Institut für Politikwissenschaft

Securitisation and the Environment

Securitisation and the environment

According to the Copenhagen School, political debates about the environment are characterised by three aspects: (1) the existence of two agendas, a scientific and a political one; (2) a multiplicity of securitising actors; (3), the ‘extent to which scientific argument structures environmental security debates’ (Buzan et al. 1998: 72). Perhaps surprisingly, Buzan et al. (1998: 73, 91/2) do not think that the environment has been successfully securitised, at least not on a global level, because the attempts to evoke the logic of security in the environmental sector have not exceeded the realm of ordinary politics. Yet this view is contested, and it raises the problem that we have indicated above regarding the relationship between securitisation and politicisation.

Trombetta (2011), for instance, argues that securitising moves in the environmental sector were successful insofar as they resulted in policies that would have otherwise not been realised, characterising this development as “proper” instead of failed securitisation (2008: 598). She claims that the Copenhagen School was unable to capture this securitisation because of a narrow and rather traditionalist view of what may count as extraordinary measures, anchored in the military sector. In a similar vein, Rita Floyd’s (2007, 2010) case studies show that not all securitising moves have invoked a confrontational logic, but that some have led to quick and effective solutions in a political process. Hence, she argues, securitising moves are a priori neither positive nor negative and must be judged on the basis of their results. These studies reinforce the need for a more careful conceptualisation of the relationship between politicisation and securitisation. In addition, they indicate that the concept of “extraordinary measures” may be underspecified in the sense that their qualification as “extraordinary” may depend on their content, the processes through which they are agreed, and the extent to which such moves had not been seen as legitimate previously (as for instance in the case of personal data records after 9/11) or not been thinkable at all (as it has arguably been the case in climate change).

All in all, it seems to us that, in contrast to Buzan et al., there is agreement in the literature that there have been attempts to securitise the environment, but that they come in the form of several competing securitisation moves. In this, we follow Maarten Hajer’s seminal work on environmental discourse, in which he observes that environmental problems are defined very differently by different actors, and that this has tremendous policy implications (Hajer 1995), as well as Karen Litfin’s work on the Ozone regime, which – counter-intuitively – also shows competing conceptualisations of the problem at hand (Litfin 1994). With regard to climate change, these competing securitising moves have so far led to politicisation in the sense of placing the environment firmly on the global (as well as national) political agenda rather than to securitisation in the sense of imposing uncontested emergency measures that would have otherwise not seemed legitimate (Trombetta 2011: 140-1), although within particular subfields and specific national contexts, the latter may have also occurred.


Environmental degradation, climate change and conflict

Climate change will degrade the natural resource basis and thus increase environmental stress (IPCC 2007). Some changes such as extreme weather events directly affect human lives whereas others are taken to gradually undermine the well being of individuals and the stability of societies in the form of disputes over water, food scarcities and environmental migration. Global warming affects regions differently. Northern Africa, the Mediterranean, Southern Asia, Central and Latin America and the Middle East are identified as potential hot spots of climate-induced conflict where fragile governance structures, weak socio-economic development and environmental degradation could go hand in hand (Scheffran and Battaglini 2011).

The study of the environment conflict-nexus was initially shaped by Homer-Dixon’s (1994, 1999) study on the interdependence between environmental change and conflict. He found substantial evidence that environmental scarcity can cause violent conflicts. Similarly, the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change suggested that environmental degradation and violent conflict reinforce each other (HLP 2004).

An expert advisory group by the UNEP on environment, conflict and peacebuilding concluded that the possibility for conflicts over natural resources to exacerbate in the next decades is rather high (UNEP 2009: 5). Despite its significance Homer-Dixon’s findings are subject to a number of criticisms. The case studies allegedly suffer from a selection bias due to a choice of cases with pre-existing violence (Matthew 2002: 209, Gleditsch 1998: 391/2), lack an adequate control group and avoid cases of cooperative solutions (Reuveny 2007: 668). In contrast to Homer-Dixon, Le Billion (2001) argues that the abundance of natural resources rather than their scarcity is positively related to the onset of violent conflict.

In relation to climate change, Scheffran and Battaglini (2011: 37) emphasise that the causal chain from global warming to violent conflicts is not fully understood thus far and Barnett (2000) adds that the argument of an environmental degradation-conflict is rather theoretically driven than empirically observable. A number of scholars see no clear evidence for the environment conflict-hypothesis (Barnett and Adger 2007, Nordås and Gleditsch 2007, Raleigh and Urdal 2007). They argue that environmental change may be one factor among others (see also Podesta and Ogden 2007-2008: 129, Hauge and Ellingsen 2001) and rather intervenes in already fragile societies as a threat multiplier (Elliot 1996: 159). The Conflict Barometer developed by the

Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research found that in 2008, resource scarcity played an important role in 71 out of 345 conflicts (HIIK 2008). However, these are often characterised by a complex situation, where environmental factors are combined with territorial, secessionist and ethnic grievances. Moreover, resource degradation can also provide an opportunity for cooperative behaviour (see Link et al. 2010 for the case of the Nile water management). On a global scale, climate change is also discussed as a factor possibly uniting the international community because of the need to adopt a coordinated global climate policy (Scheffran 2009: 29).

