Francesca Kilpatrick reflects on the usefulness and risks of casting climate change as a security issue, looking at the changes to climate policy under the Obama administration as an example.

Security has been a predominant framing in policy and political discussions of climate change over the last two decades; the UK spearheaded this discourse on the world stage in 2007 when it argued for the UN Security Council to address climate change. Political speech sets up a security issue by describing an existential threat to a valuable object; for climate discourse, the threat might be natural disasters, resource wars, border instability or even refugee influx.

Whilst the heyday of the climate security frame was the mid-2000s, climate has been being conceptualised in this way since the 1990s. In more recent years, increasingly dire predictions by the IPCC, the recent international trend towards protectionism, and the existential shock of the Covid-19 pandemic mean the security frame is now enjoying a resurgence in political climate discourse.

Power and priority of national security

One reason the environmental security frame has been so influential is the existing power of national security institutions. These bodies and networks have significant political momentum, and their involvement increases the chance of swift action on an issue, which is an attractive proposition for advocates of climate action. However this momentum is one reason they are so difficult to change, as proponents for security reform will know.

Security bodies often have huge carbon footprints, and maintain opposition to change based on the need for military capability. The military industrial complex in the US is one particularly stark example. Security institutions also function on sceptical, even hostile logics which can work in opposition to the cooperative behaviour necessary for international climate alignment.

The power and resistance of security institutions can therefore be a huge problem for climate advocates. But framing the issue as a climate security one can also put necessary climate action beyond the realm of political debate, by emphasising vulnerability, timescales, and institutional power. Security is a double-edged sword, but when harnessed appropriately, this frame can be used to overcome other resistant institutional bodies. Obama-era climate politics offers us a demonstration of just such a strategy.

Utilisation of a ‘security’ framework under Obama

The US political situation inherited by the Obama Administration was one of stark polarisation between climate sceptics and believers, the hungry spectre of the War on Terror hanging overhead and a Republican Congress determined in its antagonism not just to climate legislation but to Obama’s entire presidency. The patriotic reinforcement of American exceptionalism had resulted in some political conservatives seeing compliance with global treaties (such as the Kyoto Protocol) as a violation of US sovereignty and a limit to growth.

The hyper-militarism of the War on Terror had allowed the Bush Administration to enjoy bipartisan support for much of its policy, but environmentalism was cast as a Democratic value, to be ideologically and politically opposed by Republicans. Bipartisan engagement with policymaking speeds up the process and strengthens it through constructive oppositional critique. Partisan disputes, on the other hand, create blind spots and cripple policy effectiveness and foreign reception. The Obama Administration needed a way to get the Republicans on-side with climate action, and tapping into the existing security frame was a way to do it.

The framing of climate as a security issue took place at multiple levels; in official documents, press conferences and speeches. In Bush’s 2006 National Security Strategy there is no mention of climate change; by Obama’s first NSS in 2010 climate sits alongside nuclear weapons and pandemics, and 2015 saw climate change described explicitly as an “urgent and growing threat to national security.”

Democratic officials discussed climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ in vulnerable regions of the world; causing or intensifying violent conflict – combatting climate change was framed as counterterrorist action aligning with US interventionist policy. Links to the War on Terror were made explicit in presidential statements, with Obama calling climate policy an “act of defiance” against terrorism.

Creating an ‘enemy’

The language of war demands an enemy; in Al Gore’s Nobel Prize speech he echoed Cold War rhetoric in casting the climate and humans as headed for “mutually assured destruction”, in a “climate war” over energy security. Objects under threat from this enemy included future generations, jobs, and energy independence. This framing created a sense of urgency allowing fast-track attempts at climate legislation, and persuasion of military and security stakeholders to take climate change seriously as an issue, despite it not being a typical military priority. The support of the security community allowed Obama to build popular momentum for climate change mitigation policies, eventually resulting in him using his statutory authority powers to circumvent the senate entirely with the Clean Power Plan as part of the ‘War on Coal’.

The involvement of defence and intelligence institutions also provided a platform for the much needed bipartisan cooperation. For example, in the 110th Congress, Senator Lieberman (Democrat, CT) and previously staunch opponent of global warming legislation Senator Warner (Republican, VA) co-sponsored a greenhouse gas reduction bill called the Climate Security Act. Sen. Warner justified his actions by asserting a professional focus on national security, which “the problem of global climate change [fits] squarely within.”

Ultimately the Obama Administration ran a powerful climate agenda, passing the Clean Power Plan, and devoting significant attention to advancing renewable technologies, which resulted in an historic emissions- cutting deal with China. This deal was domestically critiqued as not economically meaningful, and the subsequent actions of the Trump Administration rendered it irrelevant – but as a symbol of cooperation with an historically obstructive power on climate action it was politically effective and garnered high levels of media attention. The China deal was influential in creating the political environment which fostered US adherence to the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015, as it proved other high-emitting countries could be brought to a successful negotiation table.

The risk of securitising climate change

The Obama Administration’s use of security rhetoric to create a particular kind of political environment for passing climate policy bore success, demonstrating that climate security framing can be politically galvanising, but it is not without its risks. Security advocates must bear in mind the potential for problems it brings. These include but are not limited to: the ease with which a security frame can slip into populist fantasies of intruders and be used to control the population; the pathological need for an enemy which inclines security theorists towards antagonistic rather than cooperative relationships; the lack of space for non-elite viewpoints; and the inadequacy of military logics when dealing with social justice concerns. Alternative understandings of security can provide some relief from these issues, but they will always remain pitfalls to be acknowledged.

Climate change has been linked to 5 million human deaths globally each year, with that number expected to rise dramatically in the next three decades. Political obstructions to climate action which take years to overcome will spell disaster for billions, and we may not have time to seek perfect outcomes. The fact remains that security as a framework is capable of moving otherwise immovable political objects, and is a tool in the climate policymaker’s arsenal we cannot do without.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: UN Climate Change: US President Barack Obama during the Leaders Event, COP21, Paris, November 2015.