25 September 2023

Ecological risk in a future South-East Asia: An ecological security policy game

The following text features the introduction and executive summary of a report published this September by the Council on Strategic Risks' (CSR) Center for Climate & Security. It was authored by Robert Bentley, Lily Boland, Michael R. Zarfos, and Andrea Rezzonico, and edited by Erin Sikorsky and Francesco Femia. 

The intertwining effects of climate change and ecological disruption are poised to introduce new patterns of disturbance and amplify instability for people and societies worldwide, straining and sometimes overwhelming countries’ response capacities and challenging international security. Policy efforts to understand and mitigate these multifaceted and complex crises are oftentimes characterized by a poor understanding of converging risks and low prioritization of ecological issues. To begin addressing this growing nexus, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) hosted an exercise scenario rooted in an ecological crisis for a group of multidisciplinary experts.

During the two-day workshop, players were thrust into a simulated future in which large-scale ecological disruption precipitated societal chaos and eroded humanitarian conditions in a fictional Southeast Asian country. The scenario exercise, set in 2040, served several purposes: 1) familiarizing current and future decision makers, responders, and leaders for the types of ecological breakdowns they may well have to navigate in the years and decades ahead and 2) immersing and exposing participants to the distress of being unprepared for systemic vulnerabilities.

The results, outlined in this report, include key takeaways from player decisions as well as high-level recommendations that can be used to begin to frame these existential threats. CSR’s ultimate aim is to encourage policies that can adequately mitigate ecological disruption and strengthen cooperative efforts to address ecological security.

This scenario exercise explored how security risks may be heightened by ecological degradation due to anthropogenic stressors. The scenario was set in a fictional country, Khomland, with a number of geographic, social, economic, and political features characteristic of actual Southeast Asian states. During the game, three teams representing domestic civil society, the international community, and the governing elite, faced three stages of deteriorating ecological conditions. Teams were given the opportunity to respond directly to these ecological changes and to interact with one another. The game was structured to facilitate negotiations between various actors and to explore emerging conflicts among teams, illuminating the evolution of player decision-making and how those decisions may interact with a pressing ecological crisis.

Key takeaways from the exercise include:

  • Human-driven ecological disruption initiated a domestic security crisis. Mismanagement of Khom’s ecosystems and external pressures from climate change, led to the collapse of fisheries and coastal agriculture—the resulting food and job insecurity prompted large scale migration into cities.
  • Climate change and other forms of ecological degradation catalyzed internal conflict. Increasingly intense episodes of precipitation combined with upland deforestation made much of the country’s population centers and agricultural lands vulnerable to severe flooding. At the same time, extreme wet bulb temperatures proved fatal. These extreme events led to a spiraling conflict of extreme actions and responses.
  • Society was not able to cope with the opening ecological crisis or its evolution. Players accepted the fate of Khom’s ecosystems and made pivots from actions intended to restore ecosystem services and solve the crisis toward ones intended only to manage it.
  • Ecological mitigation, not restoration, was a more achievable goal given the lack of adaptation measures in place.
  • It would have been more efficient and effective to avoid ecological degradation than it was to restore ecosystems. Ecosystem restoration takes years of community cooperation, funding, and a commitment to monitoring and upkeep. These capacities were largely absent from a society experiencing an internal security and political crisis.
  • Player decisions often exacerbated rather than resolved the ecological crisis. The ecological situation forcibly shaped player decisions. Although play began with specific stressors and tipping points, followed by human action, this sequence was often obfuscated. As play progressed it became more difficult to distinguish between when human actions drove the ecological situation and when the ecological situation drove humans to act. Factional politics and unrest, catalyzed by job losses, food insecurity, and migration, largely distracted players from opportunities to restore ecosystems. Instead, ecological degradation was allowed to continue. This feedback loop between ecological degradation and insecurity and unrest only exacerbated the political crisis.
  • Competing actions driven by socio-economic and political aims also contributed to ecological disruption. International funds reached the pockets of elites instead of the ecosystems that desperately needed attention. Civil disobedience in response to corruption resulted in the death of thousands and created a hotspot for disease spillover. Disruptive agricultural practices also continued as people migrated from cities to rural areas in search of better livelihoods threatened by both the country’s security services and the crisis.
  • Rather than join forces to address the immediate impacts of ecological degradation, actors turned on one another. The government militarized its response to both the crisis and opposition from domestic political groups and civil society. As domestic actors turned against one another and vied for power, the international community became less incentivized to seek out financial support. Providing humanitarian aid became too precarious for risk-averse international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
  • The political system turned from semi-democratic to a concentrated authoritarian state. The ruling elites amassed more power as the country’s situation worsened, in the name of preserving state stability. Ultimately, the crisis led to the end of the existing semi-democratic political system and the establishment of amore authoritarian state. The results of this exercise show that loss of ecosystem functions and services, and the acceleration of climate change, may contribute to resource scarcity, food insecurity, economic fragility, community displacement, societal unrest, political instability, civil conflict and increased authoritarianism. Since this scenario exercise explicitly eschewed involvement of external powers, such a possibility cannot be ruled out. The scenario demonstrated that where social imperatives meet ecological degradation, the resultant cascade of risk pathways will be unpredictable and hazardous.

This report concludes with a series of recommendations inspired by participant discussions. Find them in the full report.

Citation: Robert Bentley, Lily Boland, Michael R. Zarfos, and Andrea Rezzonico. “Ecological Risk in a Future Southeast Asia: An Ecological Security Policy Game.” Edited by Erin Sikorsky and Francesco Femia. The Center for Climate and Security, an institute of The Council on Strategic Risks. Washington, DC. September 2023.

Photo credit: Flickr/ Antoine Moreau