The dangerous ethical implications of letting humans off the hook for their conflicts.
- By David N. LivingstoneDavid N. Livingstone is a professor of geography and intellectual history at Queen’s University Belfast and a fellow of the British Academy. His most recent book is Dealing with Darwin. He is currently at work on a history of climatic determinism, funded by a major fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, under the title, The Empire of Climate.
In an interview with Sky News on Nov. 23, Britain’s Prince Charles made headlines when he informed listeners of a direct link between climate change and the ongoing civil war in Syria. “There’s very good evidence indeed that one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria … was a drought that lasted for about five or six years,” he said. His remarks came just weeks after U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced that climate change was “directly related to the growth of terrorism” and is “the biggest national security threat facing the United States.”
Both sets of remarks received widespread news coverage. But neither the Prince of Wales nor Sanders was breaking new ground. They were each echoing a refrain that has wound its way through op-eds and magazine articles, and books with titles like Climate Wars. As Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars’ author, put it: “For every degree that the average global temperature rises, so do … the number of failed and failing states, and very probably the [incidence of] internal and international wars.”
This way of foretelling humanity’s destiny has been embraced by journalists and politicians, popular science writers and academics alike: Global warming means certain war, famine, and death — with the how and when sometimes calculated with incredible specificity. The National Geographic Channel’s 2007 documentary Six Degrees Could Change the World, for instance, explained that at 2 degrees Celsius warmer, urban Bolivians will move into rural areas in search of water; at 4 degrees hotter, we are set to experience worldwide political upheaval, economic disaster, and armed conflict as heat-weary migrants seek climate refuge in places like Northern Europe and New Zealand. Humanity’s future is laid out for us, literally one degree after another.
To be clear: Global warming is indeed a very real and present danger. And there’s no doubt that climate change can, on some occasions, be linked to violence and warfare. But this increasing trend toward what some have called the “securitization of climate change,” and the impulse to reduce conflict simply to matters of the weather, carries with it its own kind of moral danger.
How did the issue of climate change come to be so securitized? One early critical step took place in June 1988 at a major world conference in Toronto called “The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security.” The convention, attended by policymakers and around 300 scientists from 46 countries, was the first international conference to combine climate science and public policy. What it produced was a statement highlighting the need for governments to realign “their national security and military spending priorities” by addressing “the geopolitical dimensions of climate change in resource allocation decisions,” wrote Carleton University’s Fen Osler Hampson in a paper that year. Diminishing food security, environmental refugees, political instability, and resource conflicts were only some of the prognosticated effects of climate change that would compel government strategists to turn militaristic.
Since then, the militarization of climate discourse has proceeded apace. In 2007, for example, then-British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett insisted that climate change went “to the very heart of the security agenda” in her presentation to the U.N. Security Council’s first-ever debate on the subject. That same year the U.S. Center for Naval Analyses produced a report entitled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” by an advisory composed of 11 retired, three- and four-star admirals and generals. Among their concerns was, “Climate change will stress the U.S. military by affecting weapon systems and platforms, bases, and military operations.”
Another defense-oriented report, “The Age of Consequences,” prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security, declared that a 2.6 degree rise in temperature will bring moral revolution as “massive social upheaval will be accompanied by intense religious and ideological turmoil.” At an increase of 5.6 degrees, a range of ills would converge “in one conflagration: rage at government’s inability to deal with the abrupt and unpredictable crises; religious fervor, perhaps even a dramatic rise in millennial end-of-days cults; hostility and violence toward migrants and minority groups; … and intra- and interstate conflict over resources.” In the light of this grim eschatology, the report concludes that the security repercussions of climate change constitute a “greater foreign policy and national security challenge” than “reversing the decline in America’s global standing” and “rebuilding the nation’s armed forces.”
The ease with which this straightforward connection between climate and war has infiltrated the national security establishment is troubling. Of course, it’s not difficult to discern the appeal of these sorts of story lines. They deliver, with alluring simplicity, naturalistic accounts of warfare with a specificity that gives them vividness and power. But the problem with these narratives isn’t just that they are overly simplistic. It’s that they promote a kind of climate reductionism, one that carries echoes of the deterministic theories that were once popular during the second half of the 19th century.
