Whose climate security? Or why we should worry about security language in climate action

The climate crisis is becoming an international focal point, and budgets for climate change mitigation and adaptation are getting larger. At the same time, debates on ‘climate security’ involving some of the most powerful actors globally can be discerned.  We need to ask ourselves, our governments, and corporations some difficult and counterintuitive questions: does much-needed action on climate change have harmful environmental and social effects, especially for marginalised groups living in and of water, land and forests?

Questions of environmental and social justice around climate action are not new: we know that climate mitigation and adaptation measures are not benefiting everyone equally[1]. Essentially, this is caused by climate interventions being built on growth imperatives, assigning (monetary) value to nature, and thereby including it in the neoliberal economic system. This approach overlooks the complex relations that humans have with nature, including spiritual and social bonds, and how nature is linked to livelihoods.

Matters get even more complicated when we add ‘climate security’ to the equation. In recent decades this frame has gained ground among some of the most powerful persons and institutions globally, for example the US Defence Force and Shell. The idea they promote is pretty straightforward: climate change causes erratic weather patterns, making areas less inhabitable due to scarcity of resources that in turn leads to conflict and migration. This would lead to instability locally, at the state level or even internationally, and as such poses security threats – to humans, but also to nation-states and even the international order.

But this premise of climate security, which has recently been placed on the agenda of the UN Security Council, is highly contested. From a political ecology perspective, it is regarded as Malthusian in the sense that the political choices related to natural resources are ignored. By asking key questions such as who owns what, who does what, and who gets what, the power dynamics around natural resources are thrown into sharp relief. Researchers and activists argue that there is need to be more concerned with how ‘policies to deal with the effects of climate change’ lead to conflict, rather than the effects of climate change itself.

And this climate security framing could mean that security actors – the military or security corporations – also get involved in formulating those policies. That for example may just lead to the militarisation of hydropower dams and forest management. This has also been observed within nature conservation around poaching, now referred to as ‘green wars’. Several authors have warned these matters need much more attention.

The various understandings of conflict

I became engaged in these topics through my professional position at the Dutch Research Council (NWO). I am working on research programmes funded by some of the larger development donors in northwestern Europe, such as one that was indeed concerned with the impact of climate policies on conflict. This programme sought to enhance an understanding of how climate policies may incite conflicts, such that the knowledge could add to more ‘conflict-sensitive climate action’. Seven research projects were funded that focused on conflicts around water, land and forests that were part of climate policies.

The launch of the programme had brought me to a seminar at the Circle National des Armées in Paris, where military actors that focused on security formed the majority.  And I was asked to engage with the Planetary Security Initiative, launched by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also populated with military and governmental actors and security think tanks who in turn engage with corporations that are seeking stable contexts. These actors tend to see conflicts as (sudden) eruptions of violence that lead to death and injury, and possibly even war.

Throughout the process of implementing the programme, it occurred to me that those actors that I was engaging with had a different understanding of ‘conflict’. The donor representatives were impatient that the research did not seem to contain their idea of what a ‘conflict analysis’ should be and that typically results in a conflict typology to help categorize different conflicts.

The researchers in the programme, however, were speaking of conflicts as elements inherent to society, shaped by dynamics of power – as politics. Conflicts thus are not considered as ‘events’, but rather as a ‘process’ through which conflicting interests occur. According to such an understanding, conflicts are not the domain of the military or security actors, but are rather ‘a clash of interests, values and norms among individuals or groups that leads to antagonism and a struggle for power’.

Militarisation of climate action?

It is evident that these different readings of conflict may have implications for how, and by whom, climate responses are formulated. When considering climate as a security threat, military and security actors could well become part of the formulation of responses to climate change, which would have major implications on the power dynamics around the natural resources involved. It could, for example, lead to militarisation of hydropower dams, wind turbine parks or forest protection.

And that gives us reason to be worried. Experience with militarisation of anti-poaching efforts as part of nature conservation shows that this may lead to the normalisation of violence and has devastating consequences for people living with wildlife. As such, it could become possible for vested interests to dominate, while the interests of marginalised groups living in and of water, land and forests could be sidelined. This blog thus calls on researchers and activists to increase understanding of these matters in the hope and anticipation that collectively we may gain greater understanding of these matters and as such contribute to more environmentally and socially just climate action. Because acting on the climate we must, but not at the cost of marginalised natures and humans


[1] Already in 2012 the term ‘green grabbing’ was coined: appropriation in the name of the environment, including effects of climate interventions. Numerous examples are available, for example on the shift to renewable energies. Windmills, solar panel fields and hydropower dams that were erected have led to land and ocean grabs, with resource users being expelled. In fact, for those energy sources it is not always clear that they are ‘green’ to begin with. Their negative impact on the environment and ecosystems are widely recorded for instance in the  Environmental Justice Atlas. In addition, conservation and regeneration of forests is a common mitigation and adaptation strategy. And it does feel good and tangible to plant or preserve a tree to compensate our consumption-guilt, no? That is essentially the starting point of the UNFCCC’s REDD+ programme. But vast amounts of research document the natural as well as social damage caused by REDD+. It has, for example, led to exclusion of forest dwellers in decisions on how to manage the forest, that are the provision of their livelihoods. They have also often not shared in the benefits that REDD+ projects should bring them. And in some instances areas have actually been deforested, precisely because climate funding has assigned monetary value to the trees and land.

About the author:

Corinne Lamain is a part-time PhD Candidate at ISS, where she studies the interrelations between climate finance mechanisms, climate securities and socio-ecological conflicts in the Eastern Himalayas.

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1 Comment
  • Anonymous
    March 15, 2021

    Hi Corinne Lamain, thank you for this thought-provoking work. I have few points to share, do not know whether relevant to you or not. I think the climate is emerging as a huge crisis for all of us on this earth that cutting across class, caste, geography, religion so on. It became rock reality for all of us, when we struggle for a glass of safe water, paying money to buy water, taking toxic air, soil getting un-fertile, we are getting unsafe food, sea levels are rising, the wold facing frequent occurrences of a natural disaster. So the climate question is just universal, affecting all of us on this mother earth, more vulnerable are the poorest of the poor, women and children from those excluded communities. However, I strongly agree with you on the question of the politics of the neoliberal economic system. The neoliberal system focusing on GDP based development paradigm is more dangerous and responsible, so need to share more responsibilities. Yes one more point that always overshadowed me is individual action always matters we are 7.8 billion people in this world our day to day lifestyle also matters, how much plastic we use, disposable we are throwing, amount of emission individual we are responsible for… anyway great to go through your piece of writing, can I have full document pl. congratulation and all the best.