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Turtles and Tomahawk Missiles, Together at Last? War is Not the Answer to Climate Change

(Photo: Spc. Kim Browne / US Army)

The tendency to invoke a national security framework in discussions of climate change can lead to misguided and opportunistic policies centered on greenwashed imperialism.

Over the past few years a handful of liberal environmentalists, pundits and scientists have been co-opting the language and methods of the National Security State in order to declare a “War on Climate Change.”

A number of recent articles on the topic illustrate just how far militarism has coiled its way around climate change politics. A recent blog post by Joe Romm, an editor at Climate Progress, noted President Obama’s likely (and now actual) nomination of Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) as secretary of state. The article described Kerry as a “climate hawk” who “believes that climate change is the ‘biggest long term threat‘ to national security.”

Then there is the blog Climate Code Red, which published “Scientists call for war on climate change, but who on earth is listening?” on December 7, 2012. The magazine New Scientist, in a November 2, 2012 editorial: “The US military is a useful ally on climate change,” it exclaimed. “Letting the military lead the way might be the best way to build a new energy economy.” The editorial lauds the Pentagon’s ability to generate research dollars, and as a result develop new markets for new technologies.” Greens, too, should support the man oeuvre … when you’ve got a war to fight, it helps to have the big boys on your side.”

And three days after the New Scientist editorial, Boston Globe columnist Juliette Kayyem wrote, “After Sandy, environmentalists, military find common cause,” adding to the chorus of voices singing the praises of the National Security State’s interest and involvement in climate change.

Kayyem, coincidentally a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, wrote, “War might be an entirely accurate – and now even more appropriate – word to describe the urgency of the effort to curb climate change … because climate change poses a continuing and unpredictable threat to national and global security.” The Pentagon first ranked climate change as a national security threat in 2010, and in November 2012 the National Academy of Sciences sounded alarms in a report that noted “the security establishment is going to have to start planning for natural disasters, sea-level rise, drought, epidemics and the other consequences of climate change.” However, the Boston Globe’s Kayyem does point out that the Pentagon’s involvement is not driven by altruistic humanitarian or ecological concern, but rather US geopolitical interests, such as the potential threat to US military bases around the globe as a result of a rise in sea-level.

The latest war metaphor was coined by Grist staff writer David Roberts in an October 2010 column, “Introducing ‘climate hawks‘.” Roberts says he wanted a new label to define a new subset of people concerned with climate change and clean energy. For Roberts, traditional environmentalists should not be leading the discussion on climate change. No, Roberts wanted to create a name that could bring people together from the usually opposed corporate, military and activist communities. He asked his readers for ideas, although “climate hawk” ended up being proposed by one of his colleagues at Grist. Roberts explains why he liked the term:

First and foremost, it doesn’t carry any implications about The Truth. It doesn’t say, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m smarter and more enlightened than you.’ Instead it evokes a judgment: that the risks of climate change are sufficient to warrant a robust response…. It becomes about values, about how hard to fight and how much to sacrifice to defend America and her future…. The health of Mother Earth just doesn’t move that many people. For better or worse, more Americans respond to evocations of toughness in the face of a threat. In foreign policy a hawk is someone who, as Donald Rumsfeld used to put it, ‘leans forward,’ someone who’s not afraid to flex America’s considerable muscle, someone who takes a proactive attitude toward gathering dangers.

Climate Progress’s Romm chose “Climate Hawk” as their phrase of the year in 2010. But the term has been gaining ground. More recently, after November’s election, it was used in a headline by Mother Jones,”Five Climate Hawks Who Won Tuesday”, demonstrating that the term is finding its way into mainstream environmental vernacular.

A “climate hawk” flexes muscles, fights and – most importantly – defends America. The term and the reasoning co-opt the language and logic of masculinity, militarism and nationalism, and thus perpetuate a cultural ailment that afflicts US society and how it approaches national and international dilemmas (think War on Drugs, War on Terror, etc.)”Any term one chooses to describe a movement will be more inviting to some and more alienating to others,” said Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at University of Texas at Austin’s College of Communication. “Someone like me, who has been a harsh critic of US militarism and imperialism and an advocate for radical change to deal with climate, doesn’t care what a movement is called, because the work goes on.”

According to George Lakoff, Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, the use of the term “climate hawk” and using national security within a climate frame are ambiguous and open to interpretations. He believes that a term like “climate hawk” and the nexus between climate change and national security are being used by some with the intention of instilling the urgency of the situation to our health as a nation and the need for aggressive policy and action. “Resorting to turning climate policy over to the Defense Department is certainly a failure,” said Lakoff, of a possible misinterpretation. “I don’t think that is what either Romm or Kerry has in mind.”

