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Securitizing Climate Change for Better Governance

The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks report produced a risk interconnection map that charts out an increasingly integrated and hyper-connected set of problems across multiple dimensions. Risks traditionally categorized as environmental risks can act as both a trigger and recipient to other risks including those that are economic, geopolitical, societal, and technological.


The end of the Cold War brought a new dimension to the study of international security. The Cold War framed international security as great power politics in a bipolar world oscillating between confrontation and détente. From this framework emerged an approach to security that focused on military balance. With the Soviet Union collapsing in 1991, a “threat vacuum” formed, and the realist tenets that had been central to traditionalist concepts of security, as defined by military power, faced challenges from alternative, nontraditional views. Those advocating for these alternative ways of thinking about security believed that the traditional state-centric, military-focused approach was insufficient to explain emerging threats.

The international security field thereafter widened and deepened. Wideners aimed to include diverse issues such as the environment, internal conflict, and economic crises as part of security affairs. Deepeners sought to discuss security with a greater degree of specificity. Concurrently, security concerns spanning national borders, including ethnic conflict, political instability, and international organized crime, formed a branch of analysis called transnational security. In 1994, the UNDP published a report that introduced a new concept into the discussion: human security. Simon Dalby, a leading academic in the field of environmental security, writes in his book, Security and Environmental Change, that “the concept of security has for too long been interpreted narrowly: as security of territory from external aggression, or as protection of national interest in foreign policy or as global security from the threat of a nuclear holocaust. It has been related more to nation-states than to people.” The concept of human security challenged the traditional view of security as state-centric, arguing that security is a universal concern relevant to people everywhere, with multiple, interdependent dimensions.

The human security concept has enabled a widening of the scope of discourse on security to include issues that are societal in nature. Implicit in societal security is that an issue is a matter of security if a society believes it to be an existential threat. In other words, society must perceive an issue to be of security concern before it actually is one. That perception plays an important role in framing security threats originates from Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver’s Copenhagen School, which suggests that security is a speech act whose repetition within the public sphere socializes the audience to accept the perception of danger. In the 21st century, the use of televisual imagery has had equal, if not greater, importance in political communication, with academics such as Michael C. Williams arguing that the images of the collapsing World Trade Center towers shown repeatedly on television after the September 11 terrorist attacks served to securitize the threat of terror. Continuing debates have led to arguments that security is not an objective fact and that securitization is a process in which a perceived problem is made a policy narrative with national and international implications—“a political act of mobilization of support for actions,” as Dalby states in Security and Environmental Change.

If indeed security is a socially constructed notion that lends itself to political manipulation by governments, lobbyists, media, and special interests, the widening and deepening of post-Cold War paradigms of security to include nontraditional concepts such as human security reflects modern society’s evolving values. The same can be said of securitizing the environment. With both state and non-state actors working towards the securitization of the environmental movement, increased interest and buy-in from the public have prompted greater dialogue on the security aspects of specific environmental issues such as land degradation, food security, water security, and climate change. One such example of a non-state actor is Pope Francis, who at an address to the UN General Assembly in September 2015 stated, “Any harm done to the environment…is harm done to humanity.”

Facing the Challenge of Complex Problems

Yet, while notions of security continue to evolve, the challenges we face today are also evolving. Threats were traditionally framed as complicated problems—challenges originating from isolated causes with clearly identifiable and distinct bureaucratic categories. Complicated problems could be dissected into isolated pieces, compartmentalized, and then put back together because they could be conceptualized in a linear fashion, with an input leading to an output. However, today’s challenges are increasingly interconnected, complex, and dynamic. As opposed to complicated problems, complex problems result from concurrent interactions across multiple systems. They cannot be compartmentalized. They cannot be understood in a piecemeal fashion, and if not addressed, they do not automatically stabilize, instead begetting consequences that cannot be systematically managed.

Climate change is by all metrics a complex problem. It is the result of an interaction of complex sets of non-linear systems that create consequences that, indeed, cannot be systematically managed—consequences that cannot yet be measured, especially if such systems overstep earth systems thresholds. In fact, the World Bank has called climate change a “wicked problem,” using the term developed by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973. Wicked problems, like complex problems, are problems that are difficult to solve due to incomplete and constantly changing requirements. Some scholars, including Richard Lazarus and Kelly Levin, have called climate change a “super wicked problem.” With a complex or wicked problem like climate change, not only is there a problem of reframing and securitizing complex challenges, there is also a deficit in understanding the governance mechanisms needed to address those challenges. We require a diverse body of knowledge from different fields of expertise, not acting as separate entities, but collaborating to develop a guided solution.

Despite the widening and deepening of topics in international security studies, security as a policy agenda is still caught within a Cold War mindset of linear causality and strategic predictability. With the signing of the Paris Agreement by 175 world leaders at the United Nations on April 22, 2016, the global movement towards climate action is gaining traction. Securitizing the issue of climate change, if done correctly and effectively, may help further highlight the threat it poses and attract greater buy-in, leading to resource mobilization, political prioritization, and, perhaps, the development of new governance mechanisms to help tackle this complex problem.


Peter C.Y. Kim is a current Master of Arts candidate in International Relations and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he concentrates in international political economy and energy and environmental policy.

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