Climate breakdown necessitates a paradigmatic shift in our understanding of security. Joanna Frew reflects on the challenges for redefining security to meet the challenges ahead after hearing from civil society experts on agriculture, energy and global justice.

Our planet and humanity are in crisis. COP27 ended without new commitments to fossil fuel reduction, although it did see a loss and damage fund for poor nations established. Yet, we remain far from commitment to action that will avert catastrophic environmental and social breakdown. Wera Hobhouse MP recently secured a Westminster Hall debate on Climate Change and Human Security. She introduced the debate saying,

“For years, we have thought that security is about the risks to our nation from hostile actors. That narrow conception risks sidelining the climate threat… State-centric security practices cannot comprehend the vast array of threats that we face. We must move towards a model of security that cares for people above all else. If we do so, the true scale of the climate threat is thrust into the spotlight.” 

The urgency of reconceptualising security across all branches of government could not be clearer. Yet the government’s climate minister, Graham Stuart MP, responded to Hobhouse claiming the UK is a global thought leader on climate change and human security in NATO and beyond. Whilst it is true that the UK has provided some leadership, in for example off-shore wind, to limit thinking on climate and human security to a military alliance is woefully inadequate when our most pressing security need requires, as the UN says, global cooperation and solidarity.

Redefining security to address human and ecological needs

The final three roundtables on human security in the UK for the Alternative Security Review explored The UK’s Role in Global Climate and Economic Justice, Food, Land and Farming in the UK and Energy Security and a Just Transition in the UK. The incompatibility of continuing to prioritise traditional forms of security to tackle climate change and global justice was clear. Indeed, as in some of the other roundtables (on the impact of domestic security policy and elitism and inequality in policy-making), the use of ‘security’ by government in human or civil issues was seen as problematic.

In the roundtable on energy, the participants explained that the government’s definition of ‘energy security’ has been limited to independence of supply, based on an equilibrium between supply and demand across a variety of sources. In other words, it is simply defined as not becoming over-reliant on one source. However, participants were aware that the committees that hold government to account, such as the National Infrastructure Committee, Parliamentary Accounts Committee, and Climate Change Committee have said they are not doing enough to meet net zero targets or to ensure people are not experiencing fuel poverty. Current levels of fuel poverty and the continuing rise of CO₂ emissions serve as a stark reminder of the limited definition of security.

Food ‘security’, in the government’s definition is also problematic as it refers to security of supply chains and imports, rather than addressing the sustainability of food production and the agricultural sector of the UK. In a world suffering from climate stress, prioritising maintenance of the current patterns of trade will not achieve human security when much of the social and environmental costs of this unsustainable food system are borne by countries already suffering the worst effects of climate change. Participants were clear a fundamental change to the global food system is necessary to achieve human security.

It is not just the security of people in the UK; as the Global North moves slowly towards decarbonisation, electrification will mean a new round of extraction from the Global South for cobalt, lithium, nickel, graphite and other minerals for batteries. While this could be done responsibly, industrialised countries, including the UK, are developing coordinated Critical Mineral Strategies, to allow corporate interests from the Global North to gain control over the extraction and marketing of minerals needed for renewables. Prioritising corporate interests is unlikely to serve human security, since irresponsible mining can harm communities and ecology in affected areas. Moreover, the City of London, as a global financial centre, is responsible for continuing to encourage billions worth of investment in fossil fuel projects. Continuing to develop fossil fuel infrastructure locks in dependence on carbon.

Joined-up thinking to change the system

In these three roundtables discussants identified some helpful legislation and policy. For example, in agricultural policy initiatives like land matching services and community ownership funds for land and assets are having a positive impact for smaller farmers and increasing food sovereignty. Off-shore wind has seen substantial investment in the last few years.

At COP27, a historic decision was taken to establish a loss and damage fund for poor nations, and those working on global climate and economic justice said there were some helpful initiatives that the UK could sign up to. These include a proposed Business, Human Rights and Environment Act and President Biden’s Global Minimum Corporation Tax initiative.

Yet, all these initiatives were said to be either under resourced or in danger of being dropped. If we are to reorient thinking on security to address the existential crises we face, then we must change the definition of security in public and in policy-making so that initiatives like these are adequately supported and that, fundamentally, insecurity is addressed with more than fragmented legislation.

The underlying problem as to why progress remains piecemeal and disconnected was identified as the primacy of the market. Global liberalisation of trade has led to speculation on food and energy prices, and those who produce these commodities, whether they like it or not, must think in business terms rather than prioritising human need. For human and ecological security to be realised, a new definition of security is needed, one that centres access to food and energy as a human right.

The opportunity and challenge

In all three discussions it was clear that as a result of Brexit and the war in Ukraine, there is an opportunity to rethink approaches to security and accelerate action on climate change. However, participants raised the alarm over recent policy announcements and initiatives that have used geopolitical events as an excuse to renege on commitments to net zero and farming standards. In the energy sector, rather than accelerating investment in renewables, Boris Johnson began courting Middle Eastern regimes for new oil and gas sources, and under Liz Truss, the government announced 100 new oil and gas licences for North Sea exploration.

In food and agriculture, the UK is no longer part of the EU’s common agriculture policy and could legislate to provide better, targeted support for farmers who commit to sustainable practices. However, one participant noted that almost overnight after the UK left the EU, hedgerows disappeared as EU support for biodiversity ended. Others said that the trade deals made with individual countries are unlikely to offer the same protection for high standards of animal welfare and that small farmers in the UK, who have prioritised high welfare standards, will not be able to compete with cheaper, less sustainably produced food. Rather than use the opportunity to further human and ecological security, the government appears to be reverting to the traditional macro-economic security approaches, courting foreign investment at any social and environmental cost.

A new approach to security is essential

In all three sessions, it was agreed that the whole system, whether that be the economy or the agricultural and energy sectors, is greater than the sum of its parts and requires a holistic approach by government to achieve sustainability and equality. It was also recognised that we are in danger of the disintegration of society in the UK and elsewhere if the policies based on competition and ‘Britain first’ continue. They will fail to achieve human security, and our resilience to the shocks we will feel as a result require connected and resilient communities.

Climate change requires a coordinated, cooperative global response, in which the UK could play a significant role if its definition of security was focused on the wellbeing of people and the viability of our planetary system. As Wera Hobhouse pointed out, only when the understanding of security is changed can the real drivers of insecurity – such as climate change and inequality – be foregrounded and addressed appropriately. Our food security, energy security and the security of the planet depend on it.

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: Felix Mittermeier