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Ohio University professor recognized with international award for leadership in environmental peacebuilding

Grace Cahill
January 19, 2018

Dabelko Al Moumin AwardDr. Geoffrey Dabelko, professor and director of Environmental Studies at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University, was recently awarded the fifth Al-Moumin Award and Distinguished Lecture in Environmental Peacebuilding.

Named for Mishkat Al-Moumin — a human rights and environment lawyer who was Iraq's first minister of environment — the Al-Moumin Award recognizes innovative thinking and leadership in the field of environmental peacebuilding. It is presented annually by the Environmental Law Institute, United Nations Environment Program, and the Global Environmental Politics Program in the School of International Service at American University.

Dabelko received the award together with Dr. Ken Conca, professor of International Relations in the School of International Service at American University and a regular research and writing partner.  They will deliver their award lecture on Jan. 30, 2018, in Washington D.C. at American University and will focus on the evolution of environmental peacebuilding research and their engagement with practitioners around the world.

Dabelko and Conca were chosen for the award in recognition of the 15th anniversary of their book Environmental Peacekeeping.

“Engaging individuals from different backgrounds and providing opportunities for critical thinking and conversation are staples of the higher education mission,” Ohio University President M. Duane Nellis said. “I commend the interdisciplinary work and global leadership that both Dr. Dabelko and Dr. Conca are delivering to this important topic.”

Dabelko, Conca, and their contributors wrote the book as a counterpoint to the dominant narrative around environment and security, which held that resource scarcity would contribute to conflict. They saw tensions over shared or limited resources as an opportunity for peacebuilding and collaboration rather than simply conflict.

“We wanted to turn that hypothesis on its head and ask whether these interdependencies were something we could use to build confidence, trust, and eventually peace,” Dabelko said.

Dabelko described resource interactions as “a lifeline for dialogue” that allowed groups in conflict to see overlapping goals. It was easy, for example, for people on both sides of a resource conflict to see that their children were impacted by water pollution; those shared concerns could build a foundation for peace.

Throughout his career, Dabelko has helped to show security and environmental groups their objectives are often the same. Despite their different modes of operation—competition and conflict in security policy and cooperation in environmental policy—both share the need to make important decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Dabelko’s interest in understanding the connections between the environment and security began in his graduate school years, when the two issues were just beginning to be discussed together as the Cold War ended.

“There were all these different ways that people were talking about environmental policy and foreign policy. They were asking big questions - like does the scarcity of resources cause conflict or is it an avenue for peace, and how do we redefine security to recognize health and poverty and environmental issues? That just seemed fascinating and new—not new issues, but newly discussed across different communities,” Dabelko said.

Dabelko’s work as the director of the Environmental Change and Security Program, a nonpartisan policy forum on environmental and security issues at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C, allowed him to help connect those different communities. 

He indicated his work was controversial then, as it still is today. Dabelko described the controversy as rooted in a logical problem making it difficult to see the connections between environmental issues and security issues. “One requires cooperation; for the other the primary toolbox is competition, conflict, use of force,” he said.

The Woodrow Wilson Center focuses on providing a place for those working on environmental and security issues to come together. Dabelko, who still serves as a senior advisor to the Environmental Change and Security Program and its Resilience for Peace Project, described the Center as a bridge for these disparate groups.

“It was a nonpartisan forum where those different worlds could come together and in some ways, think out loud about how they matched. Some of it was getting the traditional intelligence community in there with scientists and environmental NGOs, connecting them with other parts of the government that they weren’t used to working with, like the Environmental Protection Agency.”

This forum created an interdisciplinary community where practitioners from various fields could come together with scholars, all of them learning from each other.

Dabelko sees the Al-Moumin award as a recognition of his work in academic circles and the way he’s been able to apply that work in a broader context, using it to advise and guide policymakers and bring different groups together.

As a professor, he’s been able to show his students real-life examples of the connections between security and the environment. He started the annual Environmental Peacebuilding and Sustainability study abroad program in the Balkans to give Ohio University students hands-on learning experiences with partners in the field.

Dabelko says that some things have changed for the better since he was a student. Climate change awareness is growing. Once a peripheral detail tacked onto the main issue of security, climate change is now seen as a way into understanding the intersection of environmental issues with security issues.  Finally, the United Nations Environment Program, one of the award sponsors, now actively pursues environmental peacebuilding in countries around the world.