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The secure and the damned

Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes explore the growing emphasis on security and control over resources in response to climate change

March 24, 2013
7 min read

Metro Manila, the Philippines. Photo: Asian Development Bank

The world’s political leaders couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned. In the run up to the UN climate negotiations in Qatar in December, it wasn’t just the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and global accounting firm PWC predicting dangerous levels of climate change. Even nature appeared to sound alarm bells with unseasonal hurricanes devastating New York and islands in the Caribbean and the Philippines. Faced with this chorus, you might have expected a response from the world’s governments. Instead the summit passed almost unnoticed by the international media and the result was another empty declaration, described by Friends of the Earth as a ‘sham of a deal’ that ‘fails on every count’.

Confronted with one of the greatest challenges our planet and its peoples have faced, our political leaders have clearly failed us. In stark contrast to the radical, coordinated action to bail out banks and prop up the financial system, governments have instead chosen to step aside, giving a free hand to the markets and the fossil fuel giants, rather than daring a carefully planned conversion of our carbon-based economies. Their choice is not one of inaction, as is often suggested, but one of actively ensuring dangerous climate change. Every coal plant built in China, oil field mined in the Arctic, or shale gas field fracked in the US locks carbon into the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years and means that even radical steps to decarbonise in future years may not be sufficient to prevent runaway global warming.

The president of the World Bank, Dr Jim Yong Kim, said their report’s predicted rise in temperatures of 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit before the end of the century would create a world that was ‘very frightening’. For the first time, the issue of how to pay for the ‘loss and damage’ that climate change is already causing for the poorest and most vulnerable people worldwide took centre stage at Doha. It is a tragic irony that discussions about stopping or preparing for global climate change (known as ‘mitigation and adaptation’ in UN language) have now been upstaged by demands for reparations and concern, not least in the insurance industry, about who or what is going to pay for the damage.

These narratives are deeply distressing and disempowering. It is now much easier for people to imagine a dystopian future for their children than a world that has pulled together to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Far from prompting mass action, fear and insecurity is apparently prompting people to turn off and tune out in droves, or to seek solace in conspiracy theories.

Profiting from insecurity

This apathy is being exploited by those who welcome – or at the very least are looking to profit from – the politics of insecurity and what the Pentagon has dubbed ‘the age of consequences’. Across the world and often behind closed doors, securocrats and military strategists are engaging in ‘foresight’ exercises that – unlike their political masters – take climate change for granted and develop options and strategies to adapt to the risks and opportunities it presents.

Only a month before the Doha climate negotiations, the US National Academy of Sciences released a report commissioned by the CIA that sought to ‘evaluate the evidence on possible connections between climate change and US national security concerns’. The study concluded that it would be ‘prudent for security analysts to expect climate surprises in the coming decade, including unexpected and potentially disruptive single events as well as conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence, and for them to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, most likely at an accelerating rate’.

The military and the intelligence community’s willingness to take climate change seriously has been often uncritically welcomed by some in the environmental community; the agencies themselves say they are just doing their job. The question very few people are asking is: what are the consequences of framing climate change as a security issue rather than a justice or human rights one?

In a world already demeaned by concepts like ‘collateral damage’, participants in these new climate war games need not speak candidly about what they envisage, but the subtext to their discourse is always the same: how can states in the industrialised North – at a time of increasing potential scarcity and, it is assumed, unrest – secure themselves from the ‘threat’ of climate refugees, resource wars and failed states, while maintaining control of key strategic resources and supply chains? In the words of the proposed EU climate change and international security strategy, for example, climate change is ‘best viewed as a threat multiplier’ which carries ‘political and security risks that directly affect European interests’.

The industries that thrive off the ugly realpolitik of international security are also preparing for climate change. In 2011, a defence industry conference suggested that the energy and environmental market was worth at least eight times its own trillion-dollar-a-year trade. ‘Far from being excluded from this opportunity, the aerospace, defence and security sector is gearing up to address what looks set to become its most significant adjacent market since the strong emergence of the civil/homeland security business almost a decade ago,’ it suggested.

Some of these investments may prove welcome and important, but the climate security discourse is also helping fuel the investment boom in high-tech border control systems, crowd control technologies, next-generation offensive weapons systems (such as drones) and less-lethal weapons. Every year a few more applications are piloted, and a few more hit the market. Looking at the consolidation of militarised borders across the world over the past decade, you wouldn’t want to be a climate refugee in 2012, never mind 2050.

It is not just the coercive industries that are positioning themselves to profit from fears about the future. The commodities upon which life depends are being woven into new security narratives based on fears about scarcity, overpopulation and inequality. Increasing importance is attached to ‘food security’, ‘energy security’, ‘water security’ and so on, with little analysis of exactly what is being secured for whom, and at whose expense? But when perceived global food insecurity is fuelling land grabs and exploitation in Africa, and rising food prices are causing widespread social unrest, alarm bells should be ringing.

Winners and losers

The climate security discourse takes these outcomes for granted. It is predicated on winners and losers – the secure and the damned – and based on a vision of ‘security’ so warped by the ‘war on terror’ that it essentially envisages disposable people in place of the international solidarity so obviously required to face the future in a just and collaborative way.

To confront this creeping securitisation of our future, we must of course continue to fight to end our fossil fuel addiction as urgently as possible, joining movements such as those fighting tar sands and forming broad civic alliances that pressure towns, states and governments to transition their economies to a low-carbon footing. We cannot stop climate change – it is already happening – but we can still prevent the worst effects.

However, we must also be prepared to reclaim the climate adaptation agenda from one based on acquisition through dispossession to one based on universal human rights and the dignity of all people.

The recent experience of Hurricane Sandy, where the Occupy movement put the US federal government to shame in its response to the crisis, shows the power of popular movements to respond positively to local disasters. Yet local responses by themselves will not be enough. We need broader international strategies that check corporate and military power while globalising the tools for resilience. This means putting forward progressive solutions around food, water, energy and coping with extreme weather that provide viable alternatives to governments’ market-based and security-obsessed approaches. Perhaps most importantly, we need to start packaging these ideas in positive visions for the future that will empower people to reject dystopia and reclaim a liveable, just future for all.

Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes are co-editors of a forthcoming book on the securitisation of climate change, to be published by the Transnational Institute in 2013

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