Environmental Security and Climate Change
- Simon DalbySimon DalbyBalsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University
Environmental security focuses on the ecological conditions necessary for sustainable development. It encompasses discussions of the relationships between environmental change and conflict as well as the larger global policy issues linking resources and international relations to the necessity for doing both development and security differently. Climate change has become an increasingly important part of the discussion as its consequences have become increasingly clear. What is not at all clear is in what circumstances climate change may turn out to be threat multiplier leading to conflict. Earth system science findings and the recognition of the scale of human transformations of nature in what is understood in the 21st century to be a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, now require environmental security to be thought of in terms of preventing the worst dangers of fragile states being unable to cope with the stresses caused by rapid environmental change or perhaps the economic disruptions caused by necessary transitions to a post fossil fueled economic system. But so far, at least, this focus on avoiding the worst consequences of future climate change has not displaced traditional policies of energy security that primarily ensure supplies of fossil fuels to power economic growth. Failure to make this transition will lead to further rapid disruptions of climate and add impetus to proposals to artificially intervene in the earth system using geoengineering techniques, which might in turn generate further conflicts from states with different interests in how the earth system is shaped in future. While the Paris Agreement on Climate Change recognized the urgency of tackling climate change, the topic has not become security policy priority for most states, nor yet for the United Nations, despite numerous policy efforts to securitize climate change and instigate emergency responses to deal with the issue. More optimistic interpretations of the future suggest possibilities of using environmental actions to facilitate peace building and a more constructive approach to shaping earth’s future.
Updated in this version
Updated references, enhanced discussions of security and political geography.
Environmental Security and Sustainable Development
The contemporary formulation of environmental security was effectively put on the international policy agenda by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its 1987 report, Our Common Future. While the report is best remembered for its advocacy of sustainable development and its catalyzing role in shaping the agenda that led to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the so called “Earth Summit,” environmental security is specified in the report as the provision of the conditions necessary for sustainable development. Environmental security is also unlikely to be a possibility in the long-term future if sustainable development is not followed as an overarching economic priority. Thus, the two formulations mutually reinforced each other. Without environmental security sustainable development was unlikely to succeed because conflict and disruption would prevent sensible initiatives. Likewise, if sustainability wasn’t a policy priority, in the long run, ecological destruction would prevent its accomplishment.
While the exact trajectory of climate change wasn’t clear in the 1980s, and Our Common Future suggested that much more science was needed, it was noted as a significant issue that needed attention in formulating environmental security. Other matters, including the dangers of the cold war arms race, were highlighted; clearly nuclear military preparations were anathema to long-term survival and the possibilities of environmental security:
Perhaps the greatest threat to the Earth’s environment, to sustainable human progress, and indeed to survival is the possibility of nuclear war, increased daily by the continuing arms race and its spread to outer space. The search for a more viable future can only be meaningful in the context of a more vigorous effort to renounce and eliminate the development of means of annihilation.(WCED, 1987, p. 35)
While the dangers of nuclear warfare and the possibilities of a nuclear winter disrupting climate patterns for years, or even decades, were on people’s minds in the 1980s (Sagan & Turco, 1990), environmental security was understood as a larger planetary concern needing attention and, implicitly, a very different formulation of security. “The time has come to break out of past patterns. Attempts to maintain social and ecological stability through old approaches to development and environmental protection will increase instability. Security must be sought through change” (WCED, 1987, p. 250). Simultaneously, Our Common Future suggested that there were growing sources of environmental conflict where resource shortages fed into violence in many underdeveloped parts of the world. Wise use of renewable resources, to ensure their sustainable yields, was a key part of providing environmental security too. Quite how resource shortages were causing conflict wasn’t clearly specified in the report; this was simply assumed to be the case and assumed to be a situation that was getting worse. That there were numerous environmental problems in need of attention isn’t in doubt, but the assumption that scarcity was the cause of the difficulties went more or less unexamined.
Three decades later, as the science on climate change and the role of fossil fuel consumption in particular is highlighted as a key cause of global warming, it is clear that the problem that needs attention is not a matter of scarcity. While climate disruptions may cause local scarcities of water in particular, the problem with climate change is that there is too much fossil fuel, not too little, being used in the global economy. As climate change accelerates, security is increasingly a matter of infrastructure provision and vulnerabilities to extreme events (Dalby, 2009). Fossil fuel’s geographical distribution likewise has consequences for geopolitics and the conduct of climate policy, which does not make global coordination of climate change efforts easy (McGlade & Ekins, 2015). Renewable energy is widely dispersed and, given the lack of fossil fuels, access and transportation difficulties are much less likely to be a matter of geopolitical disputes (Overland, 2019). However, despite this, much of the discussion about climate change and security replicates the earlier discussion of the 1990s, on environmental causation of conflict, without focusing on the larger system transformation that climate change is driving and the consequences of that for security broadly understood.
