Breaking with Fear

Interview with Nick Buxton
01 December 2016

Trump's obsession with security is not an anomaly, but a reflection of a growing tide of fear-based politics that has also shaped the climate change debate. In an interview about TNI's book, The Secure and the Dispossessed, Nick Buxton reflects on the 'securitisation' of climate change and the need to advocate a just transition.

Donald Trump
Photo credit Wikimedia
Lynne Nittler: Your book title is imposing, Nick. Can you break it down for us.  First, given that our world is already experiencing climate change, how do you see corporations shaping our world now and into the near future?

Nick: In our globalized economy, many corporations’ prime – and indeed statutory goal – is to maximize profit for their shareholders now and over the long-term. Many of the largest corporations therefore do long-term planning to identify risks and opportunities. Increasingly, climate change is appearing on their agenda. It is a risk – extreme weather events, for example, can disrupt supply chains, flood warehouses, and affect sales. US apparel retailer Abercrombie & Fitch estimates, for example, that it lost out on $10.7 million in direct sales when Superstorm Sandy hit the US in 2012.

However some corporations also see climate change as a great opportunity, because where there is scarcity or even disasters, there are often profits to be made. There is already evidence that climate change is fueling land and water grabs as investment funds seek to capitalise on perceived future shortages. Even here in California there is a boom in mutual water funds buying up lots of water rights, and certain sectors such as private firefighter firms that are thriving as they deal with the climate-induced increase in fires during the summer months.

The trouble is, as we examined in the book, that security for the corporations can often mean dispossession for those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. For example, land and water speculation – and even the development of so-called ‘climate-smart crops’- are leading to the expansion of industrial agriculture that usually only corporations can benefit from and often do so by dispossessing small-scale farmers.

Lynne: That’s a disheartening but not surprising view of corporations out for their own gain. So how do you see the military responding to our struggling world?  What primary role does the military see for itself as climate change progresses?

Nick: The military, like corporations, are used to looking at long-term threats. Unlike politicians, both the military and corporations are not constrained by our short electoral cycles, so they look well beyond the next five years. Back in 2003, the Pentagon first raised the alarm about the potential of climate change to affect the US national security, and in subsequent years developed a series of analyses on the threat of climate change. This was broadly welcomed by many, including environmental groups – after all, military generals could hardly be called tree-huggers, so their advocacy for climate action was seen as a way to bring climate skeptics on board. However if you look closely at Pentagon documents, their primary objective is how to keep its military assets secure – the US has 1774 military bases on coasts worldwide, many of them already threatened by sea-level rise.

Their secondary objective is to anticipate future conflicts that may affect US ‘strategic’ interests, and this seems to have given rise to a whole series of scenarios that read more like dystopian science-fiction rather than reality. In these war-gaming scenarios, a climate-changed world is painted as one full of conflicts over resources, mass migration and failed states, in which the US will have to defend its interests in an ever more dangerous world.

Climate change is called a ‘threat multiplier’ likely to make every conflict worse. The danger of this is that it turns those who are most vulnerable from climate change into threats. It compounds an inherent injustice with climate change: those least responsible for climate change are most affected by its impacts. Now in the views of military strategist from the richest countries, they are additionally seen as threats that must be protected against. In place of solidarity or real action to prevent worsening climate change, those most affected are treated not as victims of the most developed nations on the planet, but as threats to them.

Lynne Nittler: This is indeed a discouraging view of how corporations and the military each are planning for a climate-changed world.  If you stand back, what are the dangers the vast majority of us will face when the military-corporate strategies converge?   Put another way, who will be protected?

Nick: I think what unites both military and corporate strategies is an idea of ‘security’, which essentially means guarding an unjust status quo, in which 1% of the world owns 50% of the world’s wealth. This injustice can be seen in the realm of climate too: just 90 corporations have created 63% of global greenhouse gas emissions; meanwhile the Pentagon is the single largest user of petroleum in the world. The Pentagon, powerful corporations, and rich elites are the real threats to our future, but there is nothing in corporate or military strategies that seeks to right this injustice. Rather they seek to secure their own interests, even at the cost of those most vulnerable.

