Interview with Michael Brzoska, September 2011

Michael Brzoska has been the scientific director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg since 2006. His role in CliSAP is to deal with security and conflict research in the context of climate change.

Profile Picture Michael Brzoska

What have been the main steps in your professional life so far?
After studying economics and political sciences at the Universities of Hamburg, Germany, and Fribourg, Switzerland, I worked as a research assistant and a junior researcher at the German Africa Institute in Hamburg and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Studies at the University of Hamburg. Through this work I got interested in issues related to international arms trade and arms production and published my first academic papers. In 1983 I became a member of the Arms Trade and Arms Production research team at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, at that time and still globally the foremost research institution on these issues. In the late 1980s I returned to the University of Hamburg to work as “Hochschulassistent” (Assistant Professor) at the Department for Political Sciences, teaching international relations topics. In 1993 I joined the Bonn International Center for Conversion, a newly founded, international institution combining research with consultancy to a wide range of actors, including international organizations and local communities. Initially focusing on ways to reap a “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War in Europe, my own work later expanded to dealing with post-War situations throughout the World. In 2006 I again returned to Hamburg, to direct the Institute for Peace Research and Security Studies. Here, in addition to managerial duties, I continue to work on issues related to economic and political causes and consequences of peace and war. 

What is your main contribution to CliSAP?
I am trying to contribute my qualifications and knowledge, gained during my professional life so far, to CliSAP's research on the consequences of climate change. This occurs within the group working on “climate and security,” of which I am a co-leader. Within this context I am supervising two dissertations. Together with my colleagues Martin Kalinowski and Jürgen Scheffran we have organized a number of international and national conferences on climate change and armed conflict, as well as on broader issues related to human insecurity. I have done some original research on how climate change has been framed as a security issue, using the concept of “securitization”1 partly in collaboration with Angela Oels of CliSAP. Currently I am researching how security-related institutions, particularly armed forces, are thinking about climate change and how they intend to prepare themselves for the expected consequences of climate change. 

Vice versa, in what way(s) has CliSAP helped you most?
CliSAP has allowed me to expand my earlier work. This has been particularly interesting as climate change is typical of a “new” understanding of security that has developed since the end of the Cold War. This understanding is marked, on one hand, by “risks” rather than clearly identifiable threats, often with high degrees of uncertainty about their occurrence, and, on the other hand, by an expansive view of what constitutes insecurity, going beyond traditional views of interstate wars to all forms of organized violence and dangers to life and livelihoods of individuals (“human security”). Furthermore, CliSAP has increased my contacts to a number of colleagues who are interested in similar issues but come from other disciplinary and/or thematic traditions. Finally, I have learned quite a lot on many issues related to climate change which help me to prevent mistakes and misunderstandings in my own work.
What do you see as CliSAPs largest achievements so far?
I have too little knowledge on most of the research topics and disciplines in CliSAP to answer this question with any confidence. My impression is that CliSAP has advanced quite a bit in its attempt to study climate change issues comprehensively. In social sciences, where I have a better judgment, main gaps remain, but CliSAP has clearly raised the interest of colleagues to get involved. 

What is the role of peace and security research in the framework of climate science?
I see three contributions that peace and security research can make to the research on climate change and its consequences. The first is to investigate one particular cluster of potential consequences of climate change, namely the links between environmental degradation and natural resource scarcity, human insecurity and violent conflict. This is a specific field of peace and conflict research which has not led to much solid knowledge so far. This is important because of the second contribution that peace and security research is attempting to make, namely to model future violence and human insecurity based on predictions of physical climate change and its environmental consequences. Here is much room for increasing the compatibility between the methods and approaches used in research on conflicts with those used by climate scientists. Finally, we investigate the implications of talking of climate change as a security issue, for instance, if this implies, like it does in other policy fields, growing roles for armed forces and other security actors.

What would you consider the most significant achievement in your career?
Formally, that I am now directing the institute where I started my professional career as a research assistant. In terms of contribution to academic research, I would nominate my work on the political economy of arms trade and arms production. Most spectacular was the participation (as an expert) in a debate on arms embargoes at the United Nations Security Council in 2001.

Do you think that you are a role model for your students?
I have no idea. I hope that students don’t look at my career as a model case how to become director of an institute where one did her/ his first professional steps. My career has been quite atypical and unplanned, guided by my interests in particular topics. I would never have guessed that I would end up where I am now. On the other hand I hope that students develop strong interests in particular topics even if they don’t know where they will lead them in terms of a career. If my case instills the hope that one can go somewhere in academic life beyond a trodden pathway I will be happy.

What do you think is the role of science within society? 
Science has a number of roles within society, sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting. One is instrumental: to help in solving problems societies face, such as the consequences of global warming. The other is critical: to do research on what societies are doing to themselves, for instance by increasing greenhouse gas production. The third is reflexive: to consider alternatives to current practices, for instance in dealing with the problems posed by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Do you see a rising influence of politics or the economy in climate science?
It seems to me that the influence has been strong for some time. My impression is that there are cycles of influence, rather than a trend. Sometimes this is driven by science, for instance IPCC assessments, or new reports, such as the Stern report. Sometimes this is driven by politicians, such as the “climate and security” issue in 2007/8, which resulted from the search for strong arguments to counter the climate change denial policies of the US administration.

Is it necessary for scientists to address politicians and political institutions directly? 
Maybe not necessary but generally useful on topics where politicians are ill-informed or poorly informed. Time and attention are very scarce resources in politics. Scientists with reputations and/or good ideas have a currency that can buy attention. However they must be aware that they can devalue that currency if they overstretch.

What constitutes “good” science?
Max Weber once wrote that it is the purpose of scientists to strive to disprove their own research results. Thus good science is critical science, including of what seems established even by oneself. 

What would be your advice for young researchers who are interested in researching security implications of climate change? 
Don’t think that this is going to be a major field of research for some time to come. Get a solid education in peace and conflict research as well as in another discipline directly related to the study of the consequences of climate change, such as geography, hydrology or meteorology. Do field research focusing on a particular case or group of cases! 
What would you do with an additional million Euros for your research?
I would have a hard time to decide on a number of ideas. One would be to fund a number of in-depth comparative case studies on the effects of environmental change on violent conflict in the Sahel region during the great drought in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Another would be to set up a research group on environmentally-induced transregional migration, bringing together peace and conflict researchers with migration experts. And a third idea: Instigate a large study into the aftermath of natural disasters with the goal of finding out how to prevent and manage conflict after natural disasters. 

The interview was carried out by Jun. Prof. Dr. Mike S. Schaefer, head of the working group “Media Constructions” at the Cluster of Excellence CliSAP, and Prof. Dr. Hans von Storch, head of the Institute of Coastal Research at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht.


1 Further reading e.g.: M. Brzoska (2009): The Securitization of Climate Change and the Power of Conceptions of Security, Sicherheit und Frieden, 27 (3), pp. 137-145.