This is changing, however, as discussions of climate risk and the need to rethink environmental contexts and interconnections in the global political system become clear, in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change of 2015, and the toll rises of casualties from storms, droughts, fires, and floods as a result of accelerating climate change. Earth system science, in its nascent stages when Our Common Future was being written, has progressed by leaps and bounds, and the necessity of thinking through human vulnerabilities, in what is now widely called the Anthropocene, has become clear to most researchers (Lewis & Maslin, 2018). This is not necessarily clear to many policy makers still working within traditional developmental frameworks and energy supply security agendas. The contrast between traditional energy security priorities with energy independence as top priority, for the United States in particular (Yergin, 2011), and climate change policy (Nyman, 2018), is especially stark in the Trump administration, a matter that highlights the importance of politics in deciding on priorities in security planning.
Our Common Future didn’t provide a precise definition of environmental security, but it clearly suggested that environmental stress was a cause of conflict and that sustainable development required stable environmental conditions to succeed. Hence, environmental security emerged as a policy goal despite the lack of a clear definition as to what it entailed. These themes subsequently shaped both the policy and scholarly agendas in the 1990s, engaging the relationships between environment and insecurity, widely understood, as well as the more specific research focus on environmental change causing conflict (Dalby, 2002). While scholarly and policy attention to environment temporarily receded in the early years of the 21st century, during the war on terror, climate concerns reactivated this discussion in updated form, especially in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005, an event that raised numerous questions about human vulnerability and the capabilities of states to provide security for their citizens in the face of accelerating climate change.
Various formulations of climate security emerged (McDonald, 2013), and in parallel with the discussion in the 1990s, scholars set about trying to clarify the role of climate in causing conflict while simultaneously addressing how this new discussion of human vulnerabilities required updated formulations of security. Most recently, this research and the policy debate have been shaped by the findings of earth system science and emergent discussion of the policy implications of the Anthropocene era (Dalby, 2020). In all this, there is no commonly accepted definition of either environmental or climate security, beyond a general sense that predictable weather conditions are key to human flourishing, both directly in agricultural societies, and indirectly given the vulnerabilities of urban societies to infrastructural disruptions.
To explicate all this further, the rest of this article looks back briefly to the discussion in the 1990s concerning environmental change and conflict, then observes the reinvention of the environmental causation arguments and their links to security in the middle of the first decade of the new millennium. Subsequent sections deal with the emergence of the larger earth system science discussion, which documents the scale and urgency of dealing with climate change, energy security that frequently contradicts climate policy, the emergence of climate risk as a policy focus, the discussion of climate securitization, and possibilities of planetary geoengineering; finally, the chapter draws some tentative conclusions about future research directions.
Environment and Conflict
While Our Common Future assumed relationships between resource shortages and conflict, quite how this relationship actually worked wasn’t clear in the report. Two major research projects were undertaken in the 1990s to address the question of how environmental change might generate conflict, in what conditions, where, and with what implications for policy. Thomas Homer-Dixon (1999) led a team of researchers that investigated a number of case studies, including South Africa, Rwanda, Pakistan, and elsewhere to trace the casual pathways between environmental change and what he termed acute conflict. One of the initial problems turned out to be that security was such an imprecise term that it wasn’t practical as a research agenda if causal relationships were the key to the investigation. Hence, this project focused more narrowly on acute conflict, rather than security more generally. Guenter Baechler (1999) led a parallel series of investigations that more closely looked at matters of development and discrimination in terms of access to environmental resources in rural areas.
In very broad terms, both research efforts concluded that environmental matters alone weren’t key to predicting conflict. While they were obviously important in numerous situations, key intervening variables included historical patterns of grievance and conflict as well as the competence and legitimacy of existing governmental structures. Scarcity wasn’t obviously a causal factor, and clearly it emerged that in crisis conditions elites often acted to enhance their power and control over resources, a matter that accelerated the marginalization of rural communities. Maldevelopment in Baechler’s (1998) terms was a key problem and, as such, policies that dealt with the perverse consequences of rural transformation and focused on practical matters in particular contexts were key to sustainable economic activities that were likely to avoid conflict. Elite appropriation of resources was also a theme in Colin Kahl’s (2006) detailed field-based studies of Kenya and the Philippines. This finding is broadly in parallel with the political ecology literature that has long investigated the power relations in rural transformations linked to development and economic change (Peluso & Watts, 2001).
Simultaneously, another series of research efforts were looking to the role of resources in civil wars and larger scale conflict in the Global South. Here, the discussion suggested that control over extraction and export of resources, including timber, oil, diamonds, and coltan, was a key to understanding patterns of violence in the Global South (Bannon & Collier, 2003). This is a long-standing pattern in traditional geopolitics, where rivalries over access to resources is a cause of conflict, and in cases such as the Japanese entry into the Second World War, major warfare too (Le Billon, 2013). Controlling resource streams and the revenues that they generate may be a way to power and wealth in poor areas that is much more tempting than waiting for long-term economic development to enrich a society. This suggests that local cases of resource abundance may be much more important than scarcity as causes of conflict generation (Le Billon, 2005). But it is important to note that most of the resources in these discussions concerning diamonds, minerals, and petroleum, in particular, are not strictly environmental matters. Hence, the discussion of resource curses, Dutch disease, and related resource economics issues are often tangential to environmental security matters.
