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Ecological Security

10 2 9
12.10.2017

This is an excerpt from Reflections on the Posthuman in International Relations. An E-IR Edited Collection. Available now on Amazon (UK, USA, Ca, Ger, Fra), in all good book stores, and via a free PDF download.

Find out more about E-IR’s range of open access books here.

In recent years, the idea that issues such as climate change might pose a threat to security has become prominent, and environmental issues more broadly have featured significantly in debates about redefining security since the 1980s (Mathews 1989; Myers 1989). Traditionally, approaches to the relationship between security and environmental change have asked whether and how environmental issues constitute a security threat. This is a bad place to start, for two reasons. First, it suggests that we as analysts can establish criteria for defining security at an abstract level, and measure issues (whether climate change, population displacement or terrorism) against that criteria. Such an approach is problematic. It ignores the social construction of security: the fact that different political communities understand security in different ways, and the same political communities change the way they understand security over time. A fixed and abstract definition of security is ultimately inconsistent with the need to come to terms with the meaning given to security in practice (see McDonald 2012). This is important because of the politics of security: the ways in which different depictions of security and threat serve to encourage particular sets of responses to those issues in practice.

Second, and of particular relevance for those interested in the politics of linking environmental issues with security, the effects of this linkage are not simply about whether environmental issues are defined as a security threat: whether they are ‘securitised’. Paradoxically, the view that the designation of threat defines the politics of a response to it is evident among both advocates and sceptics of an environment-security relationship. For advocates, defining environmental issues as security threats means approaching these issues as ‘high politics’, ensuring political urgency, prioritization and funding usually associated with traditional security threats (see Hartmann 2008). Securitization, in this view, is ultimately a good thing. For sceptics, securitization is problematic because security has a powerful and sedimented association with defence and the state (eg Deudney 1990), and/or potentially enables the suspension of ‘normal politics’ and the pursuit of frequently illiberal emergency measures. The latter is, of course, a key concern of so-called Copenhagen School theorists of securitization (eg Buzan et al 1998; Wæver 1995).

Yet ultimately, the political implications of linking environmental issues like climate change with security are determined not by the simple act of making this link- of securitising. Rather, what matters in political and normative terms is the way security itself is understood. Specifically, different discourses of security- conceptions of whose security matters, from what threats, which agents are responsible for providing it and through what means- have radically different implications in terms of the practices they encourage. While a discourse orienting towards national security might encourage adaptation and even military preparedness for potential conflict associated with the effects of environmental change, a discourse orienting towards human security would encourage mitigation strategies and a focus on the threats facing vulnerable human populations (see McDonald 2012; 2013). In these senses, linking climate change and security can have radically different effects depending on the way in which security is understood, and especially different answers to the question of whose security matters.

Using the example of climate change, this paper is divided into two sections. In the first I outline the contours of different discourses of security as applied to climate change, illustrating the ethical choices upon which these discourses are based and pointing to the practices they encourage. In the second I make a case for an ecological security discourse. Simply, if a linkage between an issue like climate change and security is to be made, some discourses are better than others in terms of the defensibility of the principles they are informed by and the responses they suggest. Here I suggest that the most defensible ethical foundation for this linkage is one that focuses on ecosystem resilience and the rights and needs of vulnerable contemporary populations, future generations and other living beings. While such a discourse confronts important dilemmas and powerful political impediments, it is one that rests on a stronger moral and philosophical foundation. And perhaps more importantly, it is a discourse arguably necessitated by the scale of the threat posed by climate change and the changing nature of our relationship to the environment in the context of the Anthropocene: the contemporary geological era in which humans have altered the earth system upon which humans themselves depend (see Steffan et al 2007, as well as Corry, Harrington and Rothe in this volume).

Discourses of Climate Security

There is a range of different ways in which environmental change generally, and climate change specifically, could be and have been linked to security. The most powerful and prominent of these discourses is that of ‘national security’, with the focus here on the possibility that climate change might undermine the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the nation-state. Such a vision has found its way into national security strategies throughout the world, has been advanced by public-policy oriented think tanks (especially in the USA), and has achieved a prominent place in academic debates (see Brzoska 2008; Busby 2008; CNA 2007).

In such a vision of security, the state retains its central role as the referent object (the ‘whom’ in ‘security for whom’); the state and potentially its military are key agents of security; threats are associated largely with conflict or border integrity arising from climate change; and means of providing security focus on adaptation to........

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