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Securitizing Climate Change: Expectations and Concerns

7 August 2012

Securitizing Climate Change: Expectations and Concerns

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Military preparations

Climate change is increasingly understood as a significant threat to national and global security. But while the securitization of climate change may have raised hopes of finding a more effective response, it has also generated concerns that environmental problems are becoming increasingly militarized, argues Rafaela Rodrigues de Brito.

By Rafaela Rodrigues de Brito for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)


Editor’s note: Climate change is perceived to have many side-effects, and arguably among the more pernicious is conflict over scarce natural resources. As a result, climate change has been increasingly securitized with key policymakers as likely to come from departments of defense as environmental agencies. In May 2012, for example, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta identified climate change as a national security threat, a concern shared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Moreover, the United Nations Security Council recently debated whether "green helmets" should be sent to regions destabilized by environmental conflicts.

Yet questions remain as to whether we can effectively tackle problems associated with global warming if we securitize climate change. In order to address such concerns, today we present a recently published paper from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In one of its chapters, Rafaela Rodrigues de Brito outlines the development of the environment-security nexus and discusses the implications of making climate change a security issue.


The environment-security nexus

From the late 1970s, conventional security discourse and practice came under criticism for its inability to manage environmental risks to national and international security. Authors such as Lester Brown (1977), Richard Ullman (1983), Norman Myers (1989), Jessica Tuchman Mathews (1989) and Arthur Westing (1989) called for a new conception of security that moved beyond military security.

The end of the bipolar confrontation enabled a more significant consideration of potential non-military threats to security, and notably environmental threats. One of the most influential approaches regarding the environment-security nexus is one that concentrates on the causal links between environmental change and conflict. This approach owes a lot to the work developed by Thomas Homer-Dixon and his colleagues in the early 1990s. Working with selected case studies, they demonstrated that the degradation and depletion of environmental resources interacts with population growth and unequal resource distribution to cause violent conflict (Homer-Dixon, 1991, 1994; Homer-Dixon and Blitt, 1998).

Another significant approach focuses on environmental challenges to human security. Rather than focusing on violent conflict, this people-centered approach focuses on how the environment affects the needs, rights, and values of people and communities (Barnett et al., 2010: 17). According to this approach, the goal of environmental security is to enable individuals and communities to respond to environmental stresses, whether by reducing their vulnerability or by challenging the drivers of environmental change (O’Brien, 2006: 1).

The divergences in approaches to the environment and security led Rita Floyd (2008) to argue that, rather than a concept, environmental security is a debate, with different approaches to environmental security at odds with one another. According to the author, “different traditions within security studies conceive very differently of environmental security; differing vastly in terms of who or what is to be secured, what is to be secured against and also the nature of the threat itself” (Floyd, 2008: 51).

There were, however, opponents to the establishment of any connection between the environment and security. Daniel Deudney, for example, classified such link as dangerous and self-defeating (1990: 474). Deudney challenged the idea that environmental degradation leads to interstate violent conflict because the features of the international system are not directly connected with environmental issues (Deudney, 1990: 474). Given the common association of security with nationalism and militarism, various scholars have argued that national security thinking is not appropriate when addressing environmental degradation (Matthew, 1995: 8).

More recently, climate change became the focus of the environment-security debate. Climate change increasingly dominates the international agenda as it is viewed as one of the most pressing issues facing the world, not only because it intensifies existing environmental problems, but because it also creates new ones. Climate change is seen as a cross-cutting issue, with predicted impact that range from the aggravation of resource scarcity to the disappearance of entire coastal areas. In this context, a language of security has pervaded the discourse on climate change, with a number of actors from the political, academic and public spheres now classify climate change as a threat to security.

A number of reports have drawn attention to the security implications of climate change. In 2003, in a report prepared for the United States (US) Department of Defense, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall outlined the implications of an abrupt climate change scenario for US national security. According to the report, such a scenario could de-stabilize the geopolitical environment leading to violent conflicts due to resource constraints (Schwartz and Randall, 2003: 2). A military advisory board counseled the U.S. government to fully integrate the consequences of climate change in national security and national defense strategies (The CNA Corporation, 2007). Also in 2007, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) published a report were climate change is clearly identified as a threat that could overstretch the capacity of many societies to adapt, thereby jeopardizing national and international security to an unprecedented degree (2007: 1).

In April 2007, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held its first-ever meeting on the impact of climate change. In the full-day debate, called by the United Kingdom, the relationship between energy, security and climate was discussed. Although no statement or resolution was adopted, it was a symbolic first-step towards the acknowledgement of climate change as a security issue, since the UNSC has primary responsibility, under the UN Charter, for maintaining international peace and security (Brito, 2010: 44).

