Climate security: the new determinism

About the author
Mike Hulme is professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia.

There is a new form of climatic determinism on the rise and the allure of this thinking for the naïve or for the mischievous is dangerous. It finds its expression in some of the balder claims made about the future impacts of climate change: 180 million people in Africa to die from hunger; 40% of known species to be wiped out; 20% of global GDP to be lost. But such determinism is perhaps at its most insidious when found in the new discourse about climate (in)security. Here are only five recent examples, among an increasing number:

* a report on Sudan by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which concludes that the "impacts [of climate change] are closely linked to conflict in [Northern Darfur]" (see "Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment", UNEP / Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, June 2007)

Mike Hulme is professor in the school of environmental sciences at theUniversity of East Anglia

He is currently writing a book, to be published by Cambridge University Press, called Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

His website is here


Also by Mike Hulme in openDemocracy:

"Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007)

* an article by David Zhang and colleagues at the University of Hong Kong which argues that "... it was the oscillations of agricultural production brought about by long-term climate change that drove China's historical war-peace cycles" (see "Climate change and war frequency in eastern China over the last millennium", Human Ecology, 35/4, August 2007)

* a seminar held at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) in London on 12 December 2007 which was entitled "Weather of mass destruction: climate change as the ‘new' security problem"; the presentation (by Oli Brown of the International Institute for Sustainable Development [IISD]) argued that "the way we think about climate change may have to grow from a concern about environmental and economic damages to a recognition of the need for secure political systems that can weather the upcoming storm of adaptation to climate change"

* a number of speakers at the Bali climate-change conference on 3-14 December 2007 who emphasised the security implications of climate change, among them UNEP's executive director, Achim Steiner (see Daniel Howden, "Diplomats warned that climate change is security issue, not a green dilemma", Independent, 6 December 2007)

* a report by the NGO International Alert, written by Dan Smith & Janani Vivekananda, which claims to identify "forty-six countries at risk of violent conflict and a further fifty-six facing a high risk of instability as a result of climate change" (see "A Climate of Conflict: The Links Between Climate Change, Peace and War", November 2007).

Old idea, new idiom

We now have climate as conflict, and weather as weapons. But such climatic determinism has had a long, and often discreditable, history. Climate has been viewed as the determinant of racial character, of intellectual vigour, of moral virtue and of civilisational superiority. The allure of a naïve climatic determinism has seduced the Greeks (Herodotus), thinkers of the European Enlightenment (Montesquieu, David Hume, Buffon) and American geographers of the early 20th century (Ellsworth Huntington, Ellen Churchill Semple). And it is now seducing those hard-nosed and most unsentimental of people ... the military and their advisors.

The seduction has been underway for several years. In 2003, the United States defence department commissioned a study - An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for US National Security, written by Peter Schwartz & Doug Randall, and published in October that year - which presented a grim future of warring states and massive social disturbance as a result of climate change. In the era of "war on terror", a new linguistic repertoire has been mobilised with which to describe climate change - as "more serious even that the threat of terrorism" (David King), as "a weapon of mass destruction" (John Houghton), as demanding a "war on global warming to replace that on terror" (Stephen Hawking), and as "the ticking clock" to replace the spectre of nuclear holocaust (John Ashton).

The British government, having clumsily framed Saddam Hussein's illusory weapons of mass destruction as a threat to global security, has now opened up a new security front in the United Nations. On 17 April 2007, the UN Security Council held an open debate at ministerial level on the relationship between climate change and international security. Their argument echoed the old deterministic one: climate change was a driver for conflict in the way that it exacerbated border disputes, encouraged mass migration, increased energy and resource shortages, and intensified social stresses and humanitarian crises. The aforementioned conflict in Darfur, western Sudan, became the exemplar for this line of reasoning: it is argued that drought, caused by anthropogenic climate change, lies behind the religious and ethnic confrontation which has seen more than 200,000 people killed since 2003. David Zhang's Chinese climate wars fit perfectly this new idiom.

