The War on Climate Change

Framing climate change as a national security threat risks inviting the conventional response: more militarism.

A boy holds up bullets in Darfur. Albert González Farran / UN

Bernie Sanders has twice called climate change the United States’ “biggest threat to national security.” The first time was during the inaugural Democratic debate on October 13. The second was in its comparatively little-watched sequel, which aired hours after eight ISIS-affiliated European nationals sporting bomb-equipped vests opened fire on diners, sports enthusiasts, and Eagles of Death Metal fans around Paris.

“Climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism,” Sanders bellowed in response to CBS moderator John Dickerson’s question. “And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re going to see countries all over the world . . . struggling over limited amounts of water [and] land to grow their crops, [and] you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.”

By the time the onslaught on the French capital was over, it had claimed at least 129 lives and injured hundreds more. This week, the city will host the twenty-first annual conference of parties, or COP21, gathering world leaders and civil society groups to figure out how to curb carbon emissions and, ideally, rising temperatures.

Since the utter collapse of benchmark negotiations in 2009, COP21 has been hailed by environmentalists as a final chance for world governments to commit to a binding treaty that can stave off the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change. What connects the climate talks to ISIS’s heinous attack is not necessarily terrorism itself, as Sanders’ statements might suggest. It’s how hawkish, well-armed states react to it, and anything else they perceive as an existential threat.

The French and US governments’ militarized response to terrorism is an indication of how they may react to the climate crisis that COP21 is attempting to address. Sanders, green groups, and progressive forces should point to the links between climate change and political instability — but they should also be on the lookout for solutions that conflate climate fixes with national security.

To begin, Sanders may have overstated the case, but he isn’t exactly wrong: rising global temperatures likely played some part in strengthening ISIS in the Middle East.

The Department of Defense and others have noted that between 2006 and 2010, climate-change-fueled droughts killed off 70 percent of Syrian farmers’ livestock, driving hundreds of thousands of economic refugees into crowded cities. Faced with scarce resources, the many protesting food shortages were polarized against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarianism and pushed toward religious extremists who were, as Juan Cole put it, “everything the state was not” — distributing water, food and oil that Assad had failed to.

Yet drawing causal links between climate change and terrorism remains a dangerous oversimplification. The Iraq War, Assad’s harsh repression of protests, and his brazen mismanagement of his country’s natural resources were all at least as, if not more, influential factors driving the group’s recruitment efforts. Long term, however, the case for a relationship between climate change and conflict is more compelling: over time, increasing bouts of extreme weather threaten to make the planet an altogether less stable place ecologically, socially, and politically.

Yet even the most robust of international agreements that could be reached at COP21 will have no impact on foreign policy for at least the next several decades. So while Michael T. Klare’s assertion that COP21 could be “the most significant peace convocation in history” may not be wrong, it demands one hell of a footnote.

Echoing Klare, green groups organizing around COP21 have recently been framing the negotiations as an opportunity for peace.’s Nicolas Haeringer, for example, wrote in an email to that group’s list that climate change “fans the flames of conflict in many parts of the world — through drought, displacement, and other compounding factors,” calling COP21 “perhaps the most important peace summit that has ever been held.”

A truly comprehensive agreement to take on climate change at the international level would bring about a more peaceful world — eventually — by greatly diminishing the possibility of massive land loss and a rise in temperatures that is, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson has said, “incompatible with organized global community.” It’s impossible to imagine any peaceful vision for the future without serious mitigation. That so many are now raising the question of the relationship between global warming and national security, rather, begs the question: should a climate strategy also be a counterterrorism strategy?

The response to the Paris attacks has shown one path forward in our climate-changed future: an escalation of unwinnable wars, more militarized borders, and an expansion of state power fed by anxious nationalism.

In France, President Francois Hollande declared the country’s first state of emergency since the Algerian War in 1961, granting security forces the power to act sans judicial oversight and shut down public spaces for the next three months. In total, 115,000 police and soldiers have been deployed around the country, as drones conduct a fresh round of bombings on ISIS strongholds — and whatever civilians happen to be nearby. Hollande also hopes to suspend the Schengen Agreement, which has enabled free movement within European Union borders for the last thirty years.

Stateside, the New York Times slammed CIA Director John Brennan for exploiting the attacks in Paris to further expand the United States’ already bloated security apparatus. Hollande made an official visit to the White House last Tuesday, resulting in Obama re-upping his support for an all-out European attack on ISIS and further intelligence sharing between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere around COP21 itself has been tense — which is doubly concerning in light of the significant role protests, festivals, and movement-led side events have historically played in the COP process.

Before the attacks, the United Nations had already planned to use 30,000 police to reintroduce checks at 285 points along the border — three cops for every four delegates. Now, officials have announced they will cancel any “outside events” planned to coincide with the negotiations, and further restrict access to the immediate radius around the compound where talks will take place. Already, French police have used state of emergency provisions to conduct raids on climate organizers’ homes, and placed at least twenty-four activists under house arrest in advance of the talks.

Despite Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ announcement that “a series of demonstrations planned will not take place and it will be reduced to negotiations,” international green groups said they would continue with the Global Climate March planned for today — only to have the French government cancel it. The only demonstrations that will be allowed are those “organized in closed spaces or in places where security can easily be ensured.”

In addition, journalists have found their requests for accreditations denied due to capacity concerns. (It deserves noting, too, that as-yet-unactivated emergency law provisions allow for control over the press and radio. And the last time emergency law was implemented throughout France, police killed an estimated two hundred North African protesters at a peaceful independence protest when commanding officer Maurice Papon — later tried in the Hague for rounding up Jews in Vichy France — instructed his men to open fire on a crowd in Paris during the Algerian War.)