People most affected by climate change may have no choice but to protest to defend their rights or migrate from their homes, but face a world in which exercising their right to live is ever more likely to be met with violence by police and the military ‘protecting’ those least affected by climate change. We need to turn this unjust world upside down and look to see what we can do to protect those who are most vulnerable, and to call those most responsible for climate change to account.

Lynne Nittler: It seems President Eisenhower had it right way back in the 1950’s with his warning, “Beware the industrial military complex.” But can you offer us something hopeful now?  Can you share another vision of how you and I and millions more could reclaim a livable planet and create a different future scenario?   You called it “finding security” in your conclusion.

Nick: I think that climate change poses the biggest existential threat humanity has faced. There is no doubt that we will face immense challenges as sea levels rise, droughts and high temperatures increase, and extreme weather events happen with ever more regularity. Indeed many parts of the world are already confronting this situation with far less resources than the US has.

However, I think we have a real choice in how we respond. The UK’s former climate negotiator, John Ashton said “Climate change is a mirror in which we will all come to see the best and the worst of ourselves”. We can pull up the drawbridge, militarize our borders, hand over power to corporations and the military, or we can say that the climate crisis is actually a challenge for us to do things differently – to share wealth, build communities, put people and the planet above profits, engage in solidarity to ensure that those who are most vulnerable to climate change are the first to be protected. I draw a lot of hope from the fact that researchers who study disaster response find that rather than leading to dog-eat-dog situations, disasters more often prompt amazing acts of solidarity and altruism. Hurricane Sandy is a good example: at one point 60,000 volunteers had self-organized to provide food, water, and shelter to those who were most affected in New York.

Lynne Nittler: What motivated you to write this book? Who were you and Ben Hayes trying to reach?

Nick: For a few years, I was working with the Bolivian government’s climate change negotiation teams at the UN climate summits – and saw firsthand what it was like to be a small developing country on the front lines of climate change impacts desperately pushing for meaningful action from the world’s richest country. Yet even today, the commitments by the world’s most polluting nations are terribly inadequate. The Paris Accord is merely a promise to act and yet still threatens a world where temperatures rise to more than three degrees. This made me wonder what nations were doing to prepare for climate change that they knew was inevitable by virtue of their inaction.

That is when I became aware that the military and corporations were some of the few institutions actually making preparations for the impacts of climate change. Some cities are planning for the future, but very few community organizations and social movements are really looking at the issue. I thought it is critical that – while we must still focus on doing everything we can to stop worsening climate change –  we also need to think about how we best respond to its impacts.

Lynne Nittler: I just finished Kathleen Dean Moore’s latest book, Great Tide Rising, which may be a good companion book to yours. While your book shows us the depth of the problems we face and some ways we can come together, her book points the way towards our own clarity and moral courage to act together in this time of planetary change.  We have the clarity and resolve to stand up to corporate indifference and greed that harm our only planet and the military might that views the vulnerable as a threat to defend against.  What are our chances of tipping the scales away from military and corporate dominance?

Nick: I think the election of Donald Trump is evidence that a promise of security – whether building walls or bombing terrorists – is alluring to a significant number of people who feel insecure economically or marginalized politically. We don’t know what will happen in the coming years, but the evidence suggests the new government is unlikely to challenge corporate interests and that there will be little restraint in resorting to militarized solutions to complex problems.

Yet despite that, I do remain hopeful of tipping the scales towards justice. There is growing awareness of the costs of militarism after the Iraq war, issues of inequality and corporate influence on politics have become part of mainstream debate, and social movements in the US – whether the tens of thousands of Native Americans currently resisting the North Dakota Access pipeline or the Black Lives Matter movement protesting deaths by the police – are growing and having ever more impact.

Most of all, I think when we humanize- and give a face – to what is happening to fellow members of the human family, people’s natural instinct is towards empathy and compassion. I saw this in Europe where a media and politically-instigated hostility to a faceless mass of migrants was swept aside by one photo of a 3 year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose tragic death suddenly felt like one in our family. That photo unleashed a wave of compassion and kindness that you can see in countless refugee solidarity initiatives in Europe that continue today. I think it will become increasingly clear that a world based on walls and violence is a world no-one wants to live in. Our only way forward in the face of climate change is to recognize our interconnectedness and to walk this journey together.