Institute of Political Science

Changing Concepts of Security

Widening security

The project is situated within the larger debate about the concept of international security (see Buzan and Hansen 2009 for a summary). Those advocating the notion of environmental security belong to the so-called “wideners” within Security Studies, argued that a narrow conception of security that focused on the state as the referent object of security as well as on military means may well jeopardise the security of individuals or at the very least ignore a vast array of existential threats besides military ones (e.g. Booth 1991, 2007). On the political level, this has led to the concept of human security, as developed in the UN Human Development Reports in the 1990s (UNDP 1993, 1994; Paris 2001). From this perspective, climate change ought to be seen as a security issue because its effects may threaten the lives of individuals, communities or indeed humanity as a whole as much as, or even more than military threats.


Within the debate about widening the meaning of the concept of security, the Copenhagen School has become popular for taking a middle-ground position. On the one hand, it agrees with the wideners that a narrow conception of security is inadequate. On the other hand, however, it is wary of losing the analytical purchase of the concept of security if it can ultimately be applied to all aspects of politics and therefore is in danger of becoming synonymous with politics (Buzan et al. 1998: 4). Furthermore, authors writing in this tradition consider the representation of something as a security issue as normatively problematic. Primarily, they do so because they argue that such a representation, if successful, changes the normal rules of the political debate and may result in “emergency measures” which would not be seen as legitimate under normal circumstances (Wæver 1995, Buzan et al. 1998: 24). Others have added the problem that such a representation may lead to an infiltration of a variety of political sectors by the military, which can claim to act with authority in matters related to security (Huysmans 1998). In relation to climate change, there is therefore a danger of increasing the level of military violence through the representation of climate change as a security issue (Brzoska 2009).

Wæver (1995) has coined the term “securitisation” for the representation of an issue as an existential threat to a referent object that legitimises extraordinary “emergency” measures. He utilises speech act theory to argue that we cannot define security in the abstract, but that security rather acquires its meaning in concrete contexts through speech acts that follow the core characteristics of what he defines as securitisation. Wæver and the Copenhagen School therefore offer a discursive and formal rather than a substantive definition of security. They distinguish between securitising moves as attempts to securitise, and securitisation as a situation in which these moves are widely accepted by the broader audience, i.e. society (Buzan et al. 1998: 25-26). This has led to a broad debate in the literature about the success conditions for securitisation, the definition of who counts as an audience, and the ontological status of the referent object of securitisation (Stritzel 2007, Bazacq 2005, Léonard and Kaunert 2011). These debates are relevant when considering the different ways in which climate change is being securitised. One problem that we will particularly focus on is the question of whether securitising moves have to be “negative” in the sense of constraining the normal political debate (see Hajer 1995: 11 on this issue in environmental discourses), or whether they can lead more positively to the politicisation of an issue such as climate change, and therefore in fact open up the political debate (for a discussion of these issues in relation to HIV/AIDS, see Elbe 2005, 2006; McInnes and Rushton 2010).

There is a second way of conceptualising securitisation, which has been put forward by Didier Bigo and the so-called “Paris School”. In contrast to Wæver and his colleagues, these authors do not focus on political discourse in a narrow sense of the term but on the broader technical and administrative processes that may also lead to the securitisation of an issue. Conceived in such a way, securitisation does not result from speech acts, and even less so from public articulations, but is instead a consequence of technological developments, bureaucratic procedures and expert advice (Bigo 2000, 2002). To date, empirical studies from this point of view have largely focused on the issue of migration (Huysmans 2000), but the technical and diffuse nature of climate change makes it likely that such processes of “technocratic” securitisation can also be found here. However, for our purposes we will stick to the Copenhagen School version of securitisation, as we are specifically interested in the links between climate change and security that are made publicly. To the extent that technology and administrative processes play a role, they interest us in terms of their impact on the feasibility of the proposed measures to counter a threat, rather than as securitising moves in and of themselves.