What next – eco-imperialism?

The British government is making dubious links between climate change and conflict in an attempt to boost its moral authority in global affairs.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

The UN Security Council this week held its first ever debate on climate change and the potential threat that global warming poses to international security. British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, who chaired the meeting, organised the open session to highlight what she called the ‘security imperative’ to tackle climate change. According to Beckett, climate change can exacerbate problems that cause conflicts and threaten the entire planet. She was clearly very pleased with the UK-led initiative, stating that: ‘This is a groundbreaking day in the history of the Security Council, the first time ever that we will debate climate change as a matter of international peace and security.’ (1)

Not all the Council members agreed with her. The UK, currently holding the rotating council presidency, had to undertake a lot of ‘behind closed doors’ lobbying to even get the Council to agree to hold the open session (2). Even so, the discussion was marked by strong disagreements over whether the Security Council had the authority to deal with the issue of global warming and, as expected beforehand, no resolution was reached.

China’s deputy ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, was blunt in rejecting the session: ‘The developing countries believe the Security Council has neither the professional competence in handling climate change – nor is it the right decision-making place for extensive participation leading up to widely acceptable proposals.’ Russia also warned that the Council, whose mandate is only peace and security, was not the place to take concrete action on climate change (3).

The main argument raised against Beckett’s proposal was that the Security Council was stepping on to the territory of more democratic bodies, such as the UN General Assembly. The two major groups representing developing countries – the Nonaligned Movement and the Group of 77 – wrote separate letters accusing the Security Council of ‘ever-increasing encroachment’ on the role and responsibility of other UN bodies such as the 192-member General Assembly (4).

However, none of the participants in the debate challenged the substance of Beckett’s argument that climate change posed a major risk to international peace and security. The opposition from some of the Security Council’s permanent members and from many other states was posed in terms of the Security Council’s authority and mandate to deal with such an extensive issue. It would seem that even those states which spoke in favour of Beckett’s position, including the EU members and Japan, were less concerned with the substance of the argument than the desire to prioritise the issue of climate change itself. This was also clearly the case for UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who hopes that the higher profile given to the relationship between climate change and global conflict will lead the member states to support his initiative to create a new UN Environmental Organisation, in an effort to coordinate action on climate change (5).

Even in the case of the UK, which has been so keen to push the link between climate change and global security, the substance of the argument appears to be of little importance. It is as if any important issue must be, of its very nature, a security risk in our globalised and interconnected world; it seems that every threat is so great that only the concerted action of the world’s governments can deal with it. The UK has been keen to situate itself in the forefront of campaigning on climate change and Margaret Beckett argued some weeks ago that she hoped that the UN Security Council discussion would ‘foster a shared understanding of the way in which climate stress is likely to amplify other drivers of conflict and tension. This can only strengthen the commitment of the international community to the collective action that we urgently need.’ (6)

It would appear that the substantive evidence for linking climate change with conflict is secondary to the concern that urgent collective action is taken. Beckett hinted as much in her speech to business organisations in New York the day before the UN Security Council debate: ‘[T]he, perhaps rather sad, truth is that the international community will not move with the necessary urgency or the necessary resolve if climate change is seen as primarily something that affects insects, animals and plants. To steal a slogan from Amnesty International, we need to show that tackling climate change is about saving the human.’ (7)

For Beckett, the key issue is not so much the link between climate change and global conflict but the government’s desire to take the international moral high ground in stressing the urgency of action in relation to climate change. It is this that has driven Beckett to engage in presenting climate change as a global security threat.

She says: ‘Particularly over the past year, I have discussed the link between climate and security with many people. Some of them are sceptical. They respond that we can’t prove that climate change will lead to this or that particular event – still less that it will cause any one outbreak of violence or hostilities. But that is to misunderstand the issue and the argument. If you are looking for a simple, linear connection between climate change and a particular flashpoint, you are only picking up a glimpse of a much wider picture. The implications of climate change for our security are more fundamental and comprehensive than any single conflict.’ (8)

Beckett is clearly not, in fact, arguing that climate change causes conflict in any direct or straightforward way open to evidence-based debate. As the Guardian notes, ‘Britain refuses to site [sic] examples of global warming-related conflicts’ (9). The reason for this obvious: it is not possible to substantiate a linkage between global warming and conflict.

Even the alarmist CNA Corporation report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change – released the day before the UN Security Council meeting, in which 11 former senior US generals, including Anthony Zinni, retired chief of Central Command, and Gordon Sullivan, formerly the US army’s most senior general, called on the Bush administration to do more to tackle climate change – does not make any clear or direct links, despite arguing that ‘climate change is a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world’ (10).

