Securitizing Climate Change: How to Not Think about the Climate Crisis

Pakistani women wade through floodwaters while seeking refuge in Shikarpur district in Pakistan’s Sindh province, Friday, September 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

In the Global North, “climate security” has become a dominant framework for thinking – and not thinking – about the climate crisis.

The framework assumes that climate change will disrupt weather and environmental systems, put pressure on economic and social systems and natural resources, and lead to widespread displacement; All of this is likely to create instability, exacerbate and create new tensions, and increase the risk of violent conflict. Although views within this framework rarely claim that climate change is the sole cause of conflict, they often see climate change as “an era of prolonged conflict…a security environment much more ambiguous and unpredictable than that of the Cold War.” Climate change is portrayed as a “threat multiplier” driving insecurity and violence, particularly in the Global South. While this research group points to very real and deepening problems, it also diverts attention and resources from addressing the causes of the climate crisis and the necessary solutions.

However, it is critical to note that the “security” of most concern in this framework are threats to the security of powerful states in the Global North, and “security” means the ability not only to defend their state borders, but also their political, economic and military dominance. The privileging of this narrative stems in part from the fact that the Global North’s defense ministries typically have far more power and resources, particularly when it comes to international intervention, than those charged with development or the environment. But it goes beyond institutional power and resources. Only by paying attention to gender can we fully explain the privileging of security institutions and frameworks (especially their impact on the climate crisis) and the impact they have on the public imagination.

In fact, securitization is a gender dynamic. It is the process of locating issues in the military realm that is itself rendered “serious” and “realistic” by notions of gender. The idea that the military is the most effective means of achieving security has become established over generations through its association with concepts of masculinity: strength is defined as being able to protect oneself with physical force; that bullies only understand violence; this vulnerability invites attack; that security requires impenetrable borders; etc. This association of masculinity with a militarized notion of national identity and national security helps make the military, military spending, and military solutions seem superior, realistic, natural, and obvious ways to achieve security. Conversely, any potential refusal to privilege them is feminized, marking alternative ways of thinking as weak and unrealistic; Consider US Ambassador Nikki Haley stating her opposition to the nuclear weapons ban debate: “As a mother, as a daughter, there is nothing I wish more for my family than a world without nuclear weapons. But we must remain realistic.” Ideas about gender naturalize militarized notions of security and securitization themselves, helping to make the “climate security” framework the most powerful and realistic way to address the climate crisis.

Nevertheless, within this gender-specific framework of “climate security”, there are numerous problems and dangers in the general securitization of the climate crisis. First, it centers a vision of the world from the perspective of northern elites, which localizes climate change threats as coming from “outside” – from its victims, from outsiders, from people in countries of the Global South, where the violence, the “stability” threatened is rumored to occur, and from which displaced people are rumored to be attempting to flee – rather than correctly locating the threats to the planet as emanating from the countries, militaries and corporations of the Global North who are actually most responsible.

Second, it is a framework that leads to a militarized response that justifies increasing the budgets of military and other “security” institutions to seize the resources we need to solve the climate and broader ecological crises. It further exacerbates the problem by encouraging and legitimizing the expansion of military training and operations – increasing their vast consumption of fossil fuels and other forms of environmental degradation – and worsening, not improving, climate and ecological crises.

Third, it aims to preserve the status quo, while addressing the climate crisis requires massive changes to the status quo. This is especially true if the countries least responsible for carbon emissions, and home to the most affected, ever gain access to the resources they need to respond.

Fourth, and perhaps most devastatingly, if we are to prevent the worst of climate change, and even attempt to reverse it, our attention is utterly misguided when we present the climate crisis as a security crisis. The climate crisis is not a security crisis; it is a crisis of extractivist capitalism, an economic system that incentivizes the exploitation of natural resources as if they were unlimited, and “externalizes” the environmental costs of production – from pollution to the release of greenhouse gases. Dependent on fossil fuels for cheap energy and industrial agriculture that overexploits land and water, extractivist capitalism advocates growth at any cost, including environmental destruction. Their neoliberal insistence on “liberating” markets and condemning regulation and collective action has made it impossible to take the necessary action to halt climate collapse.

And it misleads our attention because the climate crisis is not a security crisis; it is a crisis of a white western masculinist framing of the relationship between man and nature. That is, it is a crisis that reflects Western, white, male-dominated philosophical and religious traditions in which man was viewed as separate and independent from nature, his proper role being to dominate and bend “her.” Will. As tribal peoples, environmentalists, and feminists around the world have long argued, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of humankind’s relationship with the rest of nature. It does not recognize that not only do we have to take care of nature, but that nature takes care of us, that we are part of nature, that nature has agency, that humanity is just one species among many on this planet and so on, our fundamental relationship to the more-than-human world is one of complex interdependence and reciprocity.

To say that the climate crisis is a crisis of extractivist capitalism and the western masculinist mindset behind it is not to ignore that the climate crisis will cause enormous “uncertainty” in people’s lives. But this word abstracts, misnames and erases reality. The climate crisis will result in more people going hungry; more children are malnourished, their growth and skills stunted. More people will drown in floods, typhoons and hurricanes or be burned in wildfires, while others will only be destroyed where they live. More and more people will lose their only means of subsistence as the plants, animals and ecosystems that have been part of their material survival and cultural identity for generations perish. Many more are being uprooted from the territories of their ancestors and the communities they support because those places have become uninhabitable; others become ill, become disabled, and die from contagious diseases new to their areas to which they have no immunity. And a lack of resources – a result of grotesque global inequality – will prevent countless people from fleeing or protecting themselves and the people they love from these impacts.

This is not insecurity; it is a human and species-wide catastrophe of catastrophic proportions, and the answer cannot be “secure,” “improve security,” or speak of “climate-related security risks.” If we misname and misunderstand what this crisis is about, we will misunderstand what we must do to fix it.

What we need to do is transform the root causes of this catastrophe, which will require nothing less than a paradigm shift: away from a model that sees the purpose of economic activity as ever-increasing extraction, exploitation and consumption of natural and human resources to work towards purposes of profit to one focused on meeting human needs and ensuring the sustainability of the resources and ecosystems on which life depends. In other words, we need a feminist green transformation: a restructuring of production, consumption and political-economic relations along truly sustainable paths.

First steps could be the development of a feminist political-economic analysis of the transnational actors and processes that pose the greatest threats to sustainable life on earth; mapping ways to intervene in these processes; and formulating policy alternatives that are changing our understanding of the purposes of economic activity and of people’s relationship with the planet. We have called this a Feminist Roadmap to Sustainable Peace and a Sustainable Planet.

As we have argued elsewhere, we must uncompromisingly shed the mantle of “realism” over the short-sighted, destructive ethics of unlimited individualistic acquisition and wealth consolidation for an economic system based on an ethic of caring – for people and the planet collect by companies; a system that recognizes interdependence – between people and between nations – as the basis for common collaborative action, not mutual arming. One who recognizes that the goal of sufficiency, of securing livelihoods and life with dignity, can never be achieved in a system that deepens inequalities rather than changing them.

Carol Cohn is the founding director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Claire Duncanson is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

The authors are currently working on creating one “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace and Planet.”

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