Climate Change and Security Threats: Time to Call a Spade a Spade?

BZ Bushfire smallWhen does a serious environmental problem become a security threat?

Professor Tim Flannery, a leading scientist and public intellectual in Australia wrote a piece in the Guardian newspaper a few days ago reflecting on the links between climate change and the extreme temperatures and bushfires ravaging Australia at present. He notes that “Australians are used to hot summers. We normally love them. But the conditions prevailing now are something new. Temperature records are being broken everywhere.” What is important for thinking about the security consequences of climate change is that towards the end of the article, Flannery reflects:

“Australia’s average temperature has increased by just 0.9 of a degree celsius over the past century. Within the next 90 years we’re on track to warm by at least another three degrees. Having seen what 0.9 of a degree has done to heatwaves and fire extremes, I dread to think about the kind of country my grandchildren will live in. Even our best agricultural land will be under threat if that future is realised. And large parts of the continent will be uninhabitable, not just by humans, but by Australia’s spectacular biodiversity as well.”

Conditions in which large parts of the continent are threatened in such a way would appear to raise some pretty serious questions about Australia’s national security (let alone the human security of those individuals living in areas where agriculture has failed or fires threaten homes and livelihoods). Yet recently a number of commentators have become particularly concerned about the so-called ‘securitisation’ of climate change, largely due to a sense of there being “alarmist views about climate change on conflict risk.” This has led some to argue that rather than helping to raise the profile of the issue in terms of the need for urgent policy change, we in fact now need to “disconnect security and climate change.” According to Professor Betsy Hartmann of Hampshire College, “A fear of imminent doom runs deep in popular culture and, like the grim reaper, stalks the environmental movement.” This, she argues allows “security agencies and analysts” to distract us from feelings of empathy towards those affected by climate change and to instead cause us to fear them and to “turn to the military to protect us.” According to Professor Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia,

“What climate change means to us and means to the world is conditioned by what we do, by the way we govern, by the stories we tell. Presenting climate change as the ultimate security crisis is crudely deterministic, detached from the complexities of our world, and invites new and dangerous forms of military intervention.”

All of this matters as the potential world in which Flannery is imagining that his grandchildren might have to live in is becoming more and more likely the longer multilateral efforts drag on. Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, when asked to look ahead to the big global governance challengers for 2013 recently stated that: “It is becoming increasingly clear that efforts at mitigation are not just falling short but that the gap between what is needed and what is likely to happen is widening.”

The whole notion of the ‘securitisation’ of climate change pre-supposes that we get to choose whether climate change is a security threat or not – it emphasises what political scientists refer to as human agency. Of course we can choose to label something as a threat or not (yes, perhaps it may even not be the end of the world if we use the dreaded T word!). But in the face of increasingly extreme weather and related natural disasters (let alone serious discussions about whether states such as Kiribati can survive within their own national borders), it does seem that we can sensibly talk about the security threats posed by climate change in the decades to come regardless of whether we can specifically link particular instances of conflict and climate change in the past.

The point is that simply because something may pose a security threat does not mean that we have to respond in the traditional way – to throw military force at it. It’s abundantly clear that there is no military solution to climate change and that addressing the problem at source means changing (among other things) the ways we use energy. But that doesn’t mean that our current energy policies are not a fundamental security threat. They are. And why can’t we use better energy policies to ensure our security?

Ben Zala is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester.