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Security lens for climate change brings risks - academics

by Jon Christianson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 25 October 2012 13:03 GMT

Seeing climate change as primarily an apocalyptic security problem can distort reality and hinder action, experts say

BRIGHTON, England (AlertNet) — Intellectual discourse over global climate change has veered from helpful to ‘apocalyptic” – a change that may draw attention to the issue but also handicap efforts to take effective action on it, academics said at a University of Sussex climate security conference.

“In their battle to get climate change taken seriously, some well-known scientists replace cautious uncertainty, the hallmark of good climate science, with prophecies about the certainty of catastrophe,” said Betsy Hartmann, a novelist and professor at Hampshire College with an interest in climate security issues.

The problem, experts said, is that environmental and climate issues, more often than not, will not get listened to by political leaders unless there is an imminent security threat.

“The glum reality is that governments tend to take security threats more seriously than any other kind,” Hartmann said.

Emphasizing an apocalyptic viewpoint on climate change leads to a misinformed public that either fears doomsday or feels apathetic in the face of an insurmountable challenge, the experts said. The problem is that view can sway public opinion and lead to unsound policy, experts said.

Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, said the shift toward viewing climate change largely as a security threat also fits with deep-seated fears about the impacts of runaway climate change.

“With climate destabilized and with our vulnerability exposed,” said Hulme, “all of our deep cultural and psychological fears are escaping, creating, out of this new necessity, the discourse of security.”

This shift in focus has led to more apocalyptic images of climate change both in the media and academia. Hulme highlighted a Greenpeace report which likened climate change to a nuclear bomb and Hartmann pointed to the popularity of “apocalypse” themes in recent popular culture.


“Dystopia sells, and kids are brought up on The Hunger Games,” Hartmann noted.

Drawing links between climate change and conflict, however, should be undertaken with caution, as the evidence is not at all clear, experts said.

Hartmann in particular faulted academics who attribute the violence in Darfur to climate change. One problem with such attribution is that it allows Sudan’s government to absolve itself from blame from its own role in the conflict.

“The fact that political violence in Darfur was cast in this way is nothing short of scandalous,” Hartmann said. “For one, it plays right into the hands of the Sudanese regime.”

Mark Zeitoun, an expert on water governance issues at the University of East Anglia, said the Israeli water crisis has been similarly reframed.

Water studies performed by the Israel Water Authority in 2008 primarily attributed the water crisis to climate change. Two different Knesset investigations in 2002 and 2010, however, de-emphasized climate change and claimed the crisis was political and manmade in nature.

Solely blaming climate change for the water crisis removes politics from the equation and absolves the government from blame, Zeitoun said.

“Water scarcity is constructed by the government officials and, in at least in one case, replicated by academics,” said Zeitoun. “That scarcity message and narrative feeds the water security discourse very neatly, doesn’t it?”

Similarly, current climate change outlooks also may be painting inaccurate images of the vulnerability – or resilience - of farmers, pastoralists, and the poor to climate change threats.

“We are being told to train our eyes on how climate change is likely to set poor people fighting against each other for diminishing resources,” said Hartmann, “and when those resources run out, they’ll be sent storming towards our borders as climate refugees.”

In fact, climate pressures and resource scarcity can, in some cases, lead to improved cooperation over limited resources. And new research on climate-related migration suggests it may more closely resemble traditional migration patterns – usually taking place locally or regionally and often involving one family member who sends remittances home – than waves of international migration.

In a world where climate change is viewed largely as a security threat, “scarcity renders (affected people) either into victims or villains incapable of innovation or livelihood diversity and who are naturally prone to violence,” Hartmann said. She pointed out that, in many cases, pastoralists engage in less conflict during environmental stress.

Hulme warned that people should not fall victim to believing that someone’s behavior or character will be largely determined by climate pressures.


However, Richard Falk, a retired research professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara, opted at the conference “to cautiously and ambivalently say a good word for alarmism.”

Alarmism, Falk said, is born out of the global system’s inability to deal with global problems like climate change. Most government systems are organized around state security, not individual human security. Raising alarm bells by linking climate change to security, he said, is one of the few ways to communicate global problems to state governments.

Alarmism has “been quite effective” in raising awareness of problems, but has ultimately been “very ineffective” in driving behavior changes to address it.

Speakers at the conference recommended keeping an eye on inaccurate rhetoric around climate security threats and challenging it.

“If we want to build a different future, a democratic future, where justice, equality, and peace are the center of responses of climate change,” said Hartmann, “we need to challenge the tall tales, identify whose interests they serve, and chart a practical way forward.”

Jon Christianson is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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