The military turn

There are three reasons why the rise of this new climate-security discourse is worrying. First, the evidence for climate change triggering or worsening violent conflict is thin to vanishing. Such links are unsubstantiated by empirical evidence and serious academic study or, where cited, usually draw upon the second- or third-hand information and claims found in reports from think-tanks and advocacy agencies.

openDemocracy writers debate the politics of climate change:

Stephan Harrison, "Glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)


Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

John Elkington & Geoff Lye, "Climate change's right and wrong fixes" (2 February 2007)

Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

Oliver Tickell, "Live Earth's limits" (6 July 2007)

David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007)

Alejandro Litovsky, "The accountability challenge for climate diplomacy" (30 November 2007)

Camilla Toulmin, "Bali: no time to lose" (30 November 2007)

Tom Burke, "The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)

John Jackson, "Who gains from global warming?" (17 December 2007)

On the face of it, the empirical evidence is to the contrary. A study published in the 2007 issue of the Journal of Peace Research shows that since the end of the cold war the number of ongoing state-based armed conflicts has declined by a third. And, as summarised by Ragnhild Nordås from the Centre for the Study of Civil War in Oslo: "While it is possible that climate change may lead to more conflict in the future, it has not so far caused a reversal of the current trend towards a more peaceful world."

This finding builds on earlier researches, such as the first Human Security Report (HSR), part of a project based since May 2007 at the school for international studies at Simon Fraser University; published in October 2005, the report documents “a dramatic, but largely unknown, decline in the number of wars, genocides and human rights abuse over the past decade”. The second HSR, published in December 2006, confirms this trend (see Paul Rogers, “A world becoming more peaceful?” [16 October 2005]).

The second worry about this line of reasoning is the intrinsic weakness of the old climatic determinist's position: it collapses the complexity of social, ethnic, political, economic, and cultural interactions into a one-dimensional narrative of cause and effect. Instead of Ellsworth Huntington's climatically-dictated hierarchy of superior races and civilisations - which just happened to favour the east-coast United States and England - we now have a convenient excuse for wars, violence, conflict and bigotry brought on by migration. ("It's the climate, stupid").

This is very reminiscent of the debate which went backward and forward for fifteen years in the 1970s and 1980s about climate change and desertification in the Sahel. Changes in climate were a very handy excuse for national governments in the Sahel, and for United Nations agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), wishing to deflect attention from poor governance, poor land-management regulations and unwise investments as the true reasons for deteriorating drylands.

The third reason for concern is the possibility of climate change being hijacked by the military agencies and interests of the world's more powerful nations. It becomes a power-grab by an instinctively hegemonising institution of society. The scientists, environmentalists, development experts and economists have all had their turn with climate change; now it is the military's moment. Even if the evidence for the destabilising role of climate in security terms was plentiful - and it is not, see above - it is doubtful that climate policies built on the premises of national and international military strategists will bring benefits to those most affected by climate change.

A reductive story

In view of these worries, the best we can say is the following. The constituents of both individual human security and collective national (and international) security are multifaceted. In the web of institutions, capital flows, relationships and narratives which affect such security it would be surprising if climate was entirely irrelevant. But we need more nuanced research and more complex sets of reasoning to put climate change into its proper place in the order of things.

What climate change means to us and means to the world is conditioned by what we do, by the way we govern, by the stories we tell. Presenting climate change as the ultimate security crisis is crudely deterministic, detached from the complexities of our world, and invites new and dangerous forms of military intervention. As we well know, military interventionists are not shy of using dubious claims in support of action.

The crude climatic determinism of Ellsworth Huntington was vanquished in the 20th century as the imperial ideologies of the British and their Anglophone cousins were exposed and thwarted. We must not allow a new form of determinism, expressed now in the quasi-militaristic language of security so beloved of the neo-conservatism of the post-cold-war era, to be its progeny.