These studies all suggest in one way or another that theories of locally generated violence as the source of environmental conflict are inadequate; clearly, the larger global economy and the political economy of resource supplies is key to explaining conflict in particular locations, although the causal link is frequently indirectly environmental, at best. Clearly too, while war is related to famine and frequently involves the use of food as a weapon, starving people are usually far too busy trying to find food to initiate large scale conflict despite the practicalities of violence often involved in these situations (Watts, 2013). Food riots are frequently urban phenomena emphasizing the importance of economics in insecurity, but large-scale insurrections are at best indirectly related to resource scarcities. As the Arab spring phenomenon suggested global food prices matter; rapid increases in these are often the trigger for political unrest; but environmental matters are indirectly rather than directly involved here as a cause of conflict (Homer-Dixon et al., 2015).
In terms of wider interpretations of environmental security, it was also clear in the 1990s that matters of pollution, food shortages, inadequate nutrition, and lack of safe drinking water were substantial hazards to populations in many places. These concerns were part of the larger discussion of human vulnerability (Adger, 2006) and human security that incorporated environmental matters into its overarching formulation of the dangers faced by the poorest parts of humanity that threatened their prospects for development (Adger et al., 2014). Environmental security in these terms is compromised by many factors, not just those related to overt conflict (Floyd & Matthew, 2013); the discussion of specifically environmental security spills over into larger concerns with human security broadly understood (O’Brien, Wolf, & Sygna, 2013). Both the narrow version of conflict-related environmental change and the broader understanding of human security having an environmental component fed into the policy discussion of sustainable development.
Climate and Conflict
The failure of the American state to deal effectively with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, in 2005, dramatically increased the policy attention given to the matter of vulnerabilities to climate change. In 2007, the discussion once again found its way into policy debates in the United States and the United Kingdom (Mabey, 2007) with a number of high-profile publications coinciding with the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate assessment and the controversy over Al Gore’s documentary movie An Inconvenient Truth, which shared a Nobel prize with the IPCC and won an Oscar. Both the CNA Corporation (2007) and the Centre for Security and International Studies (Campbell, Gulledge, McNeill, Podesta, & Ogden, 2007) published reports on national security and climate change in 2007, to be followed soon by the German Advisory Board on Climate Change (2008) and the US Army War College analysis of national security and climate change (Pumphrey, 2008).
A key formulation in this literature in the United States was the idea of climate change as a threat multiplier (CNA Military Advisory Board, 2014), something that added to other sources of instability, and in light of the focus on terrorism, a potential source of discontent and terrorist recruitment. Hence this was seen as an issue for national security, and something worth thinking through in terms of long-term strategy. It once again raised the question of the causal links between environmental change, this time explicitly as a result of climate change induced weather variability, and conflict generation. An updated formulation suggested that climate was better understood as a catalyst of conflict (CNA Military Advisory Board, 2014). In parallel, the American military became concerned that storms and rising sea levels might render its facilities vulnerable (Briggs & Matejova, 2019); a decade before, Tyndall Airforce Base in Florida was badly damaged by hurricane action in 2018. Vulnerabilities of facilities and the potential for growing interventions to deal with disaster relief and insurgencies aggravated by climate change made climate a matter for military attention regardless of the lack of interest from the Bush, and subsequently the Trump administration in Washington (Klare, 2019).
These concerns generated a renewed research focus on environmental conflict and revived the 1990s discussions as to the appropriate frameworks for analysis and methods to investigate political consequences of climate change. A research literature emerged addressing both the empirical studies and policy implications with some quantitative analyses suggesting a clear indication that weather events and larger scale climate change do cause violent conflict (Hsiang & Burke, 2014; Hsiang, Meng, & Cane, 2011). But other research produced results that are much less certain on connections between civil wars and climate (Buhaug, 2015), suggesting that the empirical evidence about such things as drought causing conflict is less than consistent or less than clear (Theisen, Holtermann, & Buhaug, 2012). Special issues of Political Geography in 2007 and in 2014 and the Journal of Peace Research in 2012 (see Gleditsch, 2012) have generated both empirical investigations and methodological disputes about how to tackle the relationships between climate change and conflict. In Africa, where many of these studies are done, detailed research doesn’t obviously link climate to large scale conflict (O’Loughlin et al., 2012). A key part of the methodological debate here in terms of whether large studies are what is required, or whether, given the large variation of social and geographical circumstances over which climate change occurs, data aggregation across diverse situations is in fact useful (Buhaug, 2015; Busby, 2018; Ide, Link, Scheffran, & Schilling, 2016).
These findings are sometimes complicated by the inclusion of large-scale historical events and more contemporary cases as well as their inclusion of a variety of scales from individual acts of aggression all the way up to climate as a factor in civilizational collapse (Hsiang, Burke, & Miguel, 2013). Historical studies linking up with new scientific analysis of climate records suggest very clearly that the period of the little ice age, especially in the 17th century, when agricultural production and food supplies were severely compromised in many parts of the world, is related to wars and political conflict (Parker, 2013). Similar investigations of the decline of the Western Roman Empire suggest that climate, and in this case disease, were key factors in these historical events (Harper, 2017). But great care has to be taken to generalize from these past events to draw conclusions about present trends given the sheer scale of transformations in the global economy over the last few generations, and the emergence of international institutions of aid and governance.