These studies indicate that the connection between environmental degradation, climate change and conflict is not a given, but subject to social and political processes. Among these, we would argue, securitising practices take on a core role.


Securitisation and climate change

The link between climate change and conflict is not confined to the academic literature, but is also reflected in the political debate. United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon underlined that global warming is likely to “become a major driver for war and conflict” (UN News Centre 2007). On 17 April 2007 the UN Security Council held its first ever session on climate change. The United Kingdom had initiated the debate to discuss the security implications of global warming, suggesting in a background paper that climate change has the potential to threaten international peace and security by exacerbating border disputes, resource shortages, migration and humanitarian crisis (UN Security Council 2007a). During the debate, Margaret Beckett, the then British Foreign Secretary, suggested that global warming influences the states’ collective security (UN Security Council 2007b). This characterisation of climate change at the international level has not remained unchallenged. Not global warming itself, but the “economic model which drives growth, and the profligate consumption in rich nations that goes with it” is identified as the true threat by the United National Development Program in the 2007/2008 report Fighting Climate Change (UNDP 2007/2008: 15).

There were also attempts to securitise climate change on the regional and national level. In the US, a study by an influential group of retired US generals entitled National Security and the Threat of Climate Change (CAN 2007) was inter alia referred to possibility that extremists could exploit unstable conditions created by climate change. Two US Governments reports point into the same direction, suggesting “while climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world” (US Government 2010a, cp. also US Government 2010b). The European Commission describes climate change more cautiously as a threat multiplier (European Commission 2008).

Think tanks and NGOs are important actors in this debate. A study by International Alert published in 2007 (Smith and Vivekanada 2007) compiles a list of 46 countries that face a high risk of violent conflict as a consequence of climate change. However, the study does not provide convincing evidence for the figures cited – a weakness it shares with a study by the Global Humanitarian Forum (2009) claiming that climate change is already killing 300,000 people annually. Moreover, advisory bodies installed by governments also shaped the debate on climate change. Another important study was An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security (Schwartz and Randall 2003), which assesses the implications of a climate-induced collapse of the Gulf Stream. The Stern Review (2006), which focuses on the economic consequences on climate change but also considers its security implications in that context, and the report on Climate Change as a Security Risk by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Globale Umweltfragen, WBGU) have been highly influential reports.

The possible link between global warming and conflicts has renewed the interest in the environmental security debate. Nevertheless, a systematic account of these diverse securitising moves is missing. Trombetta (2008) considers the emerging discourse on climate security as an example of how the securitisation of non-traditional sectors may transform security practices. Brauch (2008) notes that climate change has increasingly been regarded as an urgent political issue and has gradually been securitised in the 21st century. He distinguishes between human, national and international security concerns discussed in relation to climate change but merely illustrates these with examples (Brauch 2002). Scott (2008) focuses on the legal

implication of securitising climate change but does not specifically address security issues in that context. Herbeck and Flitner (2010) provide a short review on the discussion on potential security implications without engaging in a systematic analysis of different actors and discursive frames.


Open problems and questions

Our review of the relevant literature shows that there clearly have been moves to securitise climate change. Yet these moves seem not to have led to an ideal typical securitisation as outlined by Buzan et al. (1998), in which clear and identifiable extraordinary measures are pushed through the political debate on the back of an emergency situation. Instead, they seem to have firmly established climate change on the political agenda and suggested a link between climate change and conflict. Yet the nature of this link remains as much contested as the measures to be taken to tackle climate change so that some of the defining characteristics of securitisation are not present. This raises a series of questions both theoretically regarding the link between politicisation and securitisation as well as empirically regarding the actors, processes and consequences of securitising climate change, some of which the literature has touched upon, but where at present there is a lack of thorough analysis. In particular, we see the following gaps and problems:


1. How exactly can we identify different forms of securitising climate change? Detraz and Betsill (2009) mention the existence of environmental security and an environmental conflict discourse and analyse whether a discursive shift has occurred from the former to the latter. However, their analysis is limited to the 2007 Security Council debate.


2. Who are the actors articulating a specific form of securitising climate change, and why do they pursue one way of linking climate change and security rather than another? Brzoska (2009) has identified this problem but only provides an illustrative analysis of four policy documents, and does not raise the “why” question. Schäfer et al. (2011) focus on media representation of climate change by scientists, entrepreneurs and other actors and the reception by media users, but do not analyse the political process, nor do they explicitly address the representation of a possible climate change-conflict nexus. Floyd brings up the question of why actors securitise - for which, she argues, the Copenhagen School offers no explanation (2010: 2) - but does not consider the existence of different frames linking climate change and conflicts in that context.


3. How and under what conditions do these different representations translate into policies? With reference to Doty’s (1998/99) work on migration, McDonald (2008) poses the question of how some particular articulations of security became predominant, through which processes certain actors were empowered to ‘speak’ security and to what extent alternative framings of security were marginalised or silenced. Climate change provides a case to exploit this aspect that is only partially addressed within the Copenhagen School’s framework. In line with our proposal, Wilkinson (2007) demands a stronger focus on the processes rather than the outcome of securitisation.


4. What does the case of climate change tell us about the role that securitisation plays in politicisation? Trombetta (2011: 145) has argued in the case of the ozone regime that the politicisation of the issue occurred through securitisation, but a systematic account of the possibility of such a process in climate change policies is lacking.