SXSW Eco 2015: Global Climate, Global Conflict?

UT's Joshua Busby on how the developing world responds

Changing world: UT associate professor Joshua Busby will be part of a SXSW Eco panel on how developing nations are developing faster than their peers when it comes to climate change.
Changing world: UT associate professor Joshua Busby will be part of a SXSW Eco panel on how developing nations are developing faster than their peers when it comes to climate change. (Image courtesy of LBJ School of Public Affairs)

From No Blade of Grass to Mad Max: Fury Road, eco-horrors have taught us that global climate change will bring about global conflict. But Joshua Busby, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, sees developing nations learning rather than fighting.

For much of his professional academic career, Busby has focused on the intersection of activism, policy, markets, and moral imperative: for example, how campaigners rebuilt the market for anti-retrovirals in developing nations. Over the last 10 years, his attention has increasingly turned to the issue of climate change and security. That's no surprise, since sustainability is an issue that's been close to his heart since his days as an eco-campaigning undergrad at the University of North Carolina, advocating for fair trade policies that would help developing economies. However, as the global climate changes, so does the very definition of sustainability.

The core question about what climate change means at a international scale is what Busby describes as the difference between difference between "acute short-term crisis and long-term hazard events." Increasingly his research has focused on South and Southeast Asia as the area most at risk from the effects of global climate change. The region is in the union of the Venn diagram of large populations and susceptible areas. The region accounts for 80% of people affected by climate change incidents, and those incidents can vary wildly in form.

For example, earlier this year India was hit by a massive heat wave, estimated to be responsible for 2,500 deaths. That's a classic example of an acute short-term crisis, whereas areas of Bangladesh are in the middle of a long-term hazard event. Rising sea levels have so increased the salinity of the soil in its southern region that traditional agriculture is no longer tenable. Nature has salted the earth.

So are these changes destabilizing nations and increasing friction between states? Busby said, "A lot of the literature focuses narrowly on whether climate change will result in conflict." However, he's looking at the broader picture of how the increasing number and severity of naturally occurring events, like hurricanes and typhoons, affects nations. There are military deployments, but they are less about border conflict than they are about emergency response. As for the imminent possibility of a failed state, one made untenable or unstable due to environmental shifts, Busby is blunt. "Yes, with low-lying island countries in the South Pacific, this is a threat."

But Busby's research indicates that, rather than a regional resource conflagration, or states throwing themselves on the international aid community, nations in the region are just adapting. In fact, when it comes to natural disasters, he said, "The number of people that are affected is increasing, but the number of people that are dying is declining."

In fact, developing nations may be ahead of the curve on global climate change response just because they're already being affected. Busby said, "My colleagues who have been looking at cyclone patterns in India have found that the recurrence of incidents results in some learning."

That may be why France, a much more developed and well-resourced nation, was arguably less capable of dealing with its own heat wave than the subcontinent. The numbers may seem puzzling: India, with a population of 1.25 billion, lost 2,500 people. France, with only 65 million residents, lost 3,000 people. It's not that either nation had exponentially worse weather, or one government was incompetent or under-resourced. It's that India has been through this kind of experience enough times to know how to deal with it, and to act preemptively. For example, state and local authorities tried to ensure vulnerable populations had access to water, shelter, and ventilation.

For Busby, the key, and the big takeaway lesson was simple, and it doesn't take huge, structural solutions: "Have the information available in advance so people can take protective measures."

Joshua Busby will be part of the SXSW Eco panel Climate and Heat Adaptation in the Developing World, 10:45am, Wednesday, Oct. 7, Room 6A.

SXSW Eco 2015 runs Oct. 5-7 at the Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez. More info at

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