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Climate Action Without War

What securitisation theory can tell us about starting a war on climate change.

by Alexa Waud

Let’s mobilise! Let’s decarbonise! Let’s take climate change seriously! Let’s fight a war! Which of the previous four calls to action does not belong? If you agree with the argument put forth by Bill McKibben in his August 2016 New Republic article, “A World At War”, the correct answer is none of the above – all of these claims belong together. The opening of McKibben’s article is much like other mainstream articles that advocate for climate action. It describes the disappearance of Arctic ice, the bleaching of coral reefs and the spread of wildfire in order to grab attention, evoke emotion and frame a call for government action. However, unlike most articles, McKibben advocates framing climate actions as wartime measures. He envisions executive action by a president to halt fossil fuel extraction on public land, set a price on carbon and, most importantly, initiate a massive industrial shift toward the manufacturing of renewable energy technology akin to arms production in World War II America. According to McKibben, “enemy forces” are gaining territory, releasing biological weapons, and inflicting casualties; therefore, as the article’s title demands, we need to declare a war on climate change. “It’s not that global warming is like a world war,” McKibben explains, “It is a world war, and we are losing.”

While as a self-proclaimed environmentalist I see the value in focusing attention on climate change and pushing for ambitious climate action, as a Peace and Conflict Studies student familiar with the dangers of war and securitisation, McKibben’s rhetoric strikes me as problematic. I am not alone in my objection to the proposal of climate action as war. David Roberts, an energy and climate change reporter for Vox, has written about the dangers of using war as a metaphor in climate action and whether or not it is even useful in garnering climate action. Eric Godoy and Aaron Jaffe, academics at the Pratt Institute and Julliard School respectively, have also written a response to McKibben’s piece, which appeared in the New York Times. These authors criticise the article’s industrial focus, how it ignores right-wing politics, and its departure from the environmental movement’s roots in non-violence. While these existing critiques are insightful, and set a basis for my analysis, bringing this article into conversation with the academic literature from the Copenhagen School of security studies, namely securitisation theory, makes the issues with McKibben’s wartime rhetoric especially apparent. Securitisation theory provides a precise vocabulary that can aid in our understanding of why being at war with climate change is an ineffective and unjust way to move forward.

An introduction to securitisation

The word “security” only makes one appearance in McKibben’s article, in reference to a Bernie Sanders quote from the democratic debate in October 2015. Despite its absence, in McKibben’s language, his sense of urgency, and the extraordinary actions for which he argues, it is clear that he is invoking the logic of security. The Copenhagen School’s literature on securitisation is complex, but its tenets are fairly straightforward. This summary of securitisation theory will miss many of the nuances conveyed by Copenhagen School scholars, namely Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde, but it will equip you with the vocabulary needed to analyse the effectiveness and ethics surrounding “the war on climate change”.

Securitisation is a concept used in international relations to describe the process through which something becomes an object of security. It is less concerned with what security is, and more concerned with the actions that move an issue from the realm of normal politics to emergency politics where is it understood to be an existential threat (usually this action involves a powerful actor saying something is a security issue). When an issue has been securitised, powerful actors can direct resources and attention towards the issue without going through the process of democratic debate. For this reason, scholars from the Copenhagen School see securitisation as compromising democracy, and advocate for bringing issues back into the realm of normal politics where they can be debated and discussed. To summarise:

  1. The Copenhagen School is interested in securitisation as a process.

  2. They see securitisation as a ‘speech act’, an analytical move that allows them to focus on the process of saying something, instead of what is being said. The act of speaking security opens the flood gates for a series of events.

  3. It is the securitising actor who starts the process by identifying an existential threat. The object that is threatened is called a ‘referent object’.

  4. If this threat resonates with and is accepted by an audience, the issue is given priority and can be dealt with using emergency measures as opposed to normal political processes.

It is this process of securitisation, the speech act and the application of emergency measures, that opens the path for McKibben’s large-scale industrial mobilisation to produce the green technologies needed to fight climate change. McKibben very clearly defines climate change as an existential threat, “a world war aimed at us all […] if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict – except this time there will be no winners.” McKibben does not take lightly the fact that climate change threatens our very existence, exactly the kind of tone a securitising actor takes to convince the audience that action must be taken now, outside of the realm of normal politics, and free from its delays.

Emergency measures and the breaking of rules

Securitisation theory explains how a speech act works to legitimise rule breaking. McKibben exemplifies this mentality by connecting the existential threat of climate change to the type of exceptional politics needed to fight it. His argument is made especially clear when he compares the mobilisation needed today with America’s entry into World War II. McKibben recalls the industrial shift that the United States experienced in the lead up to the war – the building and repurposing of massive factories for the war effort, F.D. Roosevelt’s executive orders, clashes with the Chamber of Commerce, the creation of special agencies and immense market control. Presented with the threat of Nazi Germany, Roosevelt did everything in his power to concentrate on the war effort. In this situation, and in the one which McKibben presents, the president assumes complete control, taking political action out of the realm of debate and, to some extent, public criticism. The main concern with this sort of action, as scholars Laurence Delina and Mark Diesendorf argue in a 2013 article, is that there is no guarantee that politics will return to normal after emergency measures are taken and the concentration of power may not be redistributed back among the public.

