Ecological Security

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The world in danger. Image: ralph/Pixabay

This article was originally published by E-International Relations.

In recent years, the idea that issues such as climate change might pose a threat to security has become prominent, and environmental issues more broadly have featured significantly in debates about redefining security since the 1980s (Mathews 1989; Myers 1989).

Traditionally, approaches to the relationship between security and environmental change have asked whether and how environmental issues constitute a security threat. This is a bad place to start, for two reasons. First, it suggests that we as analysts can establish criteria for defining security, ignoring the social construction of security: the fact that different political communities understand security in different ways, and that the same political communities change the way they understand security over time. A fixed and abstract definition of security is therefore inconsistent with the need to come to terms with how security is approached in practice (see McDonald 2012).

Second, and of particular relevance for those interested in the benefits or dangers of linking environmental issues and security issues, the effects of linking security with the environment in practice are not simply about whether environmental issues are defined as a security threat. This view – that what matters is whether environmental issues are approached as threats – is evident among both advocates and sceptics of an environment-security relationship. For advocates, promoting environmental issues as security issues means approaching these issues as ‘high politics’, ensuring political prioritization and funding traditionally associated with traditional security threats (see Hartmann 2008). For sceptics, this linkage may be problematic in that security has a powerful and sedimented association with defence and the state (eg Deudney 1990), and/or potentially enables the suspension of ‘normal politics’ and the pursuit of frequently illiberal emergency measures: a key concern of so-called Copenhagen School theorists of securitization (eg Buzan et al 1998; Wæver 1995).

Yet ultimately, what matters in terms of whether environmental issues like climate change are viewed as security threats isn’t the label ‘threat’ or ‘security’. Rather, it is the way security itself is understood, with the composition of threats forming only part of this broader discourse of security. Specifically, different discourses of security – conceptions of whose security matters, from what threats, which agents are responsible for providing it and through what means – have radically different implications in terms of the practices they encourage. While a discourse orienting towards national security might encourage adaptation and even military preparedness for potential conflict associated with the effects of environmental change, a discourse orienting towards human security would encourage mitigation strategies and a focus on the threats facing vulnerable human populations (see McDonald 2012; 2013).

Using the example of climate change, this paper is divided into two sections. In the first I outline the contours of different discourses of security as applied to climate change, illustrating the ethical choices upon which these discourses are based and pointing to the practices they encourage. In the second I make a case for an ecological security discourse. Simply, the argument here is that if a linkage between an issue like climate change and security is to be made, the most defensible ethical foundation for this linkage is one that focuses on ecosystem resilience and the rights and needs of vulnerable contemporary populations, future generations and other living beings. While such a discourse confronts important dilemmas and powerful political impediments, it is one arguably necessitated by the scale of the threat posed by climate change and the changing nature of our relationship to the environment in the context of the Anthropocene: the contemporary geological era in which humans have the capacity to alter the earth system upon which humans depend (see Steffan et al 2007).

Discourses of Climate Security

There are a range of different ways in which environmental change generally, and climate change specifically, could be and have been linked. The most powerful and prominent of these discourses is that of ‘national security’, with the focus here on the possibility that climate change might undermine the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the nation-state. Such a vision has found its way into national security strategies throughout the world, has been advanced by public-policy oriented think tanks (especially in the USA), and has achieved a prominent place in academic debates (see Brzoska 2008; Busby 2008; CNA 2007).

In such a vision of security, the state retains its central role as the referent object – the ‘whom’ in ‘security for whom’ -; the state and potentially its military are key agents of security; threats are associated largely with conflict or border integrity arising from climate change; and means of providing security focus on adaptation to manifestations of threat (Busby 2008). Perhaps the starkest example of this discourse, and its limitations, was a 2003 Pentagon Report prepared by Schwartz and Randall (2003) examining the potential national security implications of an abrupt climate change scenario for the United States. In the report, the authors made the claim that some relatively self-sufficient states like the US might seek to build more effective boundaries around the state to prevent those displaced by climate change – environmental refugees – from entering.

This example clearly constitutes a perverse response to climate change. Victims of climate change are presented as potential threats; the focus is exclusively on adaptation not mitigation; there is no focus on the rights of vulnerable populations; and no genuine possibility – consistent with the Realist tradition in which this discourse is located – for international cooperation to address this global problem (see Dalby 2009). Certainly, this example would endorse the concerns of the sceptics opposed to the securitization of climate change.

