Climate disruption: time to speak up

To defend the realm, Britain's security nexus must rethink its line of duty. Change the security narrative.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 November 2018

Screenshot. Katowice former coat of arms. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.An important climate meeting takes place on 3-14 December in Katowice, a symbolic location in that the city has long been the heartland of Poland's well established coal-mining industry. This latest session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change – COP24 is the useful shorthand – follows the publication on 8 October of a report from the IPCC's scientific advisors.

By the standards of the bland, compromise-driven texts that often emanate from international organisations, the IPPC's report is remarkable for its pungent flavour. It is clear that the climate-science community is determined to tell the world just how serious the problem really is.

A recent contribution to the same debate by another organisation, the Oxford Research Group, argues that, to reflect the true picture of the times, climate change should now be routinely termed climate disruption. There needs to be a massive acceleration in efforts to control the burning of fossil carbon (coal, oil, gas), says the ORG:

“The rate of progress has to be rapid in the 2020s and zero carbon economies have to be implemented by the mid-2030s, not the late 2040s as often currently assumed. The internal combustion engine should be seen as already obsolete, renewable energy capture and storage must be accelerated greatly, there have to be radical improvements in the efficiency of household heating and cooling and industrial use of fossil carbon as an energy source together with numerous changes in agricultural practice.”

The ORG document points to the need for countries in the global south to receive substantial assistance in enabling carbon-zero development. Here, the intensified uptake of renewable-energy resources is a priority, and some positive trends are noted.

But overall, the world's current security dynamics offer little encouragement to such trends, at least from the leaderships and policies of major states – the United States, Russia, India, China and Brazil, for example. The neoliberal economic system, with its powerful fossil carbon-energy corporations, also presents major obstacles to more rapid progress on climate policy.

In this respect the document highlights a crucial dimension missing from the current debate: namely, the responsibility of military establishments to promote radical action against climate disruption. If this sounds counterintuitive, it should be recalled that such action is actually part of the military's role in ensuring the security of a state, this being an aspect of conflict prevention (see "A new security paradigm: the military-climate link", 5 August 2009).

A fossilised story

To emphasise the point: if the United Kingdom's security community – the military, politicians, civil servants – is about “defending the realm”, and one of the greatest threats to the realm is global climate disruption, then that community has the responsibility to demand sustained decarbonisation and related policies as a core element of ensuring security.  

If that too strikes an unfamiliar chord, it's not surprising. For this argument is rarely treated as a central, urgent priority by the security milieu, or even its favoured think-tanks and media. The military-industrial-academic-bureaucratic complex simply does not think this way (see "A war-promoting hydra", 24 May 2018). And it's that mentality, and its roots in culture and history, which comes under scrutiny from the Rethinking Security network.

The argument, presented in a discussion paper, is relevant because it questions the whole basis on which the currently dominant narrative of security rests: its assumptions “about what security means, whom it should benefit, and how it is achieved". Rethinking Security believes that this narrative is outmoded, for four key reasons:

* Instead of recognising security as a common right, to which all have equal claims, the narrative privileges UK national security as the highest goal to which the needs of others may be subordinated

* It seeks to advance "national interests" as defined by the political establishment, including corporate business interests and the UK's "world power" status. Thus it dissociates the practice of security from the needs of people where they live

* The dominant narrative assumes a short-term outlook and depicts physical threats as the main risks. Thus it largely overlooks the long-term drivers of insecurity

* Its response aims to extend control over the strategic environment. This goal is to be achieved principally through offensive military capabilities, a superpower alliance, and restrictions on civil liberties.

This analysis of conventional ideas of security takes into account the many UK's problems of recent years, including conspicuous military failures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (see "A war of minds: beyond 2001-18", 12 October 2018). In contrast to official thinking, the critique recommends a new strategic emphasis on long-term problems such as marginalisation, climate change, scarcity and weapons proliferation.

Why is the establishment so reluctant to accept creative approaches of this kind? The report offers five factors inhibiting a change of mindset:

* A small and exclusive group, drawn from a social elite, tends to have ownership of the security narrative. This leads to the general exclusion of other voices

* Business interests, particularly the arms industry, have a disproportionate influence on the policy-making process

* Institutional inertia and political calculations lean towards dismissing alternative agendas

* Values associated with hegemonic masculinity are to the fore. These reduce security discourse to a calculus of threats and coercive responses, at the expense of all-round conversation which takes into account security's social and ecological aspects

* Absent from the discourse are the people around the world who are affected by the decisions of Western states.

In a positive vein, Rethinking Security's paper outlines four principles to guide security as practice:

* Security as freedom  Security may be understood as a shared freedom from fear and want, and to live in dignity. Thus it implies positive social and ecological health, rather than a mere lack of risk

* Security as a common right  Embracing commonality is vital, for security should not (and usually cannot) be gained by one group at the expense of another. Thus, security rests on solidarity rather than dominance; it means standing with others rather than over them

* Security as a patient practice Security cannot be coerced into being. It grows or withers in tune with how inclusive and just society is, as well as how socially and ecologically responsible its citizens are

* Security as a shared responsibility  Security is a common responsibility, whose challenges belong to everyone. For as long as common well-being is entrusted to a self-chosen group of powerful states, security worldwide will continue to deteriorate.

A responsibility to lead

This thoughtful analysis by a group of practiced mediators, academics and activists provides a very different understanding of the UK security paradigm than the norm. And given its description of the establishment's security nexus, it looks unlikely that the latter will embrace the approach to climate disruption advocated by Rethinking Security and similar voices.

The security establishment does make cursory reference to a future military role towards climate disruption and its dangers. In practice, it devotes limited attention to the question. Talk about the military using renewable-energy sources or cutting down on waste is no substitute for the proactive focus that is needed. A minimal stance in no way obviates the need to prevent climate disruption in the first place (see "A climate revolution", 10 August 2018).

Climate disruption is happening, and is a threat to people and life everywhere. Official security thinking now feels obliged to acknowledge this. In consequence, senior military and politicians have a duty to speak truth to power. If they do not, it can convincingly be said that they are failing to defend the realm. To act positively by speaking out would catapult them to the vanguard of the evolving security environment of the mid-21st century.

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