This is why the Copenhagen School advocates for the reassertion of democratic processes.

Addressing climate change democratically is challenging in the United States, in part because normal political systems are not entirely democratic, and certainly not equitable or efficient. Large corporations, the oil lobby, certain super PACs and other groups invested in the fossil fuel economy hold an exorbitant amount of power through the wealth and capital they invest in politics. These large and powerful actors have the ability to influence election results and policy. Big donors and powerholders in the US also hold views that are highly unpopular amongst average Americans, including a lack of environmental values. Successful securitisation does require an infringement on democratic processes, but in the American context, the need for emergency measures stems in part from existing undemocratic practices. I am not suggesting we should address these undemocratic policies and practices through even more undemocratic action, but attention needs to be drawn to existing power imbalances which must be factored into the Copenhagen School’s cost-benefit analysis of securitisation.

An existential threat, but from what enemy?

Enemy logic is in full force at the beginning of McKibben’s article, which opens with: “enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory […] this spring, the enemy staged a daring breakout across thousands of miles of ocean.” For the Copenhagen School, securitisation requires the identification of an enemy. McKibben does not shy away from using enemy rhetoric, but this makes his argument confusing. Who is the enemy?

The absence of a real enemy is not unique to McKibben’s article, but a problem for environmental security more broadly. When environmental issues become crises, they often move into traditional security sectors such as national security, where the enemy responsible for a threat can be more readily identified. For example, when resource depletion exacerbates a conflict, the environmental aspects of an issue are pushed aside and the warring parties instead find an enemy in one another. Similarly, once an island state is flooded by rising sea-levels, the issue becomes one of political security, shifting attention to mass migration and the acquisition of new land. In these cases, securitisation draws on more conventional images of enemy. In fact, much of the academic literature on the securitisation of climate change focuses on how it can worsen conflicts and displace climate refugees. These traditional security frameworks make it easier to identify an enemy – climate refugees who could destabilise our society by taking ‘American’ jobs, a warring party who want our limited resources – however, these enemies are paradoxically the victims of climate change. The changing climate can heighten existing tensions, contributing to reasons why refugees flee and resources become scarce. These people, presented as enemies of national security, are also the victims when the issue is framed in terms of environmental security. Securitisation, which easily makes the switch between environmental and national security sectors, therefore makes enemies of victims. Mobilising against the victims of climate change is a serious flaw in McKibben’s logic, and as viewed through the lens of securitisation theory, it contributes to the ineffective and unjust nature of the war on climate change.

A referent object – what is it we are protecting?

The referent object, which must be protected, is uniquely difficult to define in the case of environmental security, and McKibben flirts with a variety of referent objects in his article. At first glance, the natural environment appears to be the referent of environmental security. However, with close attention to McKibben’s language, it appears that he is advocating for the protection of civilization. McKibben uses the word “civilization” to describe the level of damage caused by climate change, claiming that it is “the first force fully capable of harrying, scattering, and impoverishing our entire civilization,” and that, “unlike Adolf Hitler, the last force to pose a planet-wide threat to civilization, our enemy today is neither sentient nor evil” (this last quote also expresses confusion surrounding the identity of the enemy). Securitisation theory shows us that if we are to really go to war and use emergency measures, we must know what we are protecting. This is once again a problem in the case of climate change.

It can be argued that the level of civilisation we have achieved is responsible for causing the climate crisis. Therefore when climate change is conceptualised as a war, we are trying to protect the very lifestyle that is supplying the enemy forces. This closed-system of cause and threat make the logic of war incompatible with climate action. By committing to protect a referent object, in this case the systems and structures which make up our civilisation, we are committing to a certain fixity. Adopting this logic makes changing our civilisation extremely difficult – it cannot be maintained and changed simultaneously. Climate action should focus on systems change, not systems protection, the latter a pillar of McKibben’s wartime logic.


McKibben’s call for a war on climate change, advocating a solution centred on emissions reductions, is ineffective and unjust because of the ‘us vs. them’ mentality, which makes enemies out of victims of climate change, and because his desire to protect a referent object fundamentally requires the preservation of inequalities. A wartime mentality rooted in violence and emergency will not break down structures of oppression, nor will it address the underlying causes of the climate crisis. Climate activists do indeed need attention-grabbing language and analogies to push the environmental agenda forward, but the rhetoric of war is counter-productive, and limits effective and just climate action. As securitisation theory helps to show, it is time to abandon the logic of war and turn to more effective solutions.

Illustration by Adam Story

Alexa Waud reads an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at St Antony's. She is an urban theory fanatic from Toronto.


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