More recently, a range of efforts have been made to link climate change to international security. Here, the emphasis is on the possibility that climate change might undermine international stability or challenge the foundations of an international society. The nature of the climate threat is its possible contribution to large-scale humanitarian crises, population displacement and even international conflict. This was the subject of debates in the UN Security Council in 2007 and 2011, and this discourse has also been taken up by think tanks and NGOs (see Smith and Vivendreka 2007). Most recently it has been prominent in linkages made between climate change and conflict in Syria and even the emergence of Daesh (see Baker 2015; Strozier and Berkell 2015), building on earlier linkages between climate change and conflict in Darfur (see UNEP 2007; Ki Moon 2007). The referent object of security is the international society; threats are threats to international order and stability associated with climate change; agents are largely defined in terms of key international institutions; and means of security are ultimately cooperative international efforts focused on a combination of mitigation and adaptation (see Purvis and Busby 2004).

The emphasis here on the possibility of international cooperation, the suggestion of some role for prevention (i.e. mitigation) and the general sense that the moral universe extends beyond the nation-state suggests progress from a national security discourse. Yet this discourse remains closely linked to the preservation of the state system, a position with potentially problematic ethical foundations and implications. Of course, at a practical level, the international state system has – at best – responded inadequately to the problem of climate change to date, with current mitigation commitments inadequate for preventing dangerous climate change and global climate cooperation erring towards the lowest common denominator in international negotiations (see Stevenson and Dryzek 2014). At worst, the international system has helped drive processes of global climate change through endorsing and enabling the neoliberal economic order, which has driven rapid industrialization and over-consumption. While a step forward in linking climate change and security, then, we might ask whether the international system is fit for purpose in addressing climate change, and whether the vision of international society in this international security discourse is ultimately one worth preserving (see McDonald 2013).

A more radical climate security discourse focuses on climate change as a threat to human security. For advocates of this discourse, climate change already poses a threat to human security, defined in terms of peoples’ lives and their capacity to pursue meaningful, sustainable lives in the face of climate change (see Barnett et al 2010). This approach has been more marginal to international practice than the above-mentioned discourses, but has been advanced by NGO groups, was explicitly endorsed by the UNDP (2007) and in a 2009 UN General Assembly discussion of the climate change-security relationship, and was the subject of a chapter in the most recent IPCC report on the impacts of climate change (IPCC 2014). The referent object in this discourse is people; threats are those that challenge the lives, livelihoods and choices of people; means of security focus on mitigation but with some place for adaptation; and a wide variety of actors – from states to international institutions to civil society groups – are seen as potential security agents (see O’Brien 2006).

In orienting towards the direct and immediate effects of climate change for people, and focusing our attention on vulnerable human populations, the human security discourse advances a more ethically defensible position in the context of climate change. The practices it encourages are also focused on preventing the worst manifestations of climate change through urgent mitigation action, and on reducing the threat for those most vulnerable. Yet there are clear dilemmas or challenges here. First, it is difficult to assess and redress sources of human insecurity in the context of climate change given both varied populations with possibly competing interests and acute uncertainty and complexity with regard to climate change and its effects. Second, and in the context of agency, a focus on vulnerable human populations requires international institutions and the most powerful states to act as agents for others and beyond their own immediate self-interest. Both of these challenges apply to the ecological security discourse, to be discussed.

Clearly, this discourse constitutes a progressive approach to the climate-security relationship, one whose orientation towards vulnerable people is far more defensible than approaches that value the defence of institutions or already privileged populations, and whose practices orient primarily towards mitigation rather than adaptation alone. Yet it still draws the line at contemporary human populations, in this context failing to recognize obligations to future generations or other living beings. And in endorsing a humanist approach, arguably this discourse fails to recognize and respond to the changing nature of our relationship to the environment in the context of the Anthropocene (Grove 2014). A case can therefore be made for a more radical climate security discourse still – one oriented towards ecological security.

Towards Ecological Security

An ecological security discourse is one that orients towards the resilience of ecosystems themselves, with this in turn enabling the protection of the most vulnerable across time, space and species. Resilience is defined in terms of the capacity of ecosystems to sustain life and retain their organizational structure and function in the face of perturbation and change (see Barnett 2001; Adger et al 2011). Urgent mitigation action is prioritized in this discourse but with some space for adaptation to help preserve the functionality of ecosystems. All actors with the capacity to generate avoidable harm have responsibility in terms of agency, depending on their capacity and contribution to the problem. And while endorsing broad principles, such a discourse must be defined in terms of a commitment to dialogue, reflexivity and humility: ecosystem functionality is too complex for highly prescriptive accounts; universal principles must be reconciled with local knowledge, understanding and values; and reflexivity is clearly necessarily to prevent this discourse becoming a repressive or misanthropic orthodoxy. What we are talking about here, ultimately, is a set of principles that might be defended as an appropriate basis for actors to view and approach the climate change-security relationship, with the actions this encourages necessarily context-specific.