However, in its militarism, the term can alienate women, who are often on the front lines of climate struggle. “Many would argue that a culture of militarized nationalism is firmly established in the US, and that patriarchy directly relates to this culture. Patriarchy marginalizes that which is associated with femininity while privileging masculinity,” said Nicole Detraz, assistant professor of political science at the University of Memphis. “Societal depictions of women as caregivers or mothers, and men as leaders or fighters establish men as the ‘most appropriate’ actors to take care of the real world of security.”

Militarism has been creeping into the mainstream environmental movement for years. On December 4, 2012, The World Wildlife Federation announced it would use drones to track poachers in Africa, thanks to a $5 million grant from Google. Al Jazeera correspondent Eddie Walsh examined the global implications of non-state actors engaging in drone surveillance and other international security activities. Private military security contractors operating largely with impunity in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones already have brought similar issues to light.

“I strongly believe militarism stands in the way of achieving progress on climate change,” said Betsy Hartmann, director of the population and development program and professor of development studies at Hampshire College, who currently focuses on the militarization of climate change in her research and writing. “Linking climate change and national security is a dangerous road to go down.”

First “climate hawks,” now “enviro-drones.” While climate change does have the capacity to cause destabilization in areas of the world, as well as become an existential threat for many, looking at this through a national security framework divides the world between us and them, while reinforcing the dangerous notion of American exceptionalism. “Using this language suggests that there are no solutions, so we have to fight,” added Hartmann.

Unfortunately, this is a road we have been traveling down for some time now, and adopting foreign policy discourse and tools exacerbates this troubling tendency.

According to Detraz, whose research critically examines the environment, security and gender, the trend of “utilizing security discourse” for national and international problems dates back to the Cold War. “There is typically a perception that security issues garner a great deal of attention and resources, and that framing environmental issues as security issues can tap into this,” said Detraz. “For these reasons, environmentalists who want to raise awareness of climate change may use concepts/terms like climate security, the insecurity of energy dependence, or environmental conflict.”

In a 2009 editorial, The New York Times advocated securitizing environmental discourse. Lamenting Congress’s failure to pass legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, it argued in an editorial, “The Climate and National Security,” that, “Proponents of climate change legislation have now settled on a new strategy: Warning that global warming poses a serious threat to national security,” and that it was “pretty good politics” because “many politicians will do anything for the Pentagon.” Hampshire’s Hartmann said that this strategic decision by mainstream environmentalists is a testament to the power of the fossil fuel industry and climate denial in this country.

Also in 2009, the CIA opened the Center on Climate Change and National Security. But when a historian at the National Security Archived sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA for copies of its reports on climate change the request was denied because the agency said the information was classified. Another example of the “benefits” of the CIA’s partnership with climate change activists comes courtesy of WikiLeaks. The US State Department, acting at the behest of the CIA, sent out a directiveseeking human intelligence on UN diplomats,” as well as “compromising intelligence on the officials running the climate negotiations” to undermine and manipulate the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, as the Guardian reported in two separate articles on Dec. 3, 2010.

The Obama Administration ended up closing the CIA’s center on climate change in November 2012. “The goal of the intelligence apparatus is to help make Americans safer and more secure,” Romm, also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Public Radio International’s (PRI) program, “Living on Earth” on December 6, 2012. “And, since global warming is clearly a growing threat to our security, both directly and through how it affects countries that we have an interest in, we need to focus the CIA’s and the Pentagon’s thinkers on climate change.”

Do we? Professor Detraz argues that if actors adopt a relatively narrow, environmental conflict discourse we are likely to get policies that are narrowly focused on protecting and enhancing state security.

An October 2011 report prepared by the Defense Science Board, which advises the secretary of defense, supports Detraz’s argument. “The United States, however, has neither the knowledge nor the resources needed to produce widespread amelioration. US resources must be focused on the most serious US national risks,” it reads. The report, which pays particular attention to Africa, also pointed out, “In some instances, climate change will serve as a threat multiplier, exacerbating tensions between tribes, ethnic groups and nations. In other cases, [it] will seem more like Mother Nature’s weapon of mass destruction.”

“It’s dangerous that some liberal environmentalists bought into this climate conflict narrative about poor people of color becoming violent when climate change makes resources scarce. This narrative draws on deep-seated stereotypes of Africans in particular as savages and barbarians, incapable of technological and institutional innovation or cooperation,” said Hartmann. “The media loves this stuff because fear sells in this country, especially racialized fears of poor people. The tragedy is that this approach works against the kind of international solidarity we need to build popular, democratic and effective solutions to climate change.”

