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International Conflicts over Environment:
Scientist's Roles and Opportunities
Jesse H. Ausubel
Director, Program for the Human Environment
The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue, New
York, New York 10021
My task is to reflect on scientific social responsibility
with respect to international environmental
conflicts. First, I will mention a few cases of historical
or prospective conflict relating to environment and
resources and then I will offer some tentative
conclusions. Adding the notion of resources to that
of the environment may unfairly expand and ease
my task. After all, humans are territorial animals,
and probably the historical majority of conflicts have
occurred over land. I will set aside land quarrels,
though they continue, for example, between Peru
and Ecuador. My cases are cod fish, Antarctica,
atmospheric weapons testing, acid deposition, fresh
water, and climate change.
Because war is the least ambiguous and usually the
most serious form of conflict, I will begin with a war.
My war, the Cod War, is obscure and was not lethal
for humans.
The Cod War(s)
Iceland’s only international disputes have concerned
fishing rights.1 Collectively known as the Cod Wars,
they involved British fishing vessels violating
Iceland’s increasing self-declared territorial waters.
In 1952 Iceland extended its offshore rights from
three to four miles, and in 1958 to twelve. The first
real Cod War ensued in 1959, when U.K. Royal Navy
frigates steamed to protect, unsuccessfully, British
trawlers from being evicted or arrested by Iceland’s
tiny Coast Guard.
The dispute was temporarily resolved, only to be
followed in 1972 by an extension of the Icelandic
claim to 50 miles, which brought more ferocious
clashes. British warships, equipped with
sophisticated weapons, were several times larger
than the Icelandic Coast Guard vessels, each with a
single 57-mm gun. Unarmed fishing vessels
commissioned by the Icelandic Coast Guard also
patrolled during the disputes. The British warships
rammed Icelandic Coast Guard vessels and shot over
their bows, while the Icelanders used large clippers,
like garden shears, to cut the nets of British fishing
trawlers, causing the loss of both nets and catches.
Iceland broke diplomatic relations with the United
Kingdom for a short time, the first NATO rupture of
this kind.
On one occasion, when a British frigate confronted
an Icelandic gunboat on the high seas, the world’s
press may have outnumbered naval personnel.
Fortunately, the opposing captains sensed the
occasion, and the ensuing exchange was not shots
but Biblical quotations delivered broadside by
loudspeaker. The journalists awarded victory in the
Scriptural battle to the Icelanders. More formal
arguments gradually swung international opinion to
Iceland’s view, and the nations agreed to a truce in
1976, by which time both nations had announced a
new 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
The limit that Iceland first established has since
become the standard for international maritime
legislation. Thus, the little country with no armed
forces had sent its Coast Guard gunships to take on
the mighty Royal Navy, and won. The National
Museum in Reykjavik still proudly displays some of
the clippers. The British suffered a total of more than
$2 million in damage to their Navy frigates, and
claimed the loss of more than 9,000 fisheries-related
jobs. Since 1976, British fishing boats have respected
the 200-mile limit, and no new violence has erupted
between the two nations.
I offer this example not only as an appealing
curiosity, but because it illustrates how conflict may
flourish in the absence of reliable scientific
information, in this case, with regard to the
abundance and distribution of fish. A serious,
admirable inter-governmental organization called
the International Council for the Exploration of the
Seas (ICES) formed almost 100 years ago to better
the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data on
fish catches. However, only very recently have
techniques for assessing and modeling fish stocks
become sufficiently reliable to contribute to dispute
resolution. The Cod Wars were partly about
territory, but they were also partly about poor
information about North Sea fisheries, which
contributed to their decline.
Canada and Spain came to the brink of serious
conflict over the cod on the Grand Banks off
Newfoundland in the early 1990s. Widespread
scientific agreement on the fragility of the fish stocks
in the region, including the opinion of both Canadian
and Spanish experts, helped avoid lethal outcomes.
A worldwide Census of Marine Life might lessen
conflicts over commercial fisheries as well as
promote biodiversity. Biodiversity now finds itself
with an international Convention, but uncharted
national obligations and resources.
Let me more briefly mention the other cases of
environmental and resource conflicts.
