. The communities have typically given access to the land.
But when climate change hits, as happened in 2015 and 2016 with the El Niño event, suddenly the rainfall patterns changed. Suddenly there was less water available for local communities. The gold companies needed to continue using fresh water to run their operations, and the PNG government needed the operations to continue because it's a huge source of revenue for the country.
In that moment, there becomes a real conflict. Communities need access to new or different sources of water, companies need to continue to operate, and the government needs to have the companies operate but also needs to provide health and security for the communities. There's a real space there for renegotiation of relationships. It's not an easy space to renegotiate because everyone needs something, and it's quite a desperate need.
What then is the lens that can help us understand how to manage those negotiations constructively?
DEVIN STEWART: You are talking about Papua New Guinea and you said this happened last year with the El Niño effect. Can you explain how it ended up playing out? Before you talk about the conflict-management approach, what actually happened with the mines and the local households and the government?
JOSHUA FISHER: As the rainfall pattern started to change due to this really extreme El Niño event, local rivers started to dry up and rainfall started to become much more erratic. That meant that communities then started trying to access different water sources, either closer to mine property or petitioning the mines directly to provide water, petitioning the government to provide water. At times it became very conflictive, with protests and mass demonstrations.
DEVIN STEWART: Was there any violence?
JOSHUA FISHER: There was no outright violence that I am aware of, not in terms of loss of life, but there were protests that would at times shut down operations. There were protests that would increase insecurity in the local communities and at the mine sites. So the situation became very tense.
In response to that, some companies started to provide infrastructure for communities—they would provide water storage tanks, they would provide infrastructure to help communities start to harvest more rainwater when it would come or store more water when it would come.
DEVIN STEWART: So the companies were the most proactive in responding to the demands?
JOSHUA FISHER: No. It was a very ad hoc sort of response. There was no structured response from all the companies. There was no unified response on the corporate side.
Likewise, on the government side they were not prepared for the extreme need that this El Niño event brought, and so they were not prepared to provision water. They relied heavily on the NGO community to provide emergency water supplies.
DEVIN STEWART: Was that local and global NGOs?
JOSHUA FISHER: Yes, a mix of local and the big NGOs.
DEVIN STEWART: Was the conflict basically managed and for now resolved, or is this an ongoing problem?
JOSHUA FISHER: It is one episode in a much longer history. While it was not large-scale violence, it was tense and it did erode trust between some communities and some companies, and it eroded trust between some communities and state security forces.
As a one-off event—so some trust was lost, some water was provided, and people are more or less back to normal now. But if you look at the trend, we are going to see more intense climatic events. We are going to see more frequent climatic events. These events then become not one-off but several times a year or several times a decade. That history of distrust then can really start to weaken institutions. It can start to really marginalize certain communities or certain stakeholder groups.
So the question is: How can we build trust between all the stakeholders?
DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to the how to deal with it, because this is an extremely important question, can you give us a sense of some of the other hotspots in the world where these types of conflicts will pop up?
DEVIN STEWART: You buy that argument?
JOSHUA FISHER: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: You might also want to explain that link.
JOSHUA FISHER: We have all seen news headlines that say "Climate change drives Syrian conflict." It is sort of a misnomer; it's sort a mischaracterization. The linkages that people draw are statistical linkages that correlate rainfall patterns with agricultural production and urban migration and a lack of jobs and support services for the new migrants, leading to unrest, leading to anger, leading to frustration, leading to violence.
Climate change is rarely, if ever, a direct cause of outright conflict and outright violence. Rather, it changes the ways that people live in the world and live with each other in the world, and that creates the space for conflict, the potential for conflict. What then come in to mitigate that risk or lower the risk of changes leading to outright violence or leading to large-scale conflict are strong institutions, trust in the institutions, trust in the society, trust in the rule of law, trust that a government will provide for my health and security, trust that other stakeholders—other actors—will continue to consider my needs and my interests when they are pursuing their own.
