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The securitisation of climate change

Ben Grace | Climate and Energy Security Fellow

In 1992, world leaders gathered at the Rio Earth Summit to discuss growing challenges to sustainability. They resolved to create the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — a legal instrument to prevent “dangerous human interference” with the climate. Despite this, carbon emissions have risen approximately 60 per cent since the framework was ratified.

The greatest minds in climate science are telling us that we’re running out of time to reduce our carbon footprint. A landmark report released by the World Meteorological Organisation said we need to increase emission reduction efforts fivefold to keep warming at sustainable levels.

Considering the history of inaction, this may seem like an unrealistic target. But there is cause for hope. Some nations are taking the approach of securitisation to combat climate change — a process which involves turning a normal political issue into a ‘security’ issue. This allows governments to take urgent action to respond to security threats.

For those of us who are keenly aware of the dangers posed by climate change, securitisation makes perfect sense. Indeed, when global warming is framed as a distant environmental threat, it tends to fall low on the list of political priorities. However, when treated as an immediate danger to national security (as is being done, for example, by low-lying pacific island nations) then it receives the attention it deserves.

But the securitisation of climate change has seen mixed success on the international stage. Lack of support from unconvinced voters and weak climate policies have undermined previous efforts. Most notably, the Rudd Government’s attempt to securitise climate change failed when public support for climate action declined, and when the gap between his fiery security rhetoric and his relatively conservative climate policies became apparent.

It’s fair to say that securitisation could play an important role in addressing the climate crisis, but only if we overcome these barriers. Therefore, to increase public awareness and encourage more ambitious climate policies, it’s worth detailing key threats posed by climate change and how they impact national security:

Loss of life

Perhaps the best argument in favour of securitisation is the considerable threat to life posed by climate change. A 2018 World Health Organisation report estimated that the current rate of warming will lead to 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, with children in developing nations being most at risk.

To appreciate the severity of these figures, it’s worth comparing them against conventional security threats. Per annum, climate change is expected to cause more than twice as many deaths as current wars combined and over 11 times the number of terrorism-related deaths.

Natural disasters and economic losses

While climate change doesn’t necessarily cause natural disasters, it certainly amplifies their impact. According to the World Economic Forum, economic losses associated with climate change related disasters have soared by two and a half times in the last 20 years.

The cost of climate-related disasters is already severe. Major financier Morgan Stanley estimated that in the last 3 years damages attributed to climate change totalled $650 billion. This may seem steep, but it’s a modest sum compared to the $54 trillion in projected damages by 2040.

Food security

As the world’s population continues to boom and the global middle class expands, greater demand will be placed on agricultural yield. By 2050 we will have an additional 1.5 billion people to feed, requiring an increase in agricultural productivity of 60 per cent.

But climate change poses a direct threat to agribusiness. With each degree of temperature rise, key crops lose approximately 10 per cent of their yield. Changes to rainfall patterns, crop and livestock viability, pest migration patterns and increased frequency and severity of natural disasters will also place a significant burden on farmers.

Mass displacement of vulnerable populations

Environmental degradation, natural disasters and food and water scarcity are expected to create a refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale. At current rates of warming, 200 million (or one in every 45) people will be forced to flee their homes by 2050, with large parts of Africa, Asian megadeltas and small island nations being particularly vulnerable.

War will likely follow as a result of new displacement patterns and competition over depleted natural resources. As securitisation theorist Prof. Ole Wæver warns, areas with existing cultural tensions where refugees will have to cross national borders (like in Africa or South-East Asia) will act as a catalyst for “military conflicts”.

These threats certainly aren’t an exhaustive list, but they do highlight prominent security concerns which justify an urgent and committed response to climate change. If we want to meet the strict emissions targets to keep warming at sustainable levels, then securitisation could be the key.

Ben Grace is the Climate and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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