While some large statistical studies claim there is a relationship between climate and conflict, detailed empirical work on the ground repeatedly suggests that if there is such a relationship it is relatively weak in comparison to issues of development and governance (Selby, 2014). Focusing on livelihood issues and historical trajectories in particular places suggests specific local factors are crucially important in understanding relationships of violence (Deligiannis, 2012). There are numerous difficulties with data sets, distinguishing dependent and independent variables, universal causation claims, and the scales involved (Meierding, 2016a). Likewise, difficulties occur in terms of how media reports code events, whether civil wars are the focus or more general outbreaks of violence, the scale at which events register in these sets, given that national aggradation over large states may produce spurious correlations, and their completeness as a record of political conflict (Buhaug, 2015).
Some quantitative analyses focusing on Africa have suggested that there is a relationship between warming and civil war in Africa (Burke, Miguel, Satyanath, Dykema, & Lobell, 2009), but detailed investigation of the statistical claims seems to suggest that the relationships between conflict and environmental change are anything but clear, especially in the case of Eastern Africa (Raleigh & Kniveton, 2012). The scholarly research on this theme comes to diverse conclusions. “Sweeping generalizations have undermined a genuine understanding of any climate–conflict link, whereas cumulative results from the numerous studies of individual communities are difficult to summarize” (O’Loughlin et al., 2012, p. 18344). The finer points of the methodological debate are beyond the scope of this chapter (see Bretthauer, 2017), but efforts to integrate different research methods are obviously important to get greater clarity on which connections are most important (van Baalen & Mobjork, 2018). While rural disruptions are clearly a matter influenced by weather (Busby, 2018), the question as to whether distress turns to conflict relates to the political and social circumstances in particular cases, and the particular ways that rural political economy channels social change into conflict, migration, or collaboration (Ide et al., 2016). Nonetheless, despite the lack of clarity about results, this literature has fed into policy analyses of climate risks and the need to consider conflict risks as a matter of foreign policy in Europe (Detges, 2017), and in the United States (Werrell & Femia, 2017).
A noteworthy attempt to resolve some of the conflicting claims in the empirical discussions by a process of expert elicitation among the key researchers appeared in Nature (Mach et al., 2019). This synthesis suggests that four drivers of conflict are especially important in subnational contexts: low socioeconomic development, low capabilities of the state, intergroup inequality (for example, ethnic differences across groups), and recent history of violent conflict. What is unclear is the importance of climate variability, although there is agreement that further climate change will amplify conflict risks. Much of this is simply because, to date, climate disruptions have been small relative to other conflict drivers. Nonetheless, this research effort continues because “Given that conflict has pervasive detrimental human, economic, and environmental consequences, climate-conflict linkages—even if small—would markedly influence the social costs of carbon and decisions to limit future climate change” (Mach et al., 2019). The concerns about climate change are about future possibilities, which climate projections suggest will be severe for most societies (Steffen & Rockstrom, 2018), but there is no agreement in the scholarly literature that there is a substantial empirical record of this so far in the 21st century. In the policy discussions that draw on this work, there is considerable concern that climate change induced conflict will change the geostrategic situation in dangerous and unpredictable ways, not least as a result of extrapolations from the war in Syria.
Multiple accounts suggested that one of the causes of the Syrian civil war was the migration by unemployed farmers from drought stricken eastern areas to Syrian cities (Gleick, 2014, Kelley, Mohtadi, Cane, Seager, & Kushnir, 2015; Werrell, Femia, & Sternberg, 2015). If climate change had induced the drought, which in turn removed agricultural livelihoods from rural areas, and these people, upset with the failure of the government to assist them protested then, so the argument went, here is a case of climate-induced conflict. Careful subsequent analysis of the case and the evidence on which it is based cast considerable doubt on the whole situation, both as to whether climate change had caused the drought in 2007 and subsequent years, and whether the protestors who were attacked by state security forces included substantial numbers of displaced farm workers (Selby, Dahi, Frolich, & Hulme, 2017). While rural distress in Syria clearly happened in those years (Daoudy, 2020), the causal link via formulations of migration and political protest all the way through to the subsequent civil war is difficult to establish (Ide, 2018; Selby, 2018). The violent suppression of protest would seem to be key to subsequent events, and the history of regime violence against protests is nothing new in Syria.
Overall, it may be more important to inquire into how large-scale processes of globalization have played out in the region and how the responses of particular regimes to the ongoing warfare since 9/11 have shaped political rivalries (Swain & Jägerskog, 2016). In these terms, the role of oil in geopolitical competition is important too, and American intervention in particular is a key factor in the larger patterns of violence. That said, even if so-called oil wars, to gain access to specific supplies, may be overrated as a direct cause of war (Meierding, 2016b), there is a long history of conflict around oil in the Middle East in particular (Bichler & Nitzan, 2004). Now global food markets and climate disruptions are adding additional complications to this pattern. In terms of causal factors relating violence and change 21st century events are heavily influenced by the global economy and multiple interconnected crises in the political architecture of the international system (Homer-Dixon et al., 2015).