DEVIN STEWART: I'm curious. What do you see as the biggest enemy to trust?
JOSHUA FISHER: That's a crazy question.
DEVIN STEWART: You are basically saying that you need to build trust, which requires good institutions and institutions that are accountable. I'm curious—just in terms of our own work here we have looked at that a lot. My sense is that institutions that act with impunity and corruption and seek power without accountability seem to be a huge hindrance to building trust among societal groups and the government. What does your research find? What do you find as a challenge to building trust?
JOSHUA FISHER: I think you're right, in that often we see actors or stakeholders or groups privileging short-term needs or short-term gains over the long-term needs of themselves or the entire system. So we see the privileging of the short term over the medium and long term, and we see the privileging of my own needs over the wider system needs.
This is not an argument for collectivism or for more collectivist economic systems; rather, what I have seen in my research and in the field work that I have done in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Asia and Asia-Pacific is that when we have institutions—political parties, corporations, civil society groups—that understand the balance between their own needs and interests and the wider system, the way that their actions ripple across the system or the way that other agents'/other actors' actions ripple across the system, when people's or groups' calculus or behavior is guided by a balanced approach where they are simultaneously pursuing their own needs and interests and understanding the interconnection and interdependence of the system, then we see actions that are much more proactive, much more constructive, much more balanced in terms of individual optimization and systemic integration.
DEVIN STEWART: The gold mine case would illustrate that point.
JOSHUA FISHER: Exactly. The gold mine case is a hard case because still it plays out daily for these communities, for these companies, for the government, because commodity prices are so volatile, because climate patterns are so prone to fluctuation, and because governments are simultaneously trying to balance national growth with provisioning of security and development. So it is continuing to play out.
But I think what it illustrates is the need to find ways to balance any one stakeholder's needs against the wider system. So I, as an extractive industry operator, need to find a way to balance my own corporate bottom line, my own operating needs, and my social license to operate the relationship that I have with the communities.
I, as a government, on the other hand, need to balance national growth with really earnestly providing security and development for my citizenry.
DEVIN STEWART: What you are describing sounds like something we describe here as enlightened self-interest; that you do have your own interests, but if there is a sense of enlightened self-interest, you understand that your interests are also tied to the interests of others and that these arrangements should not be pursued with a zero-sum strategy; rather, if there is more of a gain that is shared more equitably, everyone might be better off in the long run. Am I describing it right?
JOSHUA FISHER: Exactly. Political scientists would call it enlightened self-interest; social psychologists would call it interdependence. From a system perspective or a system science perspective, it is a complex system where the components of the system are dynamic in time but all interconnected and connected at multiple levels of a system.
DEVIN STEWART: Your work has looked at integrating human rights into this attempt to manage resource and climate change conflict. How does that work? How does human rights come in?
JOSHUA FISHER: That's a great question. As an outsider looking in at a case like Papua New Guinea and gold mining, I am forced to ask myself, "What is the leverage point?"
I see a system or a social arrangement that seems suboptimal—communities are marginalized, revenues are shrinking, companies are in a difficult position of trying to pursue their legal rights in such a way that does not marginalize communities further. As an outsider, where is the leverage point in that system?
The company has a legal permit to do exactly what they are doing. By and large the company is in line with their environmental monitoring, their environmental performance. The government has issued that permit. The government also has an obligation to their citizenry. The citizens, the communities, have accepted a company in and have multiple relationships with the company. So, from a strictly legal perspective, there is not an immediate opening. There is not an immediate inflection or leverage point.
Human rights then becomes that opportunity. PNG is a signatory to multiple international human rights accords, and with that comes an obligation to pursue human rights, to pursue the satisfaction of human rights.
Human rights law is an emerging area of law, particularly social, cultural, and economic rights that are less defined through legal precedent. But this class of human rights presents an opportunity to hold stakeholders to a higher standard, to hold the government to the standard of fulfilling the human right to water for the communities, to hold the company to a higher standard of not infringing on that right for the communities. That international standard is at times much higher than any legal standard or any contractual obligation. So it becomes that potential leverage point.
