“The impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress”, said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a major set of remarks on climate change and security. Emphasising the threat that climate impacts poses to US national security and broader global peace and stability, Kerry said:
“[T]he reason I have made climate change a priority in my current role as Secretary of State is not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment. It’s because – by fueling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world – climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and, indeed, to the security and stability of countries everywhere.
“…when we talk about the impacts of climate change, we’re not just up against some really serious ecological challenges. We also have to prepare ourselves for the potential social and political consequences that stem from crop failures, water shortages, famine, outbreaks of epidemic disease, which we saw a near brush with Ebola in three African countries last year. And we have to heighten our national security readiness to deal with the possible destruction of vital infrastructure and the mass movement of refugees, particularly in parts of the world that already provide fertile ground for violent extremism and terror.”
The portrayal of climate change as a security challenge – or in academic terms, the ‘securitisation’ of climate change – is not new. The ‘threat multiplier’ language has been around for much of the past decade, the UN Security Council has held two debates on climate change (in 2007 and earlier this year), and the socioeconomic consequences of drought as a trigger to the Syrian phase of the Arab Spring (and what descended into civil war) is being increasingly noted. There is a lot of talk about ‘greening’ military operations, about the qualitative changes that might be wrought for military missions, implications for ‘other’, conventional efforts at addressing climate change, especially adaptation and resilience-building efforts, and so on.
What does seem new – as an on-off observer of this debate – is not the character of the argument, but who is making it. The novel recent development is not Kerry’s comments (even if there was a very interesting climate mainstreaming announcement about convening a “task force of senior government officials to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities”), or the welter of reports examining the various aspects of climate security agenda.
Instead, it is the engagement of defence ministries from developing countries on this subject that is the interesting new development. While many of the cases cited as signs of the clear and present need to think of climate change in security terms – Syria, Nigeria, Darfur, etc. – are obviously in developing countries (but not all, cf. the Arctic), the broad argument has not been principally made by Southern voices. Many of these linkages and ‘securitising acts’ have, rather, been led by US, European, and NATO officials and politicians, and by thinktanks and research efforts in developed countries such as CNAS and Chatham House. I interned at the Royal United Services Institute in London for a few months in 2009 on exactly such a climate security project, a sign of how a very traditional, armed services-oriented British thinktank was trying to dip its toe into these waters of the ‘new security’ agenda.
This rarity of having developing country policymakers active in this climate security debates was highlighted by a recent conference in mid-October hosted by France ahead of the COP21 Paris conference, ‘Climat et Défense : quels enjeux?’ – which caught my eye because defence officials from developing countries were indeed participants. There was fairly minimal reporting of this meeting (see VOA here and IISD here), but what is of interest for the moment is who was there: defence ministers from Ghana, Niger, Haiti, Chad, Morocco, Gabon, and the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security (in addition to representation from ‘usual suspects’ of France, UK, Italy and Spain).
“Terrorism is significant, but naked hunger is as significant as terrorism,” he said. “And the relationship between terrorist activities and naked hunger are obvious. If you look at the vectors of recruitment into terrorist cells, most of the most vulnerable are hunger-prone areas.”
The type of linkage being made is itself now new, trying to sketch the causal chain between climate impacts, scarcity, stability and potential conflict. What is new is when it is made by high-level policymakers in developing countries, especially from defence ministries and not the environment, forestry or energy departments that normally do the running on climate change. This sort of involvement can give climate action a different kind of traction in those countries, especially where climate issues may not be terribly well integrated into conventional ‘economic development’ planning and efforts.
Of course, too, such successful securitisation can have both positive and negative implications on how national response to climate change is structured. The language and political attention of ‘security’ may be offset by the militarisation of the issue and narrow security referents of ‘state’ rather than ‘human’ security. Bureaucracies may battle for budgets, and debate over the relative assessment of ‘risk’ within a society may have its own competitive rather than cooperative dynamics.
‘Climate security’ discourse is notable for having been largely championed by Western officialdom over the past decade. That defence and security establishments in precisely the countries on the frontlines of the impacts of a warming world are now publicly engaging with this subject may make it a more global conversation in the years to come.