The Securitization of Climate Change

by Paul Hoffman

The greatest threat to global security is the planet’s climate system.

President Obama recently delivered his sixth State of the Union address to the 114th Congress, and in it, buried deep under the layers of platitudes, was a stanza that provoked some curiosity.

The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.

This portion of the speech went largely unnoticed, and indeed it wasn’t intended to be a focal point of the address. However, the notion that climate change is not only an environmental or industrial concern, but also a threat to national security, is an important shift in the paradigm of political discourse.

Few would argue that the most effective way to galvanize the American public and political system is to characterize a particular issue as a threat to the security of the United States. This act of taking an issue and attempting to mobilize around it as a threat is known as securitization and it’s a tactic used all too often by the U.S. political class.  Yet the question remains: Is global climate change a threat to the national security of the United States?

Rising ocean levels alone do not pose a grave threat to the American people. The United States and other Western countries, by and large, have the necessary infrastructure to adapt to severe challenges. The real security threat of climate change is centered on developing states with large populations and poor civic institutions. The difference between how the Netherlands manages climate change and how Kenya copes with it could not be more severe.

In the West, governments and the public look to the meteorological and ecological effects of the Earth’s changing weather patterns. But it is far more important to observe the socioeconomic and political impact of this phenomenon. In a recent interview with NPR, Admiral David Titley (ret.), the lead on the Navy’s climate change task force, identified the important role climate change has had in the Arab Spring conflicts. Prior to the uprisings, there were unprecedented droughts in the wheat-growing regions of Russia, Australia and Pakistan that may seem unrelated to the Arab Spring but had a huge impact on the price of foodstuffs. As Adm. Titley correctly observes, the sudden shock in prices as a result of these droughts may well have been a decisive factor to the seemingly random outbreak of revolutionary protests. The Libyan and Syrian Civil War, and the ensuing involvement of the American military, has already demonstrated how U.S security interests are jeopardized by climate change.

Food scarcity is likely to play out in some of the most politically fragile regions on Earth.  In much of Africa and Southern Asia, rainy and dry seasons are the determinant of whether or not large swaths of people starve. The inability to predict rapidly changing weather patterns affects subsistence farmers in that they no longer know when to plant seeds, which can stunt the yields of their harvest. This is not just a problem facing developing states either. China, India and Saudi Arabia are some of the largest foreign landholders in Africa, all with large populations and shrinking agricultural sectors that rely on African plantations to complement their own food production. What might happen if a famine were to strike East Africa and those foreign-owned plantations are needed to feed starving populations? The potential certainly exists for a crisis to break out over the protection of arable land and the sudden influx of starving refugees. One might look to the destabilizing effects of past famines in Ethiopia and Somalia as indicators of what may lay ahead.

Many foreign affairs analysts would eagerly point to the Arctic Circle as a region increasingly frothing with geopolitical tension. The melting of the polar ice cap and subsequent opening of the Northwest Passage has seen commercial shipping through the route increase fivefold since the 1980s. Furthermore, overlapping maritime boundaries and claims of sovereignty in the Arctic by NATO allies and Russia have resulted in a dramatic rise of military tension. With the Arctic suspected of hosting 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and natural gas reserves, those geopolitical tensions could soon soar to a fever pitch. Countries like Norway have begun to call for increasing the size and capabilities of their militaries, reversing a decades-long policy of gradual disarmament. NATO war games have also been held more frequently in recent years in response to what it views as Russian displays of aggression. The actual and potential spoils of the Arctic have even lured in states lacking an Arctic border and have set the stage for a possible conflict between some of the world’s most powerful nations.

Climate change has presented the international community with a host of very real challenges. The securitization of climate change has just now started to break the surface of American politics and it will be interesting to see what effect that has on the future state of international security.

Paul Hoffman holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Richmond, the American International University in London.  He currently works as an independent contractor in Washington, D.C. and can be followed on Twitter @paul_w_hoffman.