Worldwatch Perspective: Security Council Discussion of Climate Change Raises Concerns About "Securitization" of Environment

Flood in Chennai, India
Floods like this one in Chennai, India, may increase with more severe climate change.

Once the focus of considerable skepticism, both climate change and the concept of environmental security have moved squarely into the mainstream. Not only has public awareness of climate change seemingly reached a tipping point, but the likely security repercussions of the unsettling changes to our planet’s climate are now increasingly acknowledged and analyzed. Recent reports such as the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and last November’s Stern Review report on the economics of climate change have quickened the pace of the debate, as have events like the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing conflict in Darfur, Sudan, made worse by drought and desertification.

There is perhaps no better sign of this new realization than the recent decision of the United Nations Security Council to discuss, for the first time, the impacts of climate change on peace and security. Though a number of governments—including China and Russia—raised doubts whether the Council was the right forum to take up this issue, the meeting, held on April 17, represented a major milestone, with representatives of 55 nations in attendance.

The discussion came at the initiative of the British government, which circulated a concept paper calling attention to a range of security implications of climate change, including border disputes, migration, societal stress, humanitarian crises, and shortages of energy, water, arable land, and fish stocks. U.K. Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett, who had previously helped negotiate the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, spoke about the potential risks of an unprecedented rise in refugees from flooding, disease, and famine; increased competition for food, water, and energy as a result of widespread drought and crop failures; and the possibility of climate-related economic disruptions on a scale not seen since World War II.

The Security Council discussion is only the latest in a series of recent meetings and reports intended to highlight the intersection of environment and security. The day before the Council met, CNA Corporation released a report commissioned by the Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S. government-financed research group, concluding that climate change “acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.” The report calls for a more constructive U.S. role in reducing carbon emissions, though the authors—11 retired U.S. generals and admirals—remain true to their stripes when they express concern that climate change will make military operations and preparedness more difficult, and that chaos in climate-destabilized states may complicate Western access to oil and mineral resources.

In March, the U.S. Army War College funded a conference at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on “Global Climate Change: The National Security Implications.” The conference website notes that, “If even some of the direst predictions come true, and rapid climate change leads to massive migration, failed states, flooding, resource scarcity, and other problems, the military will inevitably find itself involved.”

Also in March, U.S. Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Global Climate Change Security Oversight Act, calling for a National Intelligence Assessment of the political, social, agricultural, and economic challenges posed by climate change for countries or regions that are of particular economic or military significance to the United States or that are at serious risk of humanitarian suffering. Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), chair of the new House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, aims to introduce similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Across the Atlantic, outside Vienna, Austria, the 56-member-state Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hosted an expert workshop in March to discuss proposals and initiatives for an environmental security strategy. Similarly, in December 2006, discussions on "mainstreaming" environmental concerns into foreign and security policymaking—involving parliamentarians, government representatives, and experts from civil society organizations—were held at the European Parliament in Brussels. An October 2006 publication, the Inventory of Environment and Security Policies and Practices, provides an overview of other initiatives that governments and international organizations have undertaken to date.

While these are all welcome signs of an overdue recognition of the environment-security nexus, there is a risk that as traditional security institutions take up the issue, this could lead to a creeping “securitization” and militarization of environmental challenges. This may depend in part on which institutions take the lead. At the recent Security Council meeting, Beckett took care to disavow any intent of pre-empting other UN bodies. Yet Pakistan’s Deputy UN Ambassador Farukh Amil, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, voiced concern that the Council is encroaching on the roles and responsibilities of other UN organs, such as the General Assembly, the Commission on Sustainable Development, and the UN Environment Programme. Many nations worry that the Security Council—a club dominated by five unelected (“permanent”) members—will set the terms of the debate.

A key question is how governments will address climate insecurity. Will prevention, in the form of radically different energy policies or other such responses, be key? Or might powerful governments one day be tempted to use the specter of environmental threats as an excuse for intervention—say, coercing others to mothball polluting industries or to stop cutting down forests in the name of climate stabilization?

As a threat to all of humanity, climate change should, in a perfect world, lead to unprecedented cooperation. During the Security Council discussion, Beckett observed that, “climate change can bring us together, if we have the wisdom to prevent it from driving us apart.” Yet the inequalities of wealth and power, the predominance of narrow national security thinking, and the highly unequal impacts of climate change all present tremendous obstacles.

The countries that will suffer the most from sea-level rise, greater droughts, floods, and extreme weather patterns are principally those that are already poor—with little clout on the international stage—and internally fragile. In February, when Bolivia was hit by what was reportedly the county’s worst flooding in more than 20 years, President Evo Morales bitterly complained that the industrial countries’ insatiable appetite for fossil-fueled growth was to blame for the disaster. Similarly, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has called climate change “an act of aggression by the rich against the poor.”

Yet when the worst crises come, rich nations may respond not with offers of support, but by turning their backs on populations hit hard by climate change. Rather than helping the displaced, they may shut their borders in the face of an “onslaught” of migrants and refugees from countries collapsing due to environmental calamity.

Clearly, there are two very different paths emerging from the intersection of climate and security. One offers an opportunity for dramatically different foreign and security policies and for much greater global cooperation in preventing and mitigating climate change. The alternative is a form of ecological Darwinism that tries to maintain the privileges of the rich and wealthy while keeping those that suffer the most from climate change at bay.


Michael Renner is a senior researcher and director of the Global Security Project at the Worldwatch Institute.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.