Climate Change as an existential threat: are we securitizing the issue?

In the last decades State actors, Non-Governmental Organizations(NGOs), and intergovernmental organizations have drafted documents (e.g. US National Security Strategy 2015; European Union Global Strategy 2016), held international and national conferences (e.g. United Nations General Assembly on the 3rd of June 20092) in which climate change was next to terrorism, diseases, economic uncertainty, and not only as accelerator of armed conflicts. But does the introduction of climate change in national and international security papers automatically fully securitized it?

Climate Change as an existential threat: are we securitizing the issue? - GEOPOLITICA.info

There is not a thorough acceptance of climate change as a security issue in the international community, but what we would expect at least from those who consider climate change as such, it would be an adequate and urgent action either in efforts for the mitigation of anthropogenic emissions or in policies that adapt the sectors of our economy in order to be more resilient. Nevertheless, it is clear the lack of urgency and adequacy in the policies to fight climate change. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) took seven years to be ratified and more than ten to be fully implemented, and it resulted in failure; unfortunately, the developments of the Paris Agreement (2015) are showing the same prospects.

 Climate change securitization in a theoretical limbo

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde list five sectors of security and they propose three different modalities to cope with a political issue that can be imagined as three sets. The first set, positioned in the middle contains normal politics. The second one represents “below politics” or non-politicized solution. The last one is an above politics or securitized set with cases of extraordinary policies that happen when an issue is fully securitized, namely when it is perceived as an existential threat to a referent object by an audience that feels menaced and accepts exceptional measures.

This process of social construction is enacted by a (some) securitizing actor(s) through speech acts. These actors through a speech act have the effect of giving primacy and urgency to a political issue leading to audience acceptance of the need for extraordinary measures to be taken in response (Dupont 2018). Therefore, the driving force of security for the Copenhagen School is the speech act that may have a performative role in the attempt of defining an issue true or false, opposed to the mere constative statements that try to describe a given reality.

Securitization is an instrument in the hands of the securitizing actors, though there is a debate on the identity of these actors: for Waever and the Copenhagen School (1995, 1998) they are mainly the State and the elites, with the exception of the environmental sector in which NGOs and IGOs (e.g. IPCC3; UNFCCC4) gain relevance. An alternate focus may be posed by the Paris School, suggesting that the practices of bureaucrats and the professionals of security, like police, military or intelligence, shape the securitization process.

The function of the audience is essential in the social construction process for the acceptance of climate change as a global threat. The audience is not just a receiver of inputs sent by the securitizing actors but they dialogue with one another, establishing a co-dependent relation in which the absence of one’s response results in the failure of the securitization process, with the exception of the refusal by the audience to allow extraordinary measures, and/or to consider an issue as an existential threat. In this case, there is no securitization by the securitizing actors but we face just a securitizing move.

Concerning climate change, many securitizing moves have been made and have often succeeded in persuading an audience of the necessity of urgent and impellent measures to tackle climate change during the last three decades, but we have never encountered a full securitization, because of the absence of exceptional policies. The lack of policies resides in the transnationality of climate change and in the uncertainties of science. These two characteristics are the striking features of the environmental sector, in which climate change is inscribed, thus two different agendas, that partially overlap and shape each other, must be fully securitized in order to expect an exceptional treatment of the matter both in national and in international fora.

In order to better comprehend in which step of our theoretical framework climate change is located, we can recur to the triad of sets earlier discussed and it is possible to figuratively locate climate change in the intersection of the politicized set and the securitized one, and oscillating between the former and the intersection with the latter without however, never entering the fully securitized set.

The nature of the two agendas 

Now, it is suitable to conclude this brief theoretical introduction to the securitization theory of climate change by stressing the similarities of the agendas.

Both in the political and in the scientific securitization of climate change the referent object of the existential threat is the same. The referent object is – in general – what is threatened and must be protected. Hence, due to the nature of the plurality of referent objects menaced by climatic shocks, we can regroup them in two categories according to what extent human-environmental damages hamper the present and the future the civilizations. The first group of referent objects is in all human actions exploiting the environment without causing a general risk for human life. One example could be found in certain industries related to the mining activities of rare minerals: an ecosystem without gold will not affect either mankind as a whole nor biological rhythm, but it will be inconvenient just for the industry that will suffer the loss5. The second group is the one that can lead to the securitization of climate change inasmuch it refers to all those human-induced climatic shocks that directly or indirectly affect globally human activities, posing existential threats to civilization.

Finally, it is essential to clarify where and why the two agendas overlap and shape each other. They have sometimes the same securitizing actors that can be NGOs, IGOs or private actors such as Transnational Companies (TNC), that influence both the national and the international political processes. While space, where the securitizing moves occur, is often the same: public speeches, traditional and more contemporary media.

The question that may arise is, whether would it be possible a global securitization of climate change or is it more likely to expect a de-securitization of the issue.