Averting Self-Defeat: Shifting the Narrative of the Climate Debate

Romana Březovská
Michal Bokša
February 04, 2020

Following last year’s United Nations climate talks, generally referred to as COP25, one thing has become painfully clear: no significant improvements in climate change policy on the global scale can be expected in the short-term. Instead of a clear roadmap, COP25 has only generated weak commitments while simultaneously deferring regulations for new international carbon markets until 2020.

These developments come at a time when 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was selected TIME’s 2019 person of the year and the earth’s carbon dioxide concentration reached an unprecedented level of 408 ppm. Although many factors contribute to such an evident lack of concerted international action, one crucial symptom stands out in the entire framing of the climate change debate.        

Climate change has become an increasingly controversial issue, oftentimes polarizing society at large almost as much as political elites. While some have started a movement to rename the issue “climate crisis,” others, including the current U.S. administration, have taken a firmly rejectionist approach. In November 2019, President Trump began withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement and decided not to contribute to the Green Climate Fund’s replenishment.

The seemingly deepening divides are, to some extent however, an illusion. Oftentimes, the divide’s cause rests solely on our inability to explain what ramifications climate change brings. Talking about rising temperatures and melting icebergs is simply insufficient. For increased political action and consensus, especially on a domestic level, the climate change phenomenon needs to be embedded in a solid security framework, outlined in terms of the multi-faceted threat that it poses to society. 

One aspect that has become clear over the past decades is how intimately connected climate change and national security truly are. Unfortunately, this fundamental nexus is not stressed enough, thus, giving way to a false perception that climate change, despite its staggering environmental implications, is an isolated phenomenon.

Should we wish for debate on climate change to start moving in the right direction, it is essential to reframe the current narrative. We need to move away from the oversimplified notion of “climate change” to a more precise notion, “climate security.” Ultimately, we need to realize that environmental change is not merely a theoretical driver, but that it has become an active agent within the geopolitical landscape. Unfortunately, this agent more often than not works toward Western detriment, undermining both policies and strategical ability to compete on a strategic level.

While the U.S. and its allies continue striving for stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, struggling against well-known adversaries like Islamic extremism, ethnic divides, structural corruption, and an omnipresent narcotics industry, less is known about how harmful environmental changes play a role. Both in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in other conflict areas, climate-related security risks regularly manifest by diminishing agricultural livelihoods, increasing local support for terrorist groups, causing mass displacement, and heightening communal tensions over water and food access.

More specifically, due to heatwaves, shifting rain patterns, and drying glacier-dependent rivers in war-ravaged Afghanistan, the country faces an increasing threat to the little economic progress it has made over the years. In addition, since conventional crops are no longer viable, more farmers could attempt to exploit the potential of less water-intensive poppy seeds, further escalating already record high opium cultivation. Since the opium market is the key source of funding for terrorist organizations — in Afghanistan’s case, the Taliban in particular — there is an undeniable potential for current challenges to mount further. Climate-driven changes have therefore become a key adversary that Western countries, and the U.S. in particular, has to face in order to stabilize the Greater Middle East. 

Similar examples that demonstrate the malign effects of environmental changes for U.S. foreign policy are the series of droughts between 2007 and 2010 in the Levant region. These droughts led to rising food prices and an increased dependency on the most basic food imports. Such effects, further buttressed by high unemployment, poor governance, and urban and refugee migration pressure, tipped Syria into a civil war during the Arab Spring in 2011. A once relatively stable wheat-exporting country became a gateway not only for the spread of terrorist groups but also for the return of Russian influence into the region. In 2018 alone, Syria was expected to import up to 1.5 million tons of wheat from its now essential military ally, Russia, to whom it now also provides further market opportunities.

Unfortunately, climate security does not only undermine Western policies abroad, but increasingly impacts security at home as well. Such a link is most evident with regard to increasing immigration pressures, be it in Europe or North America. While immigration’s positive effects on the economy are understood and generally agreed upon, uncontrolled mass immigration is undeniably associated with a host of security and political risks.

However, the changing environment is inadvertently making the potential risks associated with large-scale immigration movements more relevant as the number of environmental refugees have grown significantly over the past years. Moreover, this number is expected to grow exponentially in the upcoming decades. By the 1990s it was already estimated that the number of people forced from their homes, due to environmental pressures, stood at 25 million. Most recent estimates from the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security suggest that by 2050 there will be 200 million climate refugees.

Even more important than solely highlighting the ever-growing number of climate refugees is to realize that the ramifications of this phenomenon will ineluctably affect not only European countries, but likewise the Americas as well. Considering data provided by the Long-Term Climate Risk Index (CRI), it is evident that Central America is likely to be among the most severely affected geographical area. Five out of ten most affected countries on the CRI list are from this region, namely, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, Dominica.