There have been other national security climate change projections of regional destabilizations caused by famine, droughts, subsequent migration flows, as well as wars fought over resources. This also calls into question the term “climate refugees,” a depoliticized term that minimizes or fails to consider the socioeconomic factors and institutionalized structures of racism and oppression that make certain populations more vulnerable to environmental instability.

“One of the strongest critiques of environmental security discourses [is] that they result in othering populations, many of whom are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change impacts. It is true that when institutions from the global North have discussed climate migrants they have tended to assume that it is a problem of people from Southern states entering their borders,” according to Detraz.

This can lead racist, xenophobic backlashes by both state actors and right-wing movements. “I advocate using narratives that highlight the human security threats that stem from environmental degradation, and the economic, social, and political vulnerabilities that make environmental insecurity a very real experience for millions of people,” she added.

As the Defense Science Board points out, it is not about stopping or reversing climate change, but rather the focus is about mitigating and adapting to projected crises that threaten US national security interests. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves. These interests are guided by maintaining US global hegemony and unfettered access to the world’s resources, not empathy, human rights or environmental sustainability. Accepting and perpetuating the narrative of climate security, and by talking about climate change through a national security framework, opens doors for the national security state to execute its imperial tools, with a new imperial alibi: a new, green humanitarian imperialism, with some NGO’s, International Financial Institutions, and academics serving as accessories. This is another method of preserving the global world order and Western-based notions of development.

For instance, the Pentagon’s enlisting of academics in its war efforts has stirred controversy in the recent past with university anthropologists helping the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq and University of Kansas geographers mapping indigenous land in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Scientific American reported in March 2012 in an article, “US Defense Department Develops Map of Future Climate Chaos” that University of Texas researchers, courtesy of a 5-year $7.6 million defense department grant, will be creating maps to show “where vulnerability to climate change and violent conflicts intersects throughout the African continent.” The US has expanded military operations in recent years with the creation of AFRICOM, something viewed as driven by “resource exploitation and imperial expansion,” and announced in December that it will be increasing troops and drones for 2013. The continent is in the midst of a natural resource boom, and China’s growing presence in the continent’s resource markets has bothered Washington and is perceived as challenging US hegemony in the region.

Also lurking in the dark imaginations of Pentagon planners could be something akin to regional military climate change operations – think Plan Colombia for climate change, and how the War on Drugs is not exclusively about stopping or controlling drug trafficking or consumption.

Guatemala has already provided an example of so-called environmental security. In 2010, then-president of Guatemala Alvaro Colom created a “green battalion” allegedly to protect Laguna del Tigre National Park Maya Biosphere Reserve in the department of Petén. But the creation of the battalion was the result of an agreement with French oil company Perenco. According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, “Colom said oil drilling is not the cause of environmental damage in that region and instead put the blame on land invasions by small farmers and cattle raising.” Indeed, this prediction seems to be coming true. “Some of these soldiers have taken part in forced evictions of communities living inside the park and are currently responsible for what amounts to a state of siege for those still living inside. Not only are the 25 to 30 communities inside the park forbidden from cutting a tree without a permit, they are under constant pressure from soldiers and armed park rangers,” wrote journalist Dawn Paley, writing for Briarpatch magazine in July 2012. In the US we’ve seen private mercenary company Blackwater called upon for security in response to natural disaster Hurricane Katrina, while BP hired private security contractors in 2010 to keep reporters away from the beaches after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

It is sad that a national discussion on climate change that points to facts, science, solidarity and peaceful democratic measures has been lost on some people and deemed ineffective. Nevertheless, Lakoff, who is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, a book widely believed to have influenced the Democratic Party and progressive organizations, points out that, “Peace, justice, and equality have been tried and don’t even motivate liberals, despite their truth.” But the voices that apply these principles risk being excluded from the conversation as a militaristic, fear-mongering framework gains more traction. It is important to examine the cultural pathologies that have taken us down this “dangerous road.”

“Human beings have always had a capacity for violence, but not all societies are pathological in their glorification of violence. I believe the root of this pathology is patriarchy, the foundational hierarchy of men over women,” said the University of Texas’s Jensen. “The domination-subordination dynamic at the heart of patriarchy defines our world, including our conceptions of nation, of racial identity, of wealth accumulation.”

This also currently defines our relationship with nature, which in modern times has been driven by accumulation and domination. Responses guided by this pathos, whether it is through militarism or scientific “panaceas,” such as genetically modifying agriculture or geoengineering, further illustrate this mentality.

So where do we begin?

“We start by recognizing that the story of progress, technological solutions and endless bounty are a fantasy. We face the fact that the human species is now facing an end to the endless expansion of the fossil fuel era and a permanent contraction,” said Jensen. “We start by growing up.”

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