We, the global community, already live in a climate-changed world, evidenced by the successive reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Even President Trump cannot deny that climate disasters in the US have increased in frequency, severity and magnitude in recent decades. Extreme climate disasters have become the “new normal”, with devastating effects on the rich and the poor alike. Obviously, the risks to economies and societies have become an issue of security concern for the academic, policy and military communities. However, there seem to be widely differing perspectives on this issue among these communities.
The word “security” comes from the Latin phrase sine cura, which means “without worry”. This root meaning conveys what security should actually mean as a spaceless/timeless concept. In fact, the genealogy of climate-development-security linkage goes back centuries. Many authors then sought to explain developments and conflicts in the American South and other regions by climate determinism. During the first half of the last century, Huntington and others tried to move beyond this climate historicism to naturalising the causes of conflicts and political unrest. Now, a group of academics argue that the ideology of this climate reductionism has seeped into the consciousness of the national security community.
From the perspective of national sovereignty, beginning with the state-centric military security, we witnessed the framings of economic security in the 1970s, followed by a quest for redefining national security, with rapid environmental degradation. This new discourse argued that the traditional view of military-focused “national security” is growing to be irrelevant as it could not address new global issues which were non-military security threats such as poverty, underdevelopment and environmental threats. The term “environmental security” first appeared in the 1987 landmark report titled “Our Common Future”; this was the first authoritative source that broached a linkage between security risks and environmental degradation. Climate security is the latest accretion to this discourse, pioneered by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she declared at the UN General Assembly in 1989 that climate change threatened life itself that “we must battle to preserve”.
From a review of academic and policy literature of the last two decades, I could make out at least three distinct framings about the relationship between climate change and security: environmental conflict, human security and climate resilience. The first is the environmental conflict perspective, according to which the security policy community, such as departments of defence, plays the lead role, while in the vulnerability-focused human security perspective, finance, planning and development agencies play the lead role. The former focuses on state-centric security, with military preparedness to address “threat multipliers” emanating from climate change. But the human security lens places citizens’ wellbeing at the centre. Here, definitional expansiveness is a powerful attribute of the human security lens, developed in the mid-1990s by the late Dr Mahbub Ul Haq and UNDP.
The third is the climate resilience discourse. This framing avoids the language of threats/conflicts and focuses on risk governance as a shared responsibility by the whole range of actors involved in development, security and disaster governance. It attempts to bridge the two groups, focusing on resilience, meaning the ability of a system to withstand shocks and improve, through addressing both direct and indirect risks from climate change. Direct threats/risks include the loss of supreme value of a nation, i.e. threat to statehood from sea level rise for many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which are likely to face “watery death”. This raises legal complications with novel problems of whether it is viable to maintain statehood without territory and its attendant problems of exclusive economic zones and other marine sovereignty issues. There is also a host of indirect or second-order risks regarded as “threat multipliers”, which are likely to weaken global economy/security. The Western policy community sees climate refugees as a big threat as these refugees risk taking perilous journeys to reach the shores of Western countries. Conflicts may also arise from climate change-induced potential availability of resources, with serious geopolitical implications, or from adaptation measures as in water management in the Indus basin, Ganges or Jordan rivers.
One interesting aspect to observe is that the role of proponents has also changed. Initiated by academics to reconceptualise security grounded on environmental resource scarcity, the discourse on climate security is now dominated by the policy and military establishments. Most of the political leaders across the globe pronounce climate change as a security threat. Over 70 percent of the countries which submitted their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the UNFCCC have included climate change in their national security strategies. The General Assembly on June 3, 2009 passed Resolution 63/281 in which it acknowledged that the impacts of climate change could have serious security implications, reaffirming the UNFCCC as the key forum to address climate change.
But because of the snail’s pace in climate negotiations under the UNFCCC for the last two decades, there is a search for alternative forums to address the issue of climate security. The UN Security Council emerged as an alternative forum and potentially the most powerful supranational organ. Already, it has convened several formal and informal meetings, the latest being in January this year. But there are sharp differences among permanent members of the Council, with France, UK and US supporting its role, with China and Russia opposing it. The Group of 77 is also divided as to whether the involvement of the Security Council will lead to a positive outcome. The argument in support asserts that since climate change poses grave security threats, the Council has the mandate to involve itself in the deliberations and actions. The opposing group argues that the Council, in expanding its role, trespasses to other territories of the UN organs, where climate change and sustainable development issues are considered. As of yet, there is no consensus on whether the Security Council should have a proactive role in addressing climate change. But the debate is likely to continue.
While almost two trillion dollars are spent yearly by countries on military defence, aimed at addressing perceived threats from enemies, the threats of climate change as the common enemy to each citizen and nation-state are real. The irony is that even a fraction of the pledged USD 100 billion is not available to address the deadly threats posed by climate change.
Mizan R Khan is Professor of Environmental Science and Management, North South University.