Such a discourse has not been prominent in either academic debate or political interventions linking climate change and security. Of course this may reflect the fact that it has a limited constituency among those with power (see Barnett 2001:121), and that we can clearly advocate progressive approaches to climate change without recourse to the language of security. Yet if a climate change-security linkage is being made, it is important to examine the form of this linkage and ask what prospects exist for a defensible linkage between the two. If the ‘securitization’ of climate change is becoming more common, we cannot ignore this linkage. Instead, and reflecting the political significance of security (see Browning and McDonald 2013; Wæver 1995), we need to ask how these linkages are made, whose security is considered important, what a progressive linkage (with defensible principles and progressive implications in practice) might look like and what prospects exist for such a discourse to be articulated, embraced and even institutionalized.

A shift towards the embrace of an ecological security discourse in the context of climate change might be difficult to imagine, but it might be one necessitated by a number of factors. First, it is difficult to justify an exclusive ethical focus on contemporary human populations, especially those limited to particular spatial areas. Drawing on holistic ethics, some insights of ecological perspectives (eg Naess 1989) and critical political ecology (see Eckersley 2005), an ecological security discourse challenges the idea of limiting our ethical boundaries to currently living human populations and encourages us to consider the rights and needs of others – now and in the future – who rely on the continued function of ecosystems. Second, and related to this, the new reality of the Anthropocene encourages us to revisit the relationship between humanity and the conditions of our own survival. The Anthropocene arguably requires us to revisit the separation between humans and nature central to contemporary political thought and action, and recognize that we can no longer orient our security towards the conservation of the status quo (see also Mitchell 2014; Grove 2014).

There are, of course, profound challenges and dilemmas associated with this discourse. If our focus is ecosystem resilience in the face of change, means of security would emphasize mitigation but potentially extend to controversial practices focused on adaptation and stop-gap measures, including geo-engineering. The dilemma here is the ways in which such projects are frequently advocated by those who want to support a continued role for fossil fuels, and can involve the search for a climate change ‘silver bullet’ rather than profound changes necessary in the way we live (see Dalby 2015). A further challenge, relating to this, is that the scale of complexity and uncertainty is a defining feature of ecosystem functionality, making it difficult to be certain what the implications of our interventions will be and therefore what practices we should pursue (see Cudworth and Hobden 2013). This becomes even more complicated when trying to weigh potentially competing interests across populations, species and over time. And even if we are confident in a path ahead, this discourse clearly has limited political constituency or political traction. If it is difficult enough to get states to cooperate with other states to solve a problem that affects them, some might suggest it is impossible to imagine how such a discourse will find its way into meaningful public debate (Barnett 2001). And finally, the tendency to articulate universal principles must confront the challenges of negotiating with local practices and localized understandings of ecosystems themselves.

All of the above do represent profound challenges in making sense of what an ecological security discourse might look like, and even whether it is defensible. But the extent to which these dilemmas are particular to this discourse should not be overstated. Even national security discourses have to come to terms with uncertainty and complexity in terms of assessing where future strategic threats might come from and how state resources should be used to prepare for these, for example. The dangers of reconciling universal principles with local contexts is all too familiar to advocates of international security whose attempts to manage peace operations must always negotiate this divide (Paris and Sisk eds. 2009). And in trying to combine a case for change with the need to enlist powerful actors to be agents of that change, human security discourses always risk being coopted by those institutions without fundamentally reorienting their practices or the basis upon which they make decisions (see Christie 2010). And perhaps obviously, political limits to change confront all those advocating change, almost all the time.

Yet we have clearly seen major changes in dominant understandings and practices of security over time, from the redefinition of sovereignty as the responsibility to protect to the endorsement of nuclear disarmament. These should serve as reminders that change can and does happen, and advocates of ecological security might find bases for hope in the embrace of principles like precaution, common but differentiated responsibility, debates arising around the Anthropocene and the global, long-term and ecological orientation of much of global civil society mobilization. And if linking climate change and security, the profound nature of the challenge posed by climate change arguably compels us to think in new ways about what security means and how it might be realized.


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Matt McDonald is a Reader in International Relations in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. His research is in the area of critical theoretical approaches to security, and their application to environmental change and Australian foreign and security policy. He is the author of Security, the Environment and Emancipation (Routledge 2012) and co-author (with Anthony Burke and Katrina Lee-Koo) of Ethics and Global Security (Routledge 2014). He has also published on these themes in a range of journals and is currently completing a research project on Ecological Security. Further details of his research and publications are available here:

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