Enhanced security measures mean that voices for an alternative path — one that might help us navigate through climate catastrophe and toward a more just, less violent world — will remain on the periphery at COP21, if they’re allowed to surface at all. Unsurprisingly, the same voices likely to be left out are also those most likely to push for the most comprehensive agreement — one that would demand the most from wealthy nations like France and the United States.

Pacific Island leaders’ Suva Declaration on Climate Change calls on developed nations to put $100 billion by 2020 toward funding climate adaptation and mitigation efforts in their countries, and to adopt a binding global commitment to cap warming at 1.5 degrees celsius.

The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance — which represents communities on the front lines of climate change in the United States and elsewhere — will go to Paris demanding mandatory emissions cuts; a rejection of fracking, nuclear power, and carbon markets; and that the protection of indigenous and human rights is central to whatever agreement is reached.

Voices like these, from grassroots groups and nations outside the Global North, have always fought for space at COP. While delegates from the Global South will still be granted access to negotiations, the French government’s crackdown on outside dissent will make it that much easier for their northern counterparts to control the process.

For better or worse, recent events may have little effect on what emerges from the COP: the details of the plan delegates will discuss were hashed out weeks ago in Germany. Still, that French authorities appear to be doing everything in their power to squelch dissent at COP21 is inexcusable, and will make pushing the agreement’s terms to the left all the more difficult. The political possibilities of Paris appear even more hollow than they already did.

Although the chances of realizing a more demanding and redistributive path at COP21 have always been slim, French and American zeal for ramping up security measures also shows how military behemoths deal with instability: by forcibly protecting the elite and criminalizing the rest, especially if they speak out.

Some feared that talk of ISIS and further security threats would derail climate talks in the wake of the Paris attacks. Yet the renewed focus on terrorism could actually heighten attention on the climate talks for world leaders. Climate activists, though, should be thoroughly skeptical of any climate strategy tied too closely to the protection of national interests.

As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Jennifer Harris told International Business Times, “If we make direct connections [between climate change and rising terror threats] in an irresponsible way, you potentially obscure positive solutions, or the right solutions” — like, say, Marshall Plan–style federal investment in renewables or humane policies for welcoming climate refugees. In other words, merging counterterrorism strategies with those to address climate change is playing with fire, in Paris and beyond.

Meanwhile, the US military has plenty of ideas for how to weather climate change’s storms. The Pentagon has been authoring reports on global warming’s security implications since 2003, and sees it as an “urgent and growing threat to our national security.”

Their 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap envisioned that, as climate change accelerates, “the Department’s unique capacity to provide logistical, material and security assistance on a massive scale or in rapid fashion may be called upon with increasing frequency.” The roadmap laid out a plan for confronting climate change’s “threat multiplier” as it relates to national and military interests at home and abroad, where rising sea levels put coastal bases at risk, wildfires might disrupt training activities, and drought-induced food shortages could require more boots on the ground to handle the armed insurgencies and mass migrations that appear to follow them.

In addition to the challenges warming poses to military properties and operations, then–Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrote that his department was “considering the impacts of climate change in our war games and defense planning scenarios, and . . . working with our Combatant Commands to address impacts in their areas of responsibility.”

In February, a White House national security memo looking toward COP21 reiterated the administration’s intention to “cement an international consensus on arresting climate change,” listing climate change as one of eight “top strategic risks to our interests.” The United States is not known to address national security threats peacefully. The response to climate change may be no different.

In France, the US, and elsewhere in the Global North, there’s another climate dystopia to be considered alongside apocalyptic fears of total inaction. It looks less like Mad Max’s free-wheeling, sandblasted dystopia than the infertile, militarized wasteland of Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 thriller set in a bleak future Britain where a police state has emerged for the express purpose of keeping refugees out.

Worldwide, estimates suggest that food shortages, rising seas, and natural disasters could create anywhere from 200 million to 1 billion climate refugees this century. Given the state-sanctioned xenophobia that has marked Europe’s refugee crisis, America’s presidential election, and the national responses to the Paris attacks, is it really so hard to imagine Global North police rounding them up at gunpoint like they do in Children of Men?

To be clear, inaction on climate is an option firmly on the table, in Paris and elsewhere. But certain kinds of action are just as scary. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive. If an international agreement fails to mitigate global warming’s most disastrous climactic effects, military forces are gearing up to contain their social and political impacts by force.

So what about that other path — the one that could shunt the financial burden of dealing with climate change onto the people who disproportionately contribute to it, strand fossil-fuel companies’ carbon-based assets in the ground, and protect the people currently on track to suffer the worst from changing weather?

The work of making sure any government pulls its full weight in taking on climate change will fall to the same movements that have forced the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, halted Shell’s Arctic drilling, and stopped coal-fired power plants and mining projects the world over.

Tragedies like the one in Paris have paralyzed movements before — most notably when 9/11 bowled through the global justice movement of the 1990s. Decarbonizing the economy will require political will that doesn’t yet exist; letting either the attacks in Paris or the militarization following it fragment popular movements now will ensure it’s never built.

COP21 remains an opportunity for climate movements, if dimmer and full of caveats. Reclaiming the right to democratic participation there — in spite of the French government’s best attempts — could define what peace against climate chaos really means. Movements must insist on leaving the military out of the equation, and send a clear signal that a war against climate change shouldn’t be literal.