Systematic exploration and territorial claims on
Antarctica extend back to the turn of the century.2
After World War II these claims expanded and
threatened to militarize the continent. Meteorology,
oceanography, glaciology, and other kinds of
environmental research in or near Antarctica figured
prominently in the 1957-58 International
Geophysical Year, the highly successful 18-month
internationally coordinated scientific probing of
Earth. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, negotiated with
U.S. and USSR leadership, calls for the continued
absence of military activities and the suspension of
all territorial claims. For Antarctica, scientific
cooperation appears to have eased the way for
political cooperation.
Atmospheric Testing
Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons was a highly
visible form of threat behavior during the Cold War.
Many reinforcing events in the mid-1950s led to
concern about radioactive fallout from the testing.
The public most feared the health effects of fallout;
radioactive elements were, for example, measurable
in milk. The test ban soon became a cause of the
nuclear disarmament movement (and still is).
Scientists in both the Soviet Union and the United
States also feared test-induced climate changes, now
little recalled in the ruckus over global warming.3
The succession of large nuclear yield tests that began
in the late 1940s and ended, for the most part, in the
early 1960s injected much NO2 into the
stratosphere. The oxides of nitrogen are mainly
produced in the fireball, with heating and cooling of
the captured air. The largest annual yield of nuclear
tests occurred in 1962, 108 megatons, including two
explosions of 30 megatons. The largest yield was an
explosion in 1961 of 58 megatons. About threefourths of total yield in the peak years around 1960
exploded in the atmosphere. The bulk of these
detonations was in the upper troposphere and
stratosphere, but Starfish detonated a yield of 1.4
megatons in the thermosphere at an altitude of 400
km. Altitude matters greatly for NO2 production
calculations. NO2 absorbs solar radiation, and its
enhanced presence in the stratosphere for a period
of two decades could have reduced the sunlight
reaching the surface by a few percent.
Climatologists, in fact, observed a temporary cooling
trend in the Northern hemisphere, where nearly all
atomic tests occurred.
Part of the task of making nuclear bombs is
performing the calculations of atmospheric effects,
so several environmental scientists worrying about
the climatic and other effects on both sides had
ample access to high-level officials in government
and the military. This access, and related trust,
probably helped expedite the 1963 Limited Test Ban.
Acid Deposition
From the late 1960s, the Scandinavian countries
began claiming that the acidity of their rain was
increasing and that it was caused by European,
especially English, emissions upwind.4 The acidity
allegedly damaged Scandinavian lakes and woods.
Beginning in 1972, the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted a
study of long-range transport of air pollutants to
assess such claims. Later the International Institute
for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) would conduct
sequel studies. Similar conflicts and joint study
efforts arose between the United States and Canada
in the late 1970s, and peaked, with harsh words but
no violence, in the early 1980s.
Fresh Water
Much blood has been spilled over water. Water
resources can be military goals (seize the water),
military targets (bomb a hydro plant, reservoir,
canal, or irrigation channel), and military means
(cause a flood), and the absence of water can
precipitate conflict.5 The problem, as for acid rain, is
often the discrepancy between the borders of
nature and politics. Ninety-seven percent of Egypt’s
surface water flow originates outside its borders. Per
capita water availability in Jordan, according to the
UN, is about one-quarter of the minimum
requirement for an efficient, moderately
industrialized nation.
I must here mention another vital fluid, oil, one of
the reasons for the Gulf War in 1990-1991. Though I
believe the main motive for Iraq in the war was to
raise its place in the international pecking order, oil
resources certainly pointed the way. The use of the
oil-field fires as a weapon also makes the Gulf War
interesting in our present context.
Climatic Change
Global warming induced by greenhouse gases
emitted by human activities seems just now to be
emerging from the realm of hypotheticality. It could
cause conflicts in at least two ways. Erratic,
unfavorable weather and climate could raise
pressures for migration, certainly an irritant for
some receiving states, although usually a welcome
escape for the movers themselves. In recent years
refugees, the neediest subcategory of migrants, have
numbered around 10 million annually. The bulk have
been concentrated in a few countries, such as
Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Burundi. Political threats
to well-being, violence, and economic suffering as
well as droughts and floods produce refugees.
