Perspectives on contextual vulnerability in discourses of climate conflict

The science of climate security and conflict is replete with controversies. Yet the increasing vulnerability of politically fragile countries to the security consequences of climate change is widely acknowledged. Although climate conflict reflects a continuum of conditional forces that coalesce around the notion of vulnerability, how different portrayals of vulnerability influence the discursive formation of climate conflict relations remains an exceptional but under-researched issue. This paper combines a systematic discourse analysis with a vulnerability interpretation diagnostic tool to explore (i) how discourses of climate conflict are constructed and represented, (ii) how vulnerability is communicated across discourse lines, and (iii) the strength of contextual vulnerability against a deterministic narrative of scarcity-induced conflict, such as that pertaining to land. Systematically characterising climate conflict discourses based on the central issues constructed, assumptions about mechanistic relationships, implicit normative judgements and vulnerability portrayals, provides a useful way of understanding where discourses differ. While discourses show a wide range of opinions “for” and “against” climate conflict relations, engagement with vulnerability has been less pronounced – except for the dominant context centrism discourse concerned about human security (particularly in Africa). In exploring this discourse, we observe an increasing sense of contextual vulnerability that is oriented towards a concern for complexity rather than predictability. The article concludes by illustrating that a turn towards contextual vulnerability thinking will help advance a constructivist theory-informed climate conflict scholarship that recognises historicity, specificity, and variability as crucial elements of contextual totalities of any area affected by climate conflict.

Okpara, U.T., Stringer, L.C., Dougill, A.J. (2016), Earth System Dynamics, 7, 89-102.