The potential risks of climate securitization under the Trump administration

mattis hearing

Secretary of Defense James Mattis during his Senate confirmation hearing in January (courtesy of CBS News).

For more than a decade, supporters of climate action in the United States have focused their sights closely on one institution more than nearly any other – the U.S. military. Think tanks and other outside groups, like the Center for Naval Affairs (CNA) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have published numerous reports illustrating how climate change is a national security concern.

While advocates have had little success on Capitol Hill, their arguments have resonated more at the Pentagon, where senior military officials have largely recognized that myriad ways that global climate change could affect military operations and international security.

Interestingly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has continued to this trend. According to unpublished written testimony from his Senate confirmation hearings, which ProPublica’s Andy Revkin acquired, Secretary Mattis reaffirmed the security risks of climate change and suggested that his DoD will continue to plan for them accordingly.

In response to questions from Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis explained:

Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today. It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.

Predictably, given the dearth of good climate news, progressives took turns praising Sec. Mattis for his clear-eyed recognition of the reality. The Union of Concerned Scientists dubbed him “the Lone Climate Soldier” in the administration, while Esquire’s Jack Holmes suggested that he was the planet’s best hope to avoid a climate catastrophe.

As Ohio University professor and climate security scholar Geoff Dabelko has shown, Sec. Mattis was just the latest in a string of Secretaries of Defense to acknowledge the security implications of climate change.

What is securitization?

Securitization is a theory of international relations developed by members of the Copenhagen School. In their seminal 1998 work, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Barry Buzan and coauthors Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde argue that securitization requires four key elements:

  1. Securitizing actor: an individual who delivers a securitizing speech act;
  2. Existential threat: an object, group, or idea that is uniquely harmful;
  3. Referent object: an object, group, or idea that needs to be protected from the existential threat; and
  4. An audience: the group targeted by the securitizing actor’s speech act which must accept the issue being presented as a security threat.

If the securitizing actor is able to convince the audience that a particular issue poses an existential threat, then s/he has securitized the issue. This process moves the discussion beyond typical political rules, opening it up to a new realm of extraordinary measures that would not be palatable under normal circumstances.

Donald Trump and Securitization

Since he started his campaign in June 2015, Donald Trump has attempted to securitize a number of issues.

Consider his treatment of the news media. President Trump has routinely attacked media outlets as “fake news” and “failing piles of garbage,” harnessed the anger of his followers against reporters at campaign events, and even declared the media the “enemy of the American people.” Through these repeated speech acts, Trump has portrayed the media as an existential threat, and his supporters have readily gone along. This securitization has enabled the President to take actions that circumvent political norms, including threatening “to open up our libel laws.”

Trump’s frequent use of securitization should give us pause, particularly when it comes to issues as grave as global climate change.

Securitizing climate change?

To date, President Trump has not securitized climate change. Quite the opposite, in fact. He has called it a hoax and rejected the established facts that the climate is changing and humans are responsible due to manmade greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

global warming attribution by source

Yeah, despite what Scott Pruitt tells you, there’s really no question that humans are causing climate change. In fact, manmade GHG emissions are actually responsible for more than 100% of observed warming (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Other actors have made speech acts casting climate change as a security threat, including President Obama. He called climate change “a serious threat to global security” and “an immediate risk to our national security” in his 2015 commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. In a 2016 interview, he contrasted climate change with ISIS, arguing that the former presents an existential threat, unlike the latter.

But while he invoked the dramatic threat that unchecked climate change poses to the US, President Obama never attempted to remove it from the realm of normal politics.

On the contrary, he went to great lengths to mainstream climate change into the all aspects of the federal government, signing an Executive Order (EO) requiring agencies both to account for climate change in their programming. This EO illustrated his recognition that climate change is not some niche environmental problem, but an overarching, global paradigm that must be tackled systematically.

In contrast, nearly every member of the Trump administration has condemned climate policy, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who cast doubt on the central tenets of climate science.

Then-candidate Trump called for eliminating the EPA, saying, “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit…” This appears to be his administration’s de facto approach to climate policy as well; his staff is working to strip out climate rules and regulations wherever possible, leaving the Pentagon as the last domino standing.

On March 28, Trump signed a new EO, which revoked the climate planning requirements put into place by President Obama. This action effectively dispenses with any discussion, planning, strategizing, or funding of climate change by the federal government. Yet, if Mattis’ DoD continues to work in this area, as he has pledged, it may increase risk that climate change could become securitized.

What are the risks of securitizing climate change?

So what? What if climate change does become securitized At least Secretary Mattis’ comments indicate that it will still be addressed in some capacity, right?

On the surface, the risks of climate change becoming securitized seem relatively small, but they exist. And there could be tangible consequences of this outcome.

As noted earlier, framing climate change as a national security issue is hardly new. It dates back to the early 1990s, when officials in the Clinton White House became concerned about how environmental change could feed into “the coming anarchy” that Robert Kaplan hyped in his infamous 1994 article. During this period, scholars like Thomas Homer-Dixon argued that population growth and climate change-induced resource scarcity could spark armed violence in hotspots around the globe.

