The war on climate change

Should we really be rethinking climate change in terms of national security?

Thinking about climate change as an "existential threat" might not be the best way to tackle the phenomenon. Thinking about climate change as an "existential threat" might not be the best way to tackle the phenomenon.

Although it only made headlines for a few fleeting hours last week, keen climate hysterics will have noticed the release of a new climate change report—the result of a year-long Senate inquiry kicked-off by former Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.

It concluded that climate change is an “existential risk” and a “direct threat to Australian national security”. Highlighting the increased risk of natural disasters and political instability, the report described the issue not as a distant or potential concern, but one deserving immediate attention.

But while this report may have drawn attention to the (already well-documented) risks of unchecked climate change, can it really be considered a ‘win’ for the environmentalist movement? In many ways, its findings miss the mark, repeating all the dire predictions we’ve come to know and love without offering any real, tangible solutions.

The struggle for environmentalists has always been in generating support for such a slow-burn issue. Smaller, more targeted battles—like Greenpeace’s efforts to disrupt whaling in the Antarctic, or the work done to save the ozone layer in the 1980s—have successfully limited or prevented certain forms of environmental degradation, but climate change is a systemic crisis. It requires a coordinated global response.

According to recent assessments, it is now almost inevitable that the world will experience at least 3°C of warming. The problem is, this just doesn’t sound like a very dangerous change. For many, the drastic action which is needed to address climate change seems entirely disproportionate to its potential consequences. In the midst of some particularly cold weather late last year, Donald Trump even claimed that a bit of extra heat might just be a good thing.

So like in a lot of climate advocacy, the report aims to remind policy-makers of how serious, and close-to-home, the crisis really is. In recommending the inquiry, Ludlam argued that if “the Government won’t listen to the scientists… maybe it will listen to defence and security experts and the personnel on the front line.” In casting climate change as an urgent national security concern, the report securitises the issue, using the weight of an existential threat to justify and encourage decisive political action.

Securitisation is not a new concept in politics. Dr Ken Fraser, a lecturer at USyd in both International Relations and Non-Traditional Security, puts it simply: “securitising something is a way of elevating its importance [so that] you can persuade people to devote resources to the problem.”

In Australia, classic examples of securitisation usually involve either terrorism or asylum seekers, but climate change politics has recently begun to adopt a similar rhetoric. The problem with securitising the latter, however, is in getting people to listen. As Dr Fraser notes, “securitisation depends not only on the story you’re telling but on the audience you’re telling it to. You have to have a receptive audience.”

Frustratingly, each new report simply builds on the dire predictions of the last, increasing the tension while adding new and improved policy recommendations. But simply raising the level of existential angst is pointless. Repeated attempts to do so have been unable to inspire decisive political action. For instance, Kevin Rudd’s 2008 National Security Statement characterised climate change as the “most fundamental security challenge for the long-term future.” Yet it was swiftly followed by his decidedly unsuccessful push to implement the Carbon Tax.

This is not because people don’t accept the reality of climate change—in fact, Australians overwhelmingly favour taking action on the issue (just over 70 percent as of 2016). Rather, just as the rhetoric of terrorism often seems exaggerated and unconvincing, so too does talk of climate change and global environmental catastrophe. Even those who understand the nature of the issue are likely to switch off if it seems intractable or inevitable—as the language of this report seems to imply.

Securitising climate change, with all the talk of geopolitical instability and regional tensions can hinder grassroots campaigns and activists. Repeatedly highlighting all the ways this crisis could collapse into chaos makes it seem altogether too complex to deal with, alienating anyone apathetic or unconvinced about their potential impact. If even the state has given up on solutions, what good is going vegetarian, or joining a community group?

But citizens, through collective action, have a key role in stopping the slow, destructive march of climate change. Community and local environmental movements can pursue achievable, and highly impactful goals, from banning single-use plastics to urging divestment from fossil fuels (as is being pursued by Fossil Free Usyd – one of many in a national network of activist groups.)

Instead of the doom and gloom, perhaps we should start focusing on the effective solutions which are readily available—simple measures the public already want to see put in place, like carbon pricing, and comprehensive renewable energy transition plans. Taking action to implement these reforms, while empowering collective grassroots movements is the most effective way to start reversing the inevitable.

What started as an attempt to force action on climate change has largely ignored the role of collective activism and popular mobilisation, which are crucial to solving the issue. If any lesson is to be learnt from this report, it’s that maybe we don’t need any more damning, existential security reports. While security discussions about the effects of climate change certainly have their place, climate activists in high positions like Ludlam shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that people, not fear, are their best resource.