Studies attribute rather few refugees directly and
solely to environmental disasters and shortages of
resources, but some scientists warn of the growing
potential for these factors to add to the number of
persons fleeing.6
The second way climatic change could cause conflict
is through inequitable or apparently inequitable
means to reduce carbon emissions, especially from
coal and oil. Conflict might arise between the rich,
developed countries of the so-called North and
those of the poorer South. The South wants to
increase its use of carbon and continue exporting it,
while the North is ambivalent about curbing its
appetite. The idea of "joint implementation,"
basically financial transfers from the North to the
South (and the former Soviet Union) for emission
reduction in the South that might also lower globally
the cost of emission restraints, developed under the
auspices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic
Change (IPCC), a body of several thousand technical
experts. The idea has now moved into the political
and diplomatic arena.
The IPCC originated in volunteer efforts under the
auspices of the scientist-controlled Scientific
Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE)
of the non- governmental International Council of
Scientific Unions (ICSU) to provide international
equivalents of U.S. National Research Council studies
on global warming. As these reports gained
influence, and required reiteration and expansion
and therefore more money, governments changed
the mechanism from nongovernmental to intergovernmental. A ruckus occurred in late 1996, when
a few scientists, dissatisfied with the IPCC’s reports,
took note of government tinkering with the final
version of a report submitted in Madrid. The
apparent loss of substantive rationality was surely
disturbing, as was the abandonment of correct
procedure, but such is the occasional price for
From these environment-and resource-related cases,
I reaffirm three familiar conclusions about conflict
resolution, echoing the thinking of the late Kenneth
1. Taking national boundaries off political agendas is
a step toward stable peace, and engineers and
scientists can help make spatial boundaries much
less crucial.
Consider state boundaries within a country such as
the United States. Almost every economic activity
can flourish almost anywhere: the level and
composition of the GDP is not much different in dry
Arizona, wet Oregon, and cold Minnesota, all of
which have diverse environment and resources. The
same is true for Finland, the Netherlands, and
Australia. When information is the prime resource,
we need not fight over minerals or land. Aquaculture
is the long-run solution to the Cod Wars. Clever civil
engineering can multiply the availability of water and
lower demand for it. Ubiquitous, plentiful natural
gas can shrink oil’s martial power. In an economic
sense, geography hardly need matter anymore.
On the other hand, it clearly helps when national
boundaries coincide with cultural boundaries. Africa
today is probably worse off in this regard than
Europe was in 1913. In this sense, geography will
continue to matter greatly.
2. A great problem in stable peace is fear of betrayal,
and international cooperation between scientists
may help reduce the payoffs of betrayal and
strengthen taboos against it.
We can easily imagine sneaky, nasty behavior over
fisheries, sulfur and carbon, water, and weapons
testing. Joint analyses, symmetric information, and
transparent reporting about national behavior are
means to reduction. Scientific responsibility here in
part takes the form of increasing factual content,
thus promoting substantive rationality, in
management. Those favoring substantive rationality
seek to infuse government, and often seek to have
their efforts invited by government; they run the risk
of capture. The substantive rationality begins with
the idea of government’s gaining the advice of a few
leading experts. As time passes, the bureaucracies
that fund and manage the processes tend to
increase their control and complicate matters with
finer procedures. An example is the IPCC.
Nevertheless, the IPCC and equivalent bilateral and
multilateral mechanisms may forestall or lower
conflict. A great difficult is the paucity of scientists in
the Southern countries.
3. Stable peace relies on national self-interest, and,
while resources that cross boundaries may heighten
conflict, the diffusion of pollutants on the wind, in
rivers, and in the seas may evoke countervailing
For the past fifty years, nuclear weapons created a
common global interest, namely the desire to do
away with them. The common threat of nuclear
destruction was valuable. With the waning of
nuclear fear, degradation of the environment has
emerged as a substitute threat. The most powerful
realizations are global climatic change from
greenhouse gases, the loss of biodiversity, and the
depletion of the ozone layer. Conserving concern,
science fuels individual and often collective moral
fervor, usually in reference to potentially
catastrophic, irreversible, and inequitable
developments. The expressions of social
responsibility are almost always scientist- initiated
and tend to favor ends over means. Recall the 1961
story about nuclear madness by Leo Szilard, one of
the catalysts for the atomic bomb and later a fervent
campaigner for disarmament. Science, especially
now environmental science, is The Voice of the