Climate Change, Security and the Perverse Effects of Climate Policy
Last week the Sussex Centre for International Security and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex ran a two-day conference titled “Rethinking climate change, conflict and security”. About 80 scholars, researchers and analysts from the fields of international relations, political science, geography and development challenged some of the conventional wisdom that has grown-up around climate change and security discourses: that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’; that climate change triggers violent conflict; that by securitising climate change new and constructive international negotiating spaces are opened up. Many of the speakers challenged these assumed realities through carefully argued empirical and theoretical papers.
What struck me most forcibly, however, came from a panel discussion contribution from James Fairhead, professor of social anthropology at the University of Sussex. Fairhead argued that the discourse about environmental change and development has moved into a new phase: from ‘conservation’, through ‘sustainability’ and climate change adaptation and mitigation, to now one of ‘environmental repair’. The putative damage has been caused by climate change and the reparations will be delivered through the new carbon markets and payments for ecosystem services.
The connection with security, Fairhead argued, emerges through the ‘green land grabs’ underway in many parts of the tropical world, with rising land values unsettling and marginalising population groups. Through new biofuel ventures and carbon offset schemes, ‘insecurity’ is being swapped or traded. The imagined climate insecurities of (usually) northern nations and peoples are being ‘reduced’ – by meeting nominal national emissions reduction targets - through transactions which increase the livelihood insecurities of (mostly) tropical nations and peoples. Carbon trade thus becomes a surrogate for trading virtual insecurity (of the rich) for material insecurity (of the poor).
A further twist to the tale can be imagined. As these land grabs and dispossessions rise the price of land and basic commodities in the global south, the resulting ‘insecurities’ offer -- discursively at least -- an entry point for interventionist forays by the international forces of security. Failing states and political instability legitimate new foreign interventions with promises to ‘re-secure’ these disturbed settings. A perverse spiral of self-constructed insecurities and efforts to re-secure is thereby unleashed, all in the name of climate change and environmental repair.
The moral of this tale – and it has for me at least plausibility -- is that it is not climate change which de-stabilises the world. Rather, it is the hegemonic extension and imposition of certain forms of climate policy, executed through the demands of a neo-liberal market which over-rides local interests and justice in the name of a greater global ‘good’. As Nils Petter Gleditsch remarks in his 2012 editorial in the Journal of Peace Research, “Framing climate change as a security issue may influence the perceptions of the actors in local and regional conflict and lead to militarised responses and thus perhaps contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
And I am minded to suggest a parallel warning with respect to another putative climate management strategy, namely solar geo-engineering. Here, the desire to bring the material energy flows of the atmosphere under direct technocratic control in order to ‘re-secure’ an unstable climate leads to the militarisation of the sky. In the name of a greater global ‘good’, technologies are introduced to the sky which carry unknown risks of de-stabilising local weather systems and the people who live with them.
In an unpublished forthcoming manuscript, Bron Szerzynski and Phil Macnaghton remark, “There remains the problem of governing SRM geoengineering and of assuring that the technology is deployed for good purposes … there is the potential for SRM geoengineering to generate new forms of conflict and to reconfigure geopolitics.”