The generals’ report links climate change to conflict only in the most non-specific and indirect terms: ‘Projected climate change will seriously exacerbate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and the likelihood of failed states.’ (11) From the generalised nature of the report and its focus on poor and marginal societies, it is clear that the problem it highlights is not climate change as such, but rather the political, economic and social context upon which climate change may have an impact. To see climate change or resource shortages as a cause of conflict would involve depoliticising conflict and naturalising social and economic conditions in the countries under analysis (12).

Even given that there can be no direct link between climate change and conflict, the report gives very little concrete evidence of conflicts in which climate change can be held to have played a major role. It admits that, despite its importance, ‘no recent wars have been waged solely over water resources’ and that ‘even tense disputes and resource crises can be peacefully overcome’ (13). When the report does venture a few cursory attempts to claim examples where resource scarcity is held to be a contributing factor – Rwanda, ‘furthered by violence over agricultural resources’, ‘the situation in Darfur, which has land resources at its root’, the 1970s overthrow of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie ‘through his government’s inability to deal with food shortages’, and the 1974 Nigerian coup ‘that resulted largely from an insufficient response to famine’ (14) – it is clear that the meaning and consequences of resource scarcity are social and political questions, not ones of environmental science, and certainly not ones liable to be ameliorated by any reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Beckett follows a similar approach to that of the CNA report in grouping a wide-range of problems together, including those of resource scarcity, land erosion, energy supplies and food production and distribution. Once these social, economic and political problems are reframed in terms of natural resources then she is able to proclaim that we should: ‘Think of the world today, then, as a dangerously simmering pot. An unstable climate risks that pot boiling over. And we ignore that risk – literally – at our peril.’ (15) Of course, if the risks are so great, the cause is ever more vital and heroic: ‘Now it is time for us to rise to our newest and biggest challenge: to fight the first great war of interdependence, the struggle for climate security.’ (16)

Underneath the Churchillian rhetoric that Beckett uses to declare that climate change is a ‘gathering storm’, comparable to the threat posed by Nazi Germany in an earlier era, lies an attempt to re-establish the UK’s moral and political standing in the world – not through old-fashioned militarism but through what the government clearly believes to be the UK’s strongest card: the power of rhetoric.

David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building.

Previously on spiked

Roger Bate and Richard Tren argued that the Stockholm convention to curb the use of DDT was disaster for the developing world. Brendan O’Neill met with the civil rights activist Roy Innis who believes eco-imperialism is the biggest threat to Africa. Daniel Ben-Ami exposed the dismal quackery of eco-economics. And Joe Kaplinsky explore how environmentalism puts plants before people. Or read more at: spiked-issue: Environment

(1) UN holds landmark climate change debate, CBC News, 17 April 2007
(2) ‘UN holds landmark climate change debate’, CBC News, 17 April 2007.
(3) UK puts climate change in UN Council, China objects, Evelyn Leopold, Reuters 17 April 2007
(4) ‘UN holds landmark climate change debate’, CBC News, 17 April 2007
(5) UK puts climate change in UN Council, China objects, Evelyn Leopold, Reuters 17 April 2007. Currently, the United Nations has nearly 400 meeting days a year on biodiversity, climate change, desertification and related subjects with over 30 agencies and programs involved in environmental projects.
(6) United Nations Report on Climate Change, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Press Release, 7 April 2007.
(7) Climate Change: The Gathering Storm, Margaret Beckett, Annual Winston Churchill Memorial Lecture, British American Business Inc., New York, 16 April 2007.
(8) ‘Climate Change: The Gathering Storm’, Margaret Beckett, 16 April
(9) UK to raise climate talks as Security Council issue, Ed Pilkington, Guardian, 16 April 2007.
(10) National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, CAN Corporation (Alexandria, Virginia: CAN Corporation, 2007), p.6.
(11) National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, p.6
(12) See, for example, the excellent treatment of civil conflicts in Christopher Cramer, Civil War is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries (London: Hurst & Co., 2006).
(13) National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, p.18
(14) National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, p.18
(15) Climate Change: The Gathering Storm, Margaret Beckett, 16 April
(16) Climate Change: The Gathering Storm, Margaret Beckett, 16 April
(17) UK to raise climate talks as Security Council issue, Ed Pilkington, Guardian, 16 April 2007.

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Topics Politics


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