The Syrian case also poses the question as to how much the drought might have been caused or aggravated by anthropogenic climate change. The question of attribution, as it has come to be known, in terms of either the increased likelihood or the severity of damaging weather events (Kirchmeier-Young, Gillett, Zwiers, Cannon, & Anslow, 2019), raises issues of responsibility and hence liability, as well potential conflicts if victims of increased storm activity and other climate-change related disruptions seek recompense for their suffering (Byers, Franks, & Gage, 2017). As critical scholars have emphasized, as extreme events escalate, people in the Global South in particular, who had very little to do with causing climate change, are its victims. Hence climate justice is a key part of geopolitical discourse, even if representatives of states that have caused the bulk of climate change downplay it, and repeatedly refuse to comprehensively discuss loss and damage as part of international climate change negotiations (Chaturvedi & Doyle, 2015).
All of which is even more complicated by the fact that climate change is but one of the phenomena in play as human actions transform ecosystems in most parts of the earth system. Earlier discussions of global change (Steffen et al., 2004) have fed into what is known as earth system science and changed our understanding of how planet Earth works. The scale of human activities suggests that we live in new circumstances, in a planetary system that we are remaking drastically and quickly, so much so that it is widely accepted that we live in a new geological epoch named the Anthropocene (Lewis & Maslin, 2018).
This science provides at least some of the answers to the questions raised in Our Common Future concerning the trajectory of climate change and other environmental factors. Prominent among the formulations in this new Earth System Science is the suggestion that the Holocene period of the last ten thousand years provided conditions within which we know humanity can flourish (Davies, 2016). All of human history has occurred since the last glaciation, a period of relative stability in the planetary climate that has allowed agriculture to develop and has provided predictable conditions for complex economies to persist over long periods. During this time human actions have dramatically transformed landscapes by removing forests and changing habitats and species mixes in most of the ecologically productive terrestrial ecosystems (Ellis, 2018). The impact of European colonization linked the world into a global capitalist economy.
Most recently, in the period since the middle of the 20th century, now known as the great acceleration (McNeill & Engelke, 2016), earlier fossil fuel-powered industry has been dramatically expanded by petroleum-powered globalization. This has involved the vast increase in the use of fertilizers, the introduction of dangerous chlorofluorocarbons and other things into the system, the widespread use of plastics and concrete to change habitats and modes of living, and the diversion of much of the fresh water systems of the planet due to dams, irrigation, and urban water systems. The planet is increasingly an artificial entity due to the expansion of this “technosphere,” which now measures in trillions of tons of material (Zalesiewicz et al., 2017).
In earth system science terms, the period of the Holocene provided a “safe operating space” for humanity, a set of conditions within which we know humanity could flourish (Rockstrom et al., 2009). Doing so required that the earth system operate within a number of key “planetary boundaries,” beyond which dramatic disruptions not previously known in human history would result (Steffen et al., 2015). In contrast to the Holocene period, the previous million years witnessed a series of glacial periods in what effectively was a lengthy ice age marked by brief warmer “inter-glacial” periods. Current trajectories suggest that we are heading toward a hothouse earth pathway, where rapid and accelerating climate change will be the norm (Steffen & Rockstrom, 2018).
This trajectory will further disrupt historical ecological systems and agriculture on land, and will, through pollution, warming, and acidification of the oceans, damage oceanic ecologies fundamentally. As life is primarily an oceanic phenomenon this has profound consequences for all of life, not just humanity; this is the new context of rapid planetary change that we face in the Anthropocene (Angus, 2016). Environmental security at the largest scale now requires policies that lead to a “stabilized earth” system, one not too far from the conditions that pertained in the Holocene (Steffen & Rockstrom, 2018). The alternative “hothouse earth” pathway offers no indications that civilization can function in conditions of ongoing drastic disruptions, a theme that has received widespread popular commentary (Wallace-Wells, 2019).
Risks, Fragility and Adaptation
Early in 2019, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a report by the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation that didn’t mince words on the scale of the current transformation:
The accelerating deployment of renewables has set in motion a global energy transformation that will have profound geopolitical consequences. Just as fossil fuels have shaped the geopolitical map over the last two centuries, the energy transformation will alter the global distribution of power, relations between states, the risk of conflict, and the social, economic and environmental drivers of geopolitical instability.(Global Commission, 2019, p. 12).
This is important, as climate is increasingly being discussed in terms of risks. Mabey, Gulledge, Finel, and Silverthorne (2011) offered a discussion of climate security in terms of risk analysis, suggesting that, because this formulation is both insightful and familiar to security planners, it should be efficacious in security policy circles. However, while they suggested that risk analysis is useful, they did emphasize a key point that frequently gets lost in the discussion. Normal risk assessments work with a scale that has high probability, low impact events on one end and low probability high risk events on the other. This is not the situation faced by climate analysts (Ruttinger, 2017). The present trajectory is clearly leading to high probability high impact futures, and this requires careful thinking about what risks, where and when, need attention in security planning. Focusing on water issues in particular, it is clear that matters of infrastructure and the political economy of access to supplies is key to insecurity, and hence a crucial part of the relationship between climate change and insecurities in particular places (Zografos, Goulden, & Kallis, 2014). Likewise, cooperation across international boundaries is important in water management, and cooperation is necessary to effectively deal with extreme events and supply disruptions; at least so far, the vast majority of cases of cross-boundary water difficulties have generated cooperative efforts rather that conflict (Dinar & Dinar, 2017).