These data are further supported by estimates that Mexico and Central America alone (not including the South American continent) could produce up to 4 million climate migrants by 2050. The mounting risks associated with environmental immigration are therefore not restricted merely to the European continent as so often portrayed in the U.S. media debate.

In this regard, the climate change debate has undeniably become a very versatile adversary, actively undermining our policies abroad while simultaneously increasing risks to our own domestic security. Surprisingly, often those concerned with security the most are also the ones repetitively dismissing climate change. They remain unaware of the interconnectedness that in reality exists between the two. Large parts of Donald Trump’s electorate are a case in point.

Nevertheless, climate change plays yet another key role by continuously transforming the strategic and, to a lesser extent, geopolitical, environment – shifts to which some global powers are responding with better effectiveness than others. The Arctic region is an example par excellence. Since the 1880’s, the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by more than 1 °C and in the Arctic, these climate change impacts can be precisely identified. In addition to the effects on the local ecosystem, the Arctic sea’s melting ice caps have resulted in record low minimum levels, weather patterns and ocean circulation are changing.

However, the Russian Federation identified the omnipresent ice loss as nothing less than an opportunity to be seized. With ice along the Northern Sea Route thawing, the waters encircling the North Pole have emerged as a “geopolitical flashpoint” and “an arena of growing competition.” Heightening tensions in the region, ultimately caused by the changing climate, inadvertently arise from a number of factors ranging from the possibility of exploring Arctic trade potential (via the Polar Silk Road, as the new route is nicknamed by China - considerably shortening the traditional route via the Suez Canal) to the exploitation of hydrocarbons reserves possibly “upending energy markets.”

New, upgraded Russian military bases with advanced radar and missile defense systems, which now guard the Northern Sea Route, making sure that the increasing strategic traffic flow does not go astray, are ultimately a response to these changes. Furthermore, due to retreating ice levels, Russia is virtually increasing in size — a policy project that is referred to within Russian circles as a “future horizons” along the Arctic.  

Yet, even the current U.S. administration — which otherwise vehemently dismisses climate change – responded to such shifts. This demonstrates at least some degree of reflection on climate change effects despite the administration’s public statements. The 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy underlines that the changing physical environment, caused by the rapid global temperature increase, further allows for release of methane – a critical greenhouse gas locked in frozen earth. It also maintains that the temperature increase potentially facilitates new military threats in the Arctic region.

The Arctic objectives thus logically involve homeland defense, maintaining favorable regional balance-of-powers, and a guarantee that common domains remain free and open. Perhaps less logically, however, in an attempt to safeguard the security environment, the 2019 Arctic Strategy report also established three approaches and aims: (1) Building Arctic awareness, (2) Enhancing Arctic operations, (3) Strengthening the rules-based order. All three strategies are merely reactive; none of them aim to shape or confront climate change as the key phenomenon triggering the security dilemma.     

Climate change does not occur in a vacuum and thus cannot be locked out. Instead it needs to be portrayed, understood, and acted upon as a multi-faceted threat multiplier which ultimately decreases national security, undermines our strategic objectives, and increases the number of conflicts. To some extent we have already crossed the threshold. Climate change is accelerating. Although thus far we have received only a shrapnel of impacts, today’s fragments today are a series of domino blocks ready to fall.

Building political consensus remains as difficult as ever. Instead of framing the narrative repetitively as a climate change issue, we should perhaps strive to rebrand the political debate as one of climate security, entailing all of the security repercussions that environmental changes will ultimately bring. Unfortunately, if there is one thing we have learned over the past years it is that voters (and the politicians they elect) do not care half as much as they should about rising temperatures, melting ice caps, or desertification. If anything, Donald Trump’s presidency has demonstrated just how effective it can be to frame an issue in security terms.

Perhaps now is the time to highlight the genuine security risks that predominantly anthropogenic driven climate change poses to society. Having once escaped the shortsightedness of framing events as particularities, we may begin to recognize that climate change is an essential culprit in security dilemmas around the globe, and we will begin to understand the full ramifications climate security, or perhaps insecurity, has today, and will have, in the upcoming decades.

Romana Březovská is a graduate of both the Charles University in Prague and Sciences Po Paris. Currently, Romana works in the public sector within the field of climate protection and follows the climate agenda on the national, EU, and global level. She is a Research Fellow at the Association for International Affairs’ Research Center.  

Michal Bokša is a graduate of the University of Cambridge specializing in international security, with experience in the OSCE, NATO Defense College, and NATO Supreme Headquarters. Currently, Michal is as a lecturer at the University of Economics, and a Research Fellow for the Association for International Affairs’ Research Center.