More recently, on July 2011, the UNSC held a second meeting on the impact of climate change. A statement was issued from the meeting item entitled “Maintenance of international peace and security”, in which the Council expressed its “concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security” (United Nations Security Council, 2011, S/PRST/2011/15: 1). Moreover, acknowledging the importance of contextual information on the possible security implications of climate change for matters related to maintaining international peace and security, the UNSC requested that the Secretary-General ensure that such information be contained in his report to the Council. (United Nations Security Council, 2011, S/PRST/2011/15: 2).

The climate–security link was also acknowledged by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), where a resolution (A/RES/63/281) on the possible security implications of climate change was adopted. In this resolution, the UNGA declares its deep concern that the adverse impacts of climate change could have security implications and invites the relevant UN agencies to intensify their efforts in considering and addressing the security implications of climate change (United Nations General Assembly, 2009: 2).

Recognizing the negative impacts that climate change can have on the security of mankind, the Norwegian Nobel Committee attributed the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore, Jr. for their efforts to build up and disseminate knowledge about climate change and the measures needed to counteract such change (Nobelprize.org, 2011).

Individual states have also started to address the security implications of climate change. The United Kingdom, for instance, has included climate change in its 2008 national security strategy. The document states that climate change is potentially the greatest challenge to global stability and security, and therefore to national security (Government of the United Kingdom, 2008). Also the French White Paper on Defense and National Security portrays climate change as a new risk, whose security impacts need to be calculated rapidly. The document acknowledges climate change’s potential contribution to violent conflict (Government of the French Republic, 2008). Germany’s 2006 National Security Strategy already referred to climate change’s potential for exacerbating security problems. The most recent Defense Policy Guidelines from the German Ministry of Defense identifies climate change as a risk that can have consequences for German security (German Ministry of Defense, 2011).

The Pacific small island states, have also extensively considered the threat climate change poses to their security and survival. These states, which are threatened to be entirely submerged by the rise in sea-level, have actively worked to raise the profile of climate at the international level, by introducing climate change in the United Nations Security Council agenda.

These developments generated a debate on the implications of converting climate change to a security issue. On the one hand, it is acknowledged that security attributes a sense of urgency to climate change that might be able to speed action to address the issue (Brown et al., 2007: 14; Barnett, 2003). On the other hand, there is concern that securitizing climate change will place the focus on violent conflict, generating military responses to address the impacts of climate change (Barnett, 2003: 14; Brown et al., 2007: 1153).

Fears of militarization are to a great extent connected to the link between climate change and violent conflict, which has been the focus of a large proportion of academic debate on climate and security. The effects of climate change, many argue, will add further pressure on scarce resources, exacerbating existing tensions and fuelling violent conflict (Klare, 2007; Mazo, 2010; Podesta and Ogden, 2007). However, such link has also been criticised for being largely unsubstantiated by evidence and for focusing excessively on the climate dimension, neglecting other factors that contribute to conflict (Nordås and Gleditsch, 2007; Brown et al., 2007; Salehyan, 2008).

Although the climate-conflict debate is a central part of the climate– security debate, this is not the only focus. A significant part of the debate focused on climate change as a threat to human security and well-being. These two distinct conceptions yield different policy recommendations (Detraz and Betsill, 2009: 308), with the latter privileging policy responses that focus on issues of vulnerability, justice and adaptation (Adger, 2010; Barnett, 2003; Buckland, 2007).

Analyzing governmental discourses on climate change and security in Europe and the US, Maria Julia Trombetta (2008) argues that these emphasize the relevance of preventive, non-confrontational measures, rather than the reactive measures that the system tends to rely on. Consequently, she argues, the securitization of climate change is transforming security practices, creating new roles for security actors and different means of providing security (Trombetta, 2008: 586).

Trombetta argues that the securitization of climate change has succeeded in mobilizing political action and in institutionalizing the debate at the international level, being decisive for the development of a common energy policy in the EU (2008: 598). Denise Garcia also argues that the link between climate change and international security added a sense of crisis that gave impetus to the evolution of the climate regime, as shown by the re-engagement of the United States or the decision of a long-term goal for a post-Kyoto scenario (Garcia, 2010: 275).

To summarize, the connection between climate change and security has generated both concerns of militarization of the management of its negative effects, as well as an expectation of effective change due to the fact that security constitutes a high politics matter par excellence.


Rafaela Rodrigues de Brito has a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with specialization in Peace and Security Studies, awarded by the University of Coimbra in Portugal. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Southampton in the UK.

Editor's note:

This text is an excerpt (pp 120-124) from the chapter “The securitization of climate change in the European Union” published in: OECD (2012), Global Security Risks and West Africa: Development Challenges, West African Studies, OECD Publishing, pp 119-134. Re-published with permission.

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