A report on “A New Climate for Peace,” presented to the G7 meetings in Germany in 2015, identified seven “compound fragility risks” to states in coming decades as climate change stresses weak states beyond what they may be able to cope with effectively. These risks encompassed: local resource competition,; livelihood insecurity and migration, extreme weather events, volatile food prices and provision, transboundary water management, sea-level rise and coastal degradation, and notably, concern that climate policies may have unintended consequences. This final point draws on studies suggesting that, if adaptation strategies don’t think about specific local conditions carefully, they may aggravate injustices or generate responses that make climate adaptation more difficult. These “backdraft effects” (Dabelko, Herzer, Null, Parker, & Sticklor, 2013) may “boomerang” (Swatuk & Wirkus, 2018) on aid programs and enhance insecurities, especially where the political economy of climate adaptation perpetuates traditional development efforts relying on engineering projects that fail to take ecological and political conditions in fragile states into account (Sovacool & Linner, 2016).
Noting that geopolitical rivalries remain a major problem in the international system, Mobjork, Smith, and Ruttinger (2016) emphasized the importance of managing them peacefully to facilitate effective climate actions. Similar concerns have been expressed by US AID concerning the risks of climate change and fragile states where “threat multipliers” may enhance the consequences of climate disruptions (Moran, et al., 2018; Null & Risi, 2016). These considerations have been brought to larger audiences in the documentary movie The Age of Consequences and in the TV series “Years of Living Dangerously.” As with earlier efforts, including the ENVSEC initiative (Hardt, 2018), there remains the difficulty with these formulations that focus on the dangers of instability in the Global South, but in the process focus on the symptoms of climate change rather than the causes in metropolitan consumption of fossil fuels (Dalby, 2013). This is not to deny the complex consequences of climate change in rural underdeveloped regions that need urgent attention, but the first task in dealing with climate change is the rapid reduction in the use of fossil fuels, and this is something that the affluent consumers of the world need to attend to, especially as the social costs of climate change are mounting in affluent states, too (Ricke, Drouet, Caldeira, & Tavoni, 2018).
Invoking a universal climate crisis, where everyone is equally affected or capable of dealing with the consequences, or focusing just on its symptoms rather than causes is to misconstrue the geopolitics of environmental security (Chaturvedi & Doyle, 2015). This is especially so when Malthusian fears of growing African populations and climate migration are fed into the policy discourse (Hartmann, 2014). In so far as climate migration is an issue, much of the dislocation is within states, and while climate is a factor in long-distance migration, disentangling it from political and economic processes is difficult. The World Bank has estimated that as many as 2.8% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America may be forced to move as a result of slow onset climate change (Rigaud et al., 2018). While these are large absolute numbers, relative to the dynamics of urbanization and economic change in these regions, they are relatively small amounts. How states respond to cross-border distress migration is one of the key themes that the revival of xenophobic geopolitics poses for sustainable development and effective climate adaptation strategies; the past cases of closing borders to prevent migration from disasters presents alarming precedents (Smith, 2007).
Geoengineering and Conflict?
Given the very slow response to increasingly clear indications of rising dangers caused by climate change, discussions of the possibilities of artificially cooling the earth have emerged. Technical fixes to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface include increasing cloud cover by spraying seawater into the lower atmosphere, and most popular, mimicking the cooling effect of volcano eruptions by injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere (National Research Council, 2015). While these might be effective in temporarily reducing insolation, their most articulate advocates make it clear this is a really bad idea that only makes sense as a last-resort temporary measure to buy time while energy systems are converted away from fossil fuel use (Keith, 2013). This provides one form of environmental security in that it, if it were to work successfully, it might keep earth’s overall temperature within, to use the earth science system terms, the safe operating space of a stabilized earth system.
While such interventions might work to reduce temperatures, they are also likely to have further largely unpredictable consequences, such as changing the patterns of monsoon rainfall in Asia. Hence, as critics argue, such initiatives need to be avoided and sensible climate mitigation strategies followed instead (Hamilton, 2013). If, however, geoengineering efforts were undertaken and disruptions of the monsoon happen, with all the likely consequences for crop production in a region that is populated by more than half of humanity, the disruptions would be severe. If in these circumstances, one state’s leaders were to blame another’s geoengineering efforts for the disruptions and issue ultimatums to cease and desist using such technologies, the possibilities of major conflict loom. While no one took Iranian President Ahmadinejad seriously when he claimed, in 2011, that European states had been using weather modification techniques to cause a drought in Iran, the precedent is troubling (Dalby & Moussavi, 2017).
