The climate security agenda is more about strengthening military power than tackling climate instability

Interview with Nick Buxton by Nuria del Viso.


Article by

A number of survivors were shot by police and the military in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the midst of racist media hysteria about looting. Photo of coastguard overlooking flooded New Orleans

NyxoLyno Cangemi/USCG

A number of survivors were shot by police and the military in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the midst of racist media hysteria about looting.

Since you co-edited the book, The Secure and the Dispossessed, in 2015, which studied the militarisation of climate change, what has changed?

In the last seven years, the trends we identified in the book of promoting military and security solutions to the climate crisis have sadly become more entrenched. In 2021, NATO made military preparations for climate change one of its key priorities, President Biden is integrating military perspectives on climate change into all areas of government, and the EU is well on its way to full-scale militarisation, particularly in the wake of the war on Ukraine. On the surface, the military taking climate change seriously sounds like a positive thing, but when you look deeper at their strategies it’s clear that it is mainly about strengthening military power rather than stopping worsening climate change. 

Spending on the military and other coercive forces by the richest countries have increased dramatically in the last decade, even while the richest countries are failing to deliver their promised climate finance to developing countries that would help countries cope with climate change. A recent report by TNI, the Global Climate Wall, showed that the richest countries are spending more than twice as much on borders and immigration enforcement as they do on providing climate finance. In some cases it is worse: US spends 11 times as much.

This diversion of resources to securitising the climate crisis does nothing to address its root causes or to prevent it getting worse. Rather it ends up turning its victims into ‘threats’ that must be dealt with militarily. It is an irrational and deeply inhumane way of responding to the climate crisis.

On the positive side, there is more awareness of the dangers of militarising the climate crisis. At the UN climate talks in Glasgow, COP26, a major coalition of peace and environmental organisations came together to oppose militarisation and demand cuts in military emissions. The global movement to demand justice as the main response to climate change continues to grow in numbers and impact.

2. Military strategies on climate change emphasis the potential conflicts and violence that will result from climate change, despite academic investigations showing no such link. Who benefits from these narratives? Is it a way of introducing militarism into our imaginaries?

I think the belief that climate change will necessarily lead to conflict has become hegemonic. It is a narrative that is clearly strongly promoted by both military planners and the arms industry who by nature of their political and economic power have made it feel like ‘common sense’.  NATO’s strategy in 2021 for example says that climate change will ‘exacerbate state fragility, fuel conflicts, and lead to displacement, migration, and human mobility, creating conditions that can be exploited by state and non-state actors that threaten or challenge the Alliance’.

Yet as you say when you look at the evidence for this, there is very little. The IPCC’s recent WGII report for example, which represents the best current consensus of the scientific community, says "Compared to other socioeconomic factors the influence of climate on conflict is assessed as relatively weak (high confidence)’.

This is not to say that climate isn’t a factor, but that what ultimately matters is the structures of society and government and how they respond to climate impacts. Moreover, the IPCC goes on to say that the real drivers of conflict are ‘patterns of intersecting socio-economic development, unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, marginalization, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, and governance (high confidence)’. Of course these patterns are inherent in our current unjust global economy, which powerful interests have little interest in fundamentally changing, so it is perhaps no surprise that the richest countries’ governments prefer to focus their attention on responding to rather than tackling the underlying causes of the climate crisis.

3. The notion of scarcity is also presented as a given, while at the same time there is a growing privatisation and securisation of access to water, food and energy. Is there a connection?

The concepts of scarcity and security are closely linked. All the security narratives are based on the ideas of scarcity, including the ideas about conflict I mentioned before. The narrative is that climate change will cause scarcity which will therefore prompt conflict that needs a security response. It supports and entrenches the role of the military and security industry.

The focus on scarcity also tends to strengthen a win-lose proposition, where we need to compete and fight for the same scarce resources, rather than think through how to ensure everyone’s right to basic human needs is fulfilled. It strengthens the position of corporations who argue that the solution is to increase production and profits – in the case of food, for example, to intensify industrial agriculture as well as to invest in technofixes such as ‘climate smart agriculture’. Again, the assumptions elide bigger structural questions, such as who faces scarcity and who doesn’t, what systems exacerbate that scarcity and what alternatives could be found. We know for example that there is plenty of food in the world for everyone, but maldistribution means that there is obesity in some countries and famine in others, or sometimes both phenomena in the same country. We also know that up to a third of food is wasted due to the practices of industrialised farming, supermarkets and globalised supply chains.

At this conjunction, we should not be looking for solutions from a corporatised industrial agriculture that have caused the climate crisis (industrial food systems are estimated to make up between 21% and 37% of emissions) and fuelled massive inequality in access to land and food. Instead we should be building solutions based on land reform, food sovereignty, and international collaboration.