Other scholars pushed back, stating this line of thinking would do more harm than good. In 1990, Johns Hopkins political scientist Daniel Deudney penned an article, warning against linking national security and environmental degradation for three key reasons.

First, he argued that the buildup for and execution of war is inherently harmful to the environment. Second, Deudney asserted that the frames of reference for security and the environment are incompatible. Whereas security is secretive, top-down, and controlled by the state, environmental issues need to remain open, transparent, more diffuse in nature, and managed by individuals at every rung of society.

Third, Deudney noted that the process of securitization requires the invocation of nationalism, pitting “us” versus “them.” This process undermines the type of cooperation and mutual understanding necessary to tackle complex international environmental challenges. National security also tends to treat interactions between actors as zero-sum games. It is precisely this type of thinking which hobbled international climate talks for more than two decades. If the US cannot trust that China or Russia will also take action to reduce GHGs, it has no incentive to do so, as every ton of GHGs we avoid is one that another state can produce.

Marc Levy, a political scientist at Columbia, threw more cold water on climate security in a 1995 article in International Security. In it, he claimed that people had attempted to frame climate change and other environmental concerns as security issues in order to borrow some of the latter’s political luster, moving the former into the realm of “high politics.”

But, while using the national security lens may lend gravity to environmental issues, Levy argued that it ultimately undermines the aims of environmentalists, as the tools of national security are ill-suited to the tasks at hand. For climate change, “success may be independent of, even impeded by, wrapping the problem in the security mantle.”

How might this process unfold in a Trump administration?

There are a number of potential ways that securitizing climate during the Trump administration could be harmful.

First, it creates the potential for a “streetlight effect.” Much as the drunkard looks for his keys under the streetlight, because that’s where the light is, confining climate change planning to the Pentagon could ensure that the government only examines its national security implications.

Consider the possible implications for adaptation planning. If the Pentagon is the only agency playing this role, could that mean that we protect naval bases in Norfolk and Pensacola from the threat of sea level rise, ignoring – or potentially even exacerbating – the risks to vulnerable populations outside of those installations?

Second, climate securitization could raise specter that the military experiences mission creep. In his testimony, Sec. Mattis discusses a number climate dynamics in which the military may have an interest, from investing in renewable energy to maritime exploration in the melting Arctic to the threat of sea level rise to naval installations.

Sec. Mattis called for a “whole of Government approach” to climate change, but that is not occurring. In the absence of this, what role will the military play in these areas, such as addressing security concerns from, say, drought and desertification in the Sahel?

Will US Africa Command (AFCOM) have to take on an even more active role in diplomacy and humanitarian missions in the region? Could this risk muddying the divide between military and development agencies? The military does not have the same expertise in these areas as the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID), and this type of mission creep has created very real challenges in Afghanistan. As an extreme example, researchers at CNA speculated that the military may one day have to respond to global wildfires in order to mitigate carbon emissions and any associated impact on security.

Third, as Deudney pointed out, security questions tend to be zero-sum games. As Arctic sea ice melts, it will unlock massive new oil and gas reserves, potentially creating a competition among Arctic powers. But those new reserves also contain enough carbon to destroy any chance we have of staying under 2°C. If the US steps back from the Arctic Council and the military takes the lead on climate policy, could that risk increasing tensions with Russia, China, and other powers who want to extract those fossil fuels, regardless of the climate consequences?

There is ample evidence that environmental change need not be a source of conflict. A number of scholars have shown how the environment can be an important tool for peacebuilding. Others, like Ilan Kelman from the University College London, have shown how disasters can potentially help end violent conflicts. These lessons can be applied to climate change, but not if it is seen as zero-sum.

Moreover, the US’s larger withdrawal from the stage on international climate diplomacy could risk key norms, like transparency, gender equity, and accounting for the needs of ethnic minorities and indigenous groups. This may securitize important components of climate mitigation and adaptation, such as climate aid to developing states.

One need only look to the way the Administration has handled refugee/migration issues to see how this process could unfold. The President’s two EOs have both been widely criticized across the political spectrum and by the US federal court system for being a cruel and arbitrary way of preventing alleged terrorists from entering the country. In positing that closed borders may the best solution to any security threat, Trump risks making the US the living embodiment of Christian Parentis’ armed lifeboat theory: that rich nations will close themselves off from the effects of climate change, particularly migration.

Migration is not only a likely outcome of climate change, it’s also a key coping mechanism for vulnerable populations fleeing changes like sea level rise. Securitizing climate migration would not only significantly harm those people most in need of support, it could inflame tensions on both sides of the border.

Ultimately, the odds that climate change will be securitized and the risks discussed herein from that outcome remain slim. If anything, it may simply disappear from the US agenda. Hopefully, government agencies and employees doing the important work both domestically and internationally on this issue will largely be able to continue doing so under the radar.

Either way, it’s important for Americans to be cognizant of these risks, and it’s essential for climate advocates to recognize that making climate change a national security issue is a double-edged sword. While it adds gravity to and highlights a key dynamic of this topic, it may also create real downsides that need to be addressed.