While overt conflict might not result from geoengineering, the discussion of the potential consequences now includes investigations into possibilities of countermeasures (Parker, Horton, & Keith, 2018), a situation that implies, and as has been suggested repeatedly, that security in these terms can only be provided by careful agreements and cooperative efforts by governments and corporations who might actually produce these technologies and use them (Burns & Strauss, 2013). The continued failure of the international system to grapple effectively with climate change makes it increasingly unlikely that the planet will be maintained within the aspirational targets of 1.5 or 2 °Celsius average heating above pre-industrial levels (IPCC, 2018). As heating accelerates in coming decades, it seems increasingly likely that efforts to artificially cool the planet will be attempted whether or not there is widespread consensus among the global community. The possibilities of unilateral action may be over rated, not least because of the possibilities of countermeasures by other actors, but the potential for conflict over diverging priorities and unclear causal mechanisms in the earth system is, potentially, a major security nightmare for policy makers. As such, environmental security is far more likely to be provided by rapid decarbonization than efforts to deal with the effects of failure to do so.
Securitizing Climate Change
At the largest scale, questions of climate disruptions link up with historical discussions of the causes of major events in human history (Harper, 2017; Parker, 2013). These offer useful lessons for the future of civilization and the possibilities of humanity causing either the collapse of civilization (Diamond, 2005), or, in worst-case scenarios, our own extinction (Wallace-Wells, 2019). So far, climate change and the larger discussion of the Anthropocene have not shifted the priorities of macro securitization from traditional concerns with nuclear weapons, state rivalries, or terrorism (Buzan & Waever, 2009). Nightmare scenarios loom of the future of a planet where the long-term legacy of contemporary actions is a “plutocene” (Glikson, 2017), as in a geological epoch where future strata are marked by plutonium as a consequence of future nuclear wars, whether directly caused by climate disruptions or other Anthropocene events, if the new geological circumstances are not addressed quickly.
In terms of securitization theory, linking climate to security has had a mixed success in gaining policy traction (Floyd, 2010); the issue is complex, and while climate is an existential threat to many entities, the complexity of the matter defies easy encapsulation in traditional modes of security thinking (Mayer, 2012). In the United Kingdom, under the Blair and Brown governments, it was understood to be a policy issue that mattered (Rothe, 2016). Elsewhere, in case studies dealing with Germany, Mexico, and Turkey, the difficulties of getting coherent narratives and national attention suggest how complex the issue is, not least because of the various referent objects—individuals, states, and the planet itself—that are invoked (Diez, von Lucke, &Wellman, 2016). So far, at least, efforts to make climate change a security priority have had mixed results in the United States. While President Obama invoked the language of security in making climate a security priority, climate policy has had to deal with opposition from the fossil fuel lobby, and subsequently, the enthusiastic endorsement of fossil fuel exploitation by the Trump administration. The sheer complexity of American politics and the conflicting dynamics between interventionist and de-regulationist tendencies in the neoliberal state make for contradictory trajectories (MacNeil, 2017).
If climate change is understood to be a global security issue (Goldstein, 2016), then the obvious focus for attention to this matter is the United Nations security council. This body has considered the matter of climate security a number of times but hasn’t generated the necessary momentum to deal with climate as a matter of urgency (Scott & Ku, 2018). This is not least because the permanent members include the largest carbon dioxide producers, and the sense of urgency generated in scientific analyses of the current trajectory don’t translate into political responses when fossil fuel industry influence is so widespread. Activists have been making the case for emergency action on climate for many years (Spratt & Sutton, 2009), invoking metaphors of wartime, like mobilizations, as necessary to tackle the scale of the problem with the necessary speed (McKibben, 2016), but so far with little effective traction on international institutions.
The major achievement of the 2015 Paris Agreement and its rapid acceptance by most of the major states is in fact the agreement that this predicament is real and that it needs to be dealt with in coming years by most of humanity. That said, the contradictions between universal aspiration and national commitments remain to be resolved (Höhne et al., 2017). In Bruno Latour’s (2018) terms, all politics is now somehow related to climate, either as a focal point for attempts at collective action, or as a series of policies mobilized to resist these, as in the case of climate denial efforts and fossil fuel company obstruction of climate change initiatives. It also requires focusing on where international investments go, to coal powered generation stations, or into efforts to restore and more effectively manage forests so they can sequester carbon (Gaffney, Crona, Dauriach, & Galaz, 2018).
Keeping the earth system within its safe operating space, which is now the key to environmental security, requires rapid action (IPCC, 2018). Environmental security can’t be provided by violent actions after disruptions. It needs to be built into planning and preparation for likely disruptions that are already in the system, but it simultaneously needs to work on the rapid elimination of fossil fuel-based combustion everywhere. Clearly environmental management efforts, the use of parks, pollution prevention, and sustainable yield strategies for resource management alone are not adequate to the tasks facing security planners. In Peter Dauvergne’s (2016) terms, this “environmentalism of the rich” has failed to deal with either the colonial legacies of destruction of indigenous peoples and their places, or the disruption of numerous ecosystems due to the resource extractions and pollution generated by the scale of the global economy. Neither can traditional modes of “fortress conservation,” using armed forces to keep local populations away from traditional territories to supposedly protect them (Duffy, 2016). Similarly, assumptions that isolated regions can somehow protect societies from larger environmental disruptions are premised on a failure to understand the interconnections in the earth system and a nostalgia for inappropriate national containment strategies based on territorial sovereignty (White, 2014).