Illustration by Othman Selmi

Illustration by Othman Selmi

4. Despite the warm words of the world’s leaders, their response still follows the pattern of inaction or even actions that worsen the climate crisis? Why are we failing to act on the scale we need? Is it down to over-powerful corporations or governments fearful of taking unpopular measures?

It's a huge challenge for progressive forces as we face two hegemonic and interlinked ideas – first that the market is the best system for allocating resources and second that security is the best response to the inequities caused by the subsequent unjust allocation of resources.

However, the calls for systemic change are growing louder, from the scientific community as well as some political and business leaders. At COP26, the climate movement was more solidly in support of both justice and systemic change than before, led by the likes of Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate whose school strikes are now calling to ‘uproot the system’ that creates climate change.

However the consciousness and public concern is yet to be sufficient to challenge the highly entrenched economic and political power of corporations and the military. There is the theory of a tipping point that suggests that once proposals are supported by around 25% of the population that it can prompt widespread changes. Interestingly they note that campaigns that may be close to this often feel they have failed when they are actually on the cusp of major change that they cannot predict, something I think is definitely possible today. But I also think it requires social movements to be more focused on building up durable popular power mechanisms, whether that is renewing traditional social movements like trade unions, in new alliances such as in progressive cities, or new movements with clear goals and durable structures so they can sustain and push through political change.

5. There is a debate about the term ‘security’. Some argue to broaden the concept to include notions of ‘human security’; others propose to leave the term behind and use other concepts such as climate justice? Where do you sit in this debate?

I have mixed and contradictory thoughts on this. On the one hand, I respect and admire those who push for human security or other concepts too like ecological security based on a very different set of values to military doctrines and national security frameworks. I have sympathy with their argument that progressive forces should not cede the word ‘security’ to the military and should rather question what really provides security – healthcare or weapons for example? However, I also feel that given the structural power of the military and national security apparatus that they will dominate both the discussion but especially the policy development and more easily manipulate the term to their advantage than those suggesting different types of security. What I see is the national security apparatus using the breadth and vagueness of the term ‘security’ to their advantage to win public acceptance for their climate security work and to avoid scrutiny of their proposals. After all who can be opposed to security? So overall, I sit on the side of opposing the term as it has become too coopted. I am more in favour of social movements using different terms such as ‘safety’ or ‘justice’, always focused on how any policies affect those most impacted by climate change.

7. COVID-19 has led to measures that are nationalist in character or that mainly benefit corporations. This could equally be the frame for the majority of responses to climate change? How do we change the trajectory to a more solidarity-based, ecocentric response?

COVID-19 showed on the one hand how essential public responses based on communal safety and solidarity were to addressing a crisis such as a pandemic. However, on the other hand it opened the door for nationalistic responses, corporate profiteering as well as a normalisation of emergency security measures that will have repercussions in years to come. 170 countries declared states of emergency in the wake of the pandemic, and this has facilitated new waves of police repression, increased and unaccountable surveillance including of people’s bodies and health. Not surprisingly this has impacted marginalised people the most – street vendors, refugees, racialised minorities – as well as protestors.

Like COVID-19, climate change is a global phenomenon that does not respect borders. There are no nationalist solutions to these crises as we are discovering with the rise of new variants in countries with less vaccinated people. Lasting just solutions requires collaboration, prioritisation of public interest, and global solidarity. The only way to get there is to show how these policies benefit everyone, to model the practices of solidarity in the communities we live in, and to push cities, regions or states to adopt them in order to construct climate and health justice from below.

8. The invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions on Russian gas has demonstrated the dependence of Europe energetically and also led to rapid rise in rearmament of big powers? What do you think will be the short and long-term consequences of this war?

I fear it’s going to have as significant impacts long-term as 9/11 did. The war suggest that we are entering a new world of inter-imperialist conflicts whose impacts will ricochet globally. In terms of energy, I hope it will lead to a drive towards renewables but I fear instead it will drive a new wave of drilling of gas and oil to create so-called self-sufficiency. My biggest concern is that it is going to drive a new wave of military spending, at exactly the time when we need investment in building a new green economy, and that it will lead to a time of bellicosity when we need to find collaborative approaches to respond to climate change.

Ultimately, the meaning of this moment will be determined by the balance of political forces. If we mobilise to show that fossil fuel economies have created the conditions for conflict and that we need to forge a new environmentally focused peace economy, then we could turn a terrible moment into something hopeful.

Ideas into movement

Boost TNI's work

While you're here please consider making a donation to support our work. We're committed to making our valued research available for use without charge but we need your help. If everyone reading this gave just €12 we could sustain our work for three years. 

Make a donation