Tag Archives: security

‘Climate security’ and developing country voices

“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).

Here’s Ghana’s defence minister, Benjamin Kunbuor (bringing to mind David King’s very early contribution on climate change being a greater threat than terrorism):

“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.”

Roundtable on ‘Extreme Climate Events and Human Security’, at the ‘Climat et défense : quels enjeux?’ conference, 14 October 2015. Photo via defense.gouv.fr

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.

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Dealing with extremes

Slipping by unnoticed amidst the litany of climategates, at least for many climate change-watchers, was the publication at the beginning of last week of the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which as the name suggests, is a review of DoD priorities and its strategies for dealing with the threats and challenges to US national security. Its consideration of the implications of climate change was done at the behest of instructions in 2008 from the US Senate (Hilary Clinton and John Warner), but how ‘national security professionals’ treat climate impacts is worth thinking about for a moment. (On the process of how climate change was overlaid onto the QDR process, see a short briefing by US thinktank the Centre for A New American Security)

A good deal of the discussion focuses on the link between energy security and climate change, and assuring secure supplies for thirsty planes, ships and trucks. Energy efficiency reduces the risks to combat missions (i.e. needing to protect fuel convoys from attacks as they travel across Afghanistan), and is a reminder that the ‘true cost’ of fuel is much higher than it appears on paper (just like the true cost of many of our other economic activities). The introduction of the “burdened cost of fuel” measure highlights the extra cost of transporting and protecting fuel supplies that far surpass the gallon price of the fuel itself. The mention of a  ‘green’ carrier strike group by 2016, powered on nuclear and biofuels, is one of the more eye-catching items part of a number of points on efficiency measures and energy innovation for and by the military.

So recognizing the consequences for energy supply from climate change are a win-win, helping to reduce energy demand while enhancing military missions. But what I find more interesting is its discussion of the threats and challenges from climate impacts to the ‘why’ of missions, not just the ‘how’:

Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have
significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental
degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to
food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass

While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or
conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. In
addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil
authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and

The ‘could’ in that first sentence is an important one in pointing to the difficulties that still remain in making projections of precise climate impacts in the future, not least in having to bear in mind other factors that can improve or worsen the situation. But any uncertainty here is treated as a reason to act and plan for future scenarios of varying consequences, not as reasons for inaction. The interesting thing about security planning is the importance of high-impact but low-probability events – like a nuclear launch by North Korea, like Soviet tanks rolling across Europe, and now – like climatic tipping points (i.e. West Antarctic ice sheet) that take us into the realm of truly catastrophic climate change.

The QDR, and the Annual Threat Assessment from the US National Intelligence Director (also published last week) , which discusses the regional impacts of climate change (p.39), spend more time discussing shorter term impacts and how these are interwoven with other political dynamics. Climate change isn’t ‘monocausal’ in the sense that temperature rises will lead to state breakdowns; its impacts are mediated through other issues which clouds the importance of climate change. It will make some of today’s problems more frequent and severe, putting fresh demands on the conduct of international politics. But it is the spectre of tipping points that sharpens the mind and becomes a strategic concern for national security. So we have to plan for the worst, and for unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld put it – because if we don’t, and they do materialize, then we’ll be in deep trouble. How much risk are we willing to bear?

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