In so far as peaceful cooperation among the great powers occurs and violence is contained to relatively small areas that are disrupted by climate shocks, the possibilities for environmental peacemaking add another dimension to the policy discussion (Swain & Öjendal, 2018). While regional local peace initiatives, peace parks, and peace building around shared waterways and cooperative resource management are useful initiatives, they are all subject to large scale collaborative efforts of the major powers to slow and eventually stop climate change. All this requires a recognition of the new context of the Anthropocene, where caring for ecosystems rather than extracting resources from them is key to security provision on the largest scale (Harrington & Shearing, 2017). It is about more than plans to make societies resilient (Grove, 2018); what is needed now is transformative thinking to prepare for the disruptions that are inevitably coming, even if decarbonization does eventually lead to a stabilized earth system in future (Kareiva & Fuller, 2016).
In many rural areas in the global economy, however, corporations and military agencies continue to expand their control over resources at the sometimes violent expense of local people anxious to maintain traditional modes of livelihood and control over their territories (Buxton & Hayes, 2016). Activists who protest often get killed in the process, while international meddling gets the blame (Matejova, Parker, & Dauvergne, 2018). As Our Common Future suggested, in 1987, many of these practices will have to change if sustainability is to be the priority. How to transition to more ecologically sensible modes of economy is now a key theme in the discussions of environment, security, and peace (Brauch, Oswald Spring, Grin, & Scheffran, 2016). The problem with climate change in particular, and the Anthropocene in general, is precisely that what has been secured so far is what is now endangering environmental security for all in coming decades (Dalby, 2020). Regional efforts and environmental peacebuilding will undoubtedly be useful, especially in areas where major rivers matter to multiple states, as in the case of the Himalayas (Huda & Ali, 2018), but these efforts will only work in the long run if the planet avoids the hothouse pathway of runaway climate change.
The states that are most obviously vulnerable to climate are the low-lying, small island states that face immediate questions of survival, and many other states in the Global South that are vulnerable to agricultural disruptions caused by storms and droughts, but lack the means to make their existential plight a matter of concern for the larger international community (Chaturvedi & Doyle, 2015). While climate change may be the largest existential crisis facing human kind, the United Nations has not formulated an effective response (Scott & Ku, 2018); a global problem still faces the persistent political problems of multiple jurisdictions and politics, where relative gains are still valued in international politics despite the likely disasters that temporary benefits may confer on the collectivity in the longer term (Harris, 2013). The Paris Agreement of 2015 does recognize the necessity of dealing with climate change but still relies on states to craft plans to tackle greenhouse gas emissions without any overarching authority to enforce compliance, even with the limited ambitions states have so far shown in dealing with this issue (Falkner, 2016). Climate has so far been understood as a development issue and a matter of inter-state rules, the “law between and development within” approach in Conca’s (2015) formulation. In turn, this raises the question of whether the United Nations might have better success in thinking about climate if it was considered in terms of its functions to protect human rights and its peace building and conflict prevention roles.
More specifically, this requires thinking about survival as a matter of economic production and shifting from fossil-fueled modes to more renewable ones. In terms of geopolitics, it requires a shift, from assumptions of competitive antagonisms as the basic premise for international politics and security problems, to assumptions of the possibilities of resilient peace as an attainable goal for the United Nations (Barnett, 2019). As Conca (2019) suggests, focusing on the consequences of climate change in such places as the Lake Chad basin and Iraq, where climate migrants and instability are linked to environmental change, if not directly to conflict, may facilitate actions by the United Nations that might accrue to a larger general series of policy initiatives.
In light of the growing discussion of security in the Anthropocene (Harrington & Shearing, 2017), to do so will also require more fundamental rethinking of environmental security to focus more explicitly on the ecological functioning of the planetary system, a matter of “ecological security” in McDonald’s (2018) terms, referring to a functional earth system, rather than simply taking the environment as a source of resources, or the contextual backdrop for human affairs. The implications of this new Anthropocene context suggest the need for further research looking at the interconnections between places in the earth system, matters sometimes now encompassed in the literature of environmental geopolitics (O’Lear, 2018, 2020), as well as more work in the emerging field of environmental peacebuilding. This latter work focuses on practical measures to use environmental cooperation as a tool for post-conflict reconstruction (Krampe, 2017) and the promotion of quality peace conditions.
Nonetheless, unless this new framing has a comprehensive rethinking of rural ecologies and their interconnections into the global economy, there remain dangers that many of the problems with traditional development projects may stymie innovations (Ide, 2020). How to avoid these in working on climate adaptations (Sovacool & Linner, 2016) is clearly a key theme for new research on ecology and security in the next stage of the Anthropocene. Research in the future must focus on transition strategies (Brauch et al., 2016), especially in energy systems (Looney, 2017) and on how to accelerate social transformations (Linner & Wibeck, 2019), rather than looking to traditional themes of security studies concerned with conflict, war, and its prevention. As Our Common Future suggested, at the beginning of the environmental security discussion, security has to be sought in terms of change.
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