International Conflicts over Environment: Scientist’s Roles and Opportunities

JH Ausubel

A. L. de Cerreno and A. Keynan

Citation: Scientific Cooperation, State Conflict: The Role of Scientists in Mitigating International Discord, "Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences" 866: 253–258 1998

Keywords: scientists, conflict, international

Areas of Research: The Scientific Enterprise

This paper first appeared in: Scientific Cooperation, State Conflict: The Role of Scientists in Mitigating International Discord, A. L. de Cerreno and A. Keynan, eds, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (866): 253-258, 1998. Posted with permission.


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 in-creasing 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 three-fourths 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 inter-governmental. 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 control.


From these environment-and resource-related cases, I reaffirm three familiar conclusions about conflict resolution, echoing the thinking of the late Kenneth Boulding.7

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 any more.

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 cooperation.

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 Dolphins.8


  1. Hannes Jonsson, Friends in Conflict (London: Hurst & Co., 1982); <https://>.
  2. Shirley Oakes Butler, “Owning Antarctica: Cooperation and Jurisdiction at the South Pole,” Journal of International Affairs 31 (1977): 35–52.
  3. Kirill Ya Kondratyev, Climate Shocks: Natural and Anthropogenic (New York: Wiley, 1988).
  4. Juan Carlos di Primio, “Data Quality and Compliance Control in the European Air Pollution Regime,” in The Implementation and Effectiveness of International Environmental Commitments: Theory and Practice, David K. Victor, Kal Raustiala, and Eugene B. Skolnikoff, eds., pp. 283–303 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
  5. Peter H. Gleick, “Water and Conflict: Fresh Water Resources and International Security,” International Security 18, 1 (1993): 79–112.
  6. Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, “Policy Implications of Global Warming,” pp. 620–628 (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1992).
  7. Kenneth E. Boulding, Conflict and Defense: A General Theory (New York: Harper, 1962).
  8. Leo Szilard and Barton J. Bernstein, The Voice of the Dolphin and Other Stories (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).