New Orleanians fight to reopen hospital closed by Hurricane Katrina. Demotix/Charles Easterling. All rights reserved.The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the most authoritative scientific study on our climate to date, confirmed what we all knew: that global warming is happening, yet we continue to pump carbon into the air regardless. For a short spell, it prompted some hand wringing over society's failure to heed scientists' warnings. Very few commentators, however, pointed to the dangerous possibility that the failure of political and business leaders may be due to calculation rather than cowardice. Could it be that rather than burying their heads in the sands, some of our leaders are maintaining the pretence to tackle climate change while actually focused instead on how to manage its impact in their own interests?
The evidence that, behind the political platitudes, the policy focus is shifting from tackling the causes to controlling the impacts of climate change is becoming more visible. In fact, the final conclusions of the IPCC report ended up at the last minute including a paragraph that suggested that geoengineering could offset temperature increases. While the report pointed to some potential “side effects,” it nevertheless opened a door to countries that want to avoid any action that constrain their extractive industries and that are seeking to further meddle with our atmosphere regardless of the risks and human costs. As Neth Daño of the watchdog group ETC noted, “The report doesn't discuss solar power or electric cars; it doesn't discuss public transport, carbon markets or any other actual or potential policy response to the climate crisis, so why have the authors chosen to devote the concluding paragraph to this highly speculative and dangerous technofix?”
Corporations, particularly ones tied to the fossil fuel industry, have long looked to half-baked or unproven technologies, like carbon capture, in order to justify continued exploitation of gas and oil reserves. Increasingly, however, they are also seeking salvation in technological solutions for the climate crisis that will result from their criminal intransigence. Rex Tillerson, CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil famously dismissed the need to act to stop climate change saying in 2012 that, “Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around - we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.” His comments were recently echoed by Owen Patterson, UK's energy minister, who dismissed the dangers of climate change, saying it could be advantageous as it would allow the UK to grow new crops.
The growing emphasis on technological fixes or blithe suggestions about the positive benefits of a globally unstable climate have been paralleled by increased state investment in the military to control any 'side effects' of climate change. The two trends are on the surface contradictory: one believes climate change can be 'fixed' and prevented by technological wizardry; the other that it will happen but needs to be controlled. Nevertheless they combine around the idea that climate change needs to be managed in the interests of the powerful, no matter what the consequences are for everyone else.
In 2007, the Pentagon released a report that warned of “the age of consequences” in which “altruism and generosity would likely be blunted.” A similar EU report released a year later talked of climate change as a “threat multiplier” that “threatens to overburden states and regions which are already fragile and conflict prone.” It warned that this would lead to “political and security risks that directly affect European interests”. These security-based strategies have been further developed in recent years along with an unparalleled expansion of surveillance, as we have seen thanks to Snowden's revelations.
The language of military and corporate strategists is usually couched in terms of security. But the focus of their indepth reports on the threats of climate change to trade routes and competition for resources in the Arctic and energy supplies reveal that the concern of most military strategists is not how to protect vulnerable citizens from climate change, but rather how rich countries and their privileged classes can continue to control critical resources of food, energy and water. Turning climate change impacts into a matter of 'security' for the few entrenches the injustice intrinsic to the climate crisis - that those who played the least role in causing it will feel its impact the hardest.
Retired Rear Admiral David Titley, a key advisor on climate and security issues, sums up this prevailing attitude that calculates how to maintain power at times of instability: “When I was in the Navy, we tried to strip away the emotions associated with climate change as a political issue. It’s a change, and just like changing demographics, political regimes and economic conditions, we need to deal with it. If we don’t, we’re putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage — and the United States military never wants to be at a competitive disadvantage.”
When security and military responses become the dominant way to deal with climate change, it is not hard to guess the consequences, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provides one of the most disturbing portraits and dystopian preludes of what the militarisation of climate change looks like. As the waters receded after the devastating storm, stranded families, mostly from impoverished, neglected neighbourhoods, found themselves to be targets in a war zone rather than subjects of a rescue mission. The personal accounts by African American citizens shot at by their own armed National Guard troops and imprisoned in the Louisana Superdome strip away any notion that 'security' at times of disaster is good for everyone.
As we have discovered to our cost in the 'War on Terror', how we frame our response to crises such as terrorism or now climate change will have huge implications for our freedom, democracy and peoples' access to resources. If we support a military, technological or corporate response as the key way to address climate change, then it is not hard to imagine how this will lead to militarised borders, conflicts over dwindling energy supplies, increasing land and water grabs, and corporate profiteering.
Instead, we need to seek out new models of cooperation and solidarity for framing our response to this unparalleled, multi-faceted crisis. These models aren't utopian visions; they already exist. The hidden story of Katrina is one of neighbourhoods working together to rescue and protect those most affected by the floods despite the militarisation of the state. In Cuba, neighbourhood planning and basic shelter provision have saved many lives during times of extreme weather despite limited state resources. Around the world, communities are building resilience through initiatives such as Transition Towns that seek not only to reduce carbon emissions but also prepare communities to better cope with disasters and disruptions. The key in all of these just solutions is that they put citizens at the heart of the solution. They no longer view people as a problem that must be controlled, but rather the solution to building resilience at a time of climate uncertainty.
Nick Buxton is co-editing Cashing in on Catastrophe: climate change, corporations and security states, a volume of the best progressive analysis on the militarisation of climate change. The book is seeking funds to be published and we would love your help. You can donate and find out more here.
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