It also creates an opportunity to make the business case to a company that providing water is in their interest because it helps them maintain their social license to operate; it helps them maintain that constructive relationship with the communities. At the same time, it becomes a leverage point for the government to fulfill their international obligation but also to fulfill the responsibility they have to their citizenry.
DEVIN STEWART: Sounds intuitive to a Westerner, someone living in Europe or North America, the United States. That seems like it would make a lot of sense. How effective is it?
JOSHUA FISHER: It does sound intuitive, and from a meta or a theoretical perspective it is common sense. In practice, it is really difficult because you are talking about economies, you are talking about livelihoods, you are talking about shareholders to a corporation. So in practice it becomes harder. It becomes difficult to know exactly how to use human rights as a leverage point.
What it is really effective at doing is increasing the awareness among the different stakeholders of their rights and obligations to each other. It also becomes a good leverage point for leveraging reputational risk, let's say, for the company or for the government. And it becomes a mechanism for communities to articulate their concerns in a way that resonates with a wider international community.
DEVIN STEWART: Is this approach controversial?
JOSHUA FISHER: It is highly controversial precisely because it in itself hits that intersection of sovereignty and international governance or corporate legal responsibility to a national government versus industry-wide best standards/best practices and voluntary principles of community engagement. It becomes controversial for those and other reasons.
DEVIN STEWART: What about local cultures? Do they find these abstract Western ideas of human rights to be relevant to them? Does it mesh with how they see the world?
JOSHUA FISHER: Again, as an outsider, it is the imposition of a certain set of assumptions and values. It is the application of a standard set of norms/values on an entire world. In any one instance you can find points of disagreement. You can find cultural practices that adhere to this international human right but not that international human right. So from the cultural perspective it is also highly controversial.
DEVIN STEWART: How do you navigate that?
JOSHUA FISHER: The answer to that is probably not satisfying to anyone. It really is on a case-by-case basis. It is the nuance of a context. The application of a universal norm to any one case means that you are going to find problems in every specific case that you apply it to. But by understanding deeply the needs, interests, positions, values, objectives, and goals of each stakeholder in a given context you can start to assess where is that sweet spot of balance between international norms, universal ideals, and the nuance of the context.
DEVIN STEWART: Local practices. I think that is a very satisfying answer because it sounds honest to me, frankly. It actually relates to a lot of the work we have been doing here at Carnegie Council.
Before we go—this has been a great discussion, Joshua, thank you—can you give us a sense of what we should expect in this field in the future? I think a lot of political leaders have pointed to climate change as being one of the major drivers of political conflict for the foreseeable future—perhaps forever. It sounds like a place that is ripe for analysis and innovative policy approaches. What should we be looking out for to understand where things are headed for the future?
JOSHUA FISHER: I think a lot of times people hear climate change and conflict and see the negative; they see a bad story and they expect reports of more conflict, more violence, more population migration, more of the bad. I think that we will see a lot more changes in the world as a result of changing climate patterns, changing rainfall, changing agriculture, changing technology to respond to that system.
But when I look back at the successes, I am actually quite hopeful. In the 1980s we saw huge success around chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Last week we have seen that history of constructive interaction be leveraged for hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) now. Last week in Rwanda we saw a real global success in successfully negotiating a climate change conflict. I think we see that in a lot lower-profile contexts as well, such as contractual negotiations between companies and communities, between the legislation that is put in place to more effectively provision water for communities, for example.
I think what we will see is much more cooperation—though we have already started to see it in Rwanda and in Paris last year in some high-profile cases—on a more mundane and much more directly important level for livelihoods for health and security, much more cooperation on those smaller points.
So I am quite hopeful really when I look at any of my research sites, at any of the places where I engage in communities that are grappling with climate change. I see a lot of cooperation, and I am quite hopeful about it.
DEVIN STEWART: That is a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Josh.
JOSHUA FISHER: Thank you very much.