Consider, for instance, John William Draper’s History of the American Civil War, published in 1867. Draper, who served as president of the medical college of New York University from 1850 to 1873, was a professor of chemistry and an architect of the so-called “conflict model” of science and religion, bringing a scientist’s eye to his task. On the very first page of his book, he announced “the great truth that societies advance in a preordained and inevitable course” guided by “uncontrollable causes.” Chief among these was the climate.
Draper wanted his readers to see that the split of the American nation into what he called “a free and a slave power” had been effected “chiefly through the agency of climate.” It was climate that had “separated the American nation into two sections”; it was climate that “had made a North and a South”; it was climate that had cultivated the markedly different political instincts of each culture. It could all be captured in a formula approaching a climatic syllogism: “Climate tendencies facilitate the abolition of slavery in a cold country, but oppose it in one that is warm.” The reason was simple: “The climate of the South, through the agricultural products it permitted, favored plantation life and the institution of slavery, and hence it promoted a sentiment of independence in the person and of state rights in the community; that of the North intensified in the person a disposition to individualism, and in the community to unionism.”
For the new nation, it brought a sense of moral relief to be told that slavery and the bloody conflict between the states followed a script written in the main by climate. As Draper put it: “Now when we appreciate how much the actions of men … are determined by climate and other natural circumstances, our animosities lose much of their asperity, and the return of kind feelings is hastened.” The climate freed political actors from the burdens of moral accountability. Naturalizing the causes of the civil war was, for Draper, a key means for fostering in the post-bellum era what he called “more philosophical, more enlarged, more enlightened, and, in truth, more benevolent views of each other’s proceedings.” By displaying to the world how climate had ghost-written different histories in the North and South, Draper, as his biographer Donald Fleming put it, “drew the sting from any moral recrimination. Indeed one might suppose that the chief convenience — and possibly the chief defect — of the ‘climatic’ view of history was to bypass ethical concerns altogether.” This, for a war in which the question of ethical culpability was salient indeed.
Some may claim that Draper’s climatic explanation of the Civil War is not exactly the same as those promoting causal links between climate change and conflict in our own day. But similar ethical echoes linger. When we shift the blame for violence to the weather and treat human struggle as simply a state of nature, we reduce the complexity of warfare to a single dimension. We also absolve the agents of conflict of moral responsibility for their actions.
For one, a focus on environmentally related violence masks other forms of social and political struggle. Climate reductionism facilitates the sense that war in the developing world can be readily depoliticized and naturalized by pushing factors like local culture and social relations to the sidelines. It provides a ready excuse to leave these issues unaddressed. Moreover, it can easily be a way of diverting attention from the West’s historical culpability for conflicts elsewhere in the world by shifting the blame to nature. As one group of researchers put it, when analysts “neglect the complex political calculus of governance,” they reach “conclusions that are little different from those ascribing poverty to latitudinal location or lessened individual productivity to hot climates, as was common in European and American scholarship about a century ago.” Most of us today rightly find these conclusions — which lend themselves to what is, essentially, racism under the guise of science — ugly and unacceptable.
There are some who have started to push back against this ubiquitous climate reductionist impulse. A team of research ecologists based mostly at Colorado State University, for example, has challenged the suggestion that higher temperatures increase the risk of civil war in Africa. They argue that attributing such causal powers to climate “oversimplifies systems affected by many geopolitical and social factors,” and they point out that unrelated geopolitical trends — most notably, decolonization and the vicissitudes of the Cold War — tend to be ignored in climate reductionist agendas. Halvard Buhaug, a political scientist at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, also has serious reservations about climatic supremacism. “Climate variability is a poor predictor of armed conflict,” he observes, and civil wars in Africa are far better explained by ethnopolitical exclusion and a poor national economy.
Prophecy is a precariously uncertain business. Sir John Houghton, former co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued a word of caution along these lines when giving evidence to the U.K. House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs in 2005: “When you put models together which are climate models added to impact models added to economic models, then you have to be very wary indeed of the sort of answers you are getting and how realistic they are.”
And yet a strong sense of predestined inevitability pervades a good deal of current thinking about climate change by the national security industry. In such visions, humanity’s future is dictated by climate, literally degree-by-degree. We should indeed be wary of this turn of events. And when prognostications offer the human race moral absolution when it comes to taking responsibility for the world’s ills — on the surface demanding action while simultaneously releasing us from blame for our role in causing conflict — it’s best to be even warier still.
David Silverman/Getty Images