Monday, 4 January 2016

Climate change contextualized - globalisation and inequality

Climate change has emerged as a serious issue, recognized by international politics. The latest periodic assessment reports from 2014, released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC, paints a rather gloomy image of what is to come. Section A of the report titled ‘Observed Impacts, Vulnerability, and Adaptation in a Complex and Changing World’ clearly states that ‘differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and from multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development processes. These differences shape differential risks from climate change.’ (IPCC, 2014). While throughout history societies have never been equal with equal rights and opportunity for everybody, globalization has had a major effect on the increase of inequality between the rich and the poor, especially in developing countries. This essay will highlight the linkages between climate change, globalization and security and conceptualize the empirical evidence in order to get a more comprehensive view of the issue at hand.

Globalization and climate change

This leads to the first topic that I want to address, which is how globalization fuels climate change and how this is noticeable across the planet. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in 1760 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014) the way goods were produced underwent a drastic change, the scale of production was completely transformed and international trade increased hundredfold. In addition to economic changes the population grew exponentially from one billion to six billion people over the course of the Industrial Revolution (Matthew, 2010). This posed an extreme strain on the environment, which was exploited without cease for natural resources to boost production. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution natural resources were harvested on an increasingly more rigorous manner thanks to the invention of new techniques and the use of modern technology. Combined with an ever increasing number of people on the planet, the scale of consumption as well as of pollution, sky-rocketed over the past three centuries. ‘High-energy societies have caused large decrease in primary forest cover; biodiversity losses; depletion of fish stocks; land degradation; water pollution and scarcity; coastal marine degradation; the contamination of people, plants, and animals by chemicals and radioactive substances; and climate change sea-level rise. These environmental changes are “global” because they are ubiquitous and because some pollutants such as greenhouse gases and radioactive wastes have global consequences.’ (Turner et al. 1990, as cited in Matthew, 2010). In this new global scale of production and consumption the place where the products are being used or consumed are not identical with the place of origin of the product anymore. According to figures by the United Nations Development Programme, ‘the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 84 percent of all paper, consumes 45 percent of all meat and fish, and owns 87 percent of the world’s vehicles’ (UNDP 1998, as cited in Matthew, 2010). Furthermore, over half of all CO2 emissions emitted between 1990 and 1999 were caused by the USA and the EU (Baumert and Kete 2001, as cited in Matthew). Those figures clearly represent the great disparity that opened up after the dawn of the Industrial Revolution among nations and societies. The disparity does not only concern the consumption pattern, but also the burden of environmental degradation and climate change effects that people suffer. 

Natural hazards and climate change

This leads to the next question, namely how to manage potential risks that stem from climate change and adverse weather events that result from it and eventually, how to prepare for potential natural hazards accordingly. With the increasing awareness of the severity of climate change and the possible impacts on the environment and local populations, the risks have turned into a topic that is being discussed under the umbrella of security framings, which the Copenhagen School of Security has named the ‘Securitization of Climate Change’ (Oels, 2013). According to the Copenhagen School of Security a successful securitization reflects the failure of any attempt by democratic political measures to deal with climate change (Weaver, 1995 as cited in Oels, 2013). This would mean that a new gate would be opened that leads to very dramatic and costly security measures, such as decarbonisation, which implies a ‘political state of exception where democratic procedures may be circumvented and the law suspended.’ (Brauch, 2009 as cited in Oels, 2013). However, the securitization of climate change is believed to have failed, since no severe actions or policy changes could be observed as direct result of discourse shift and not extreme or extraordinary measure were taken. 

The actions and measures that are needed, should prevent humankind from reaching the tipping point of climate change, a point that leads to another state - a transition that is not always noticeable and is irreversible. In the case of climate change, it means that the world as we know will undergo drastic transformations and certain parts of the planet will become completely uninhabitable. Since we are close to reaching the tipping point according to climatologists, (or, according to certain scientists, we have already passed the tipping point) we need to consider what risks we are actually facing and what measures we need to take. Trying to reduce CO2 emissions in developing countries in order to stop global warming is definitely important to keep the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere under a certain threshold level, however, the effects of the greenhouse gases that have already been emitted over the past centuries can already be felt and seen across the globe. The droughts in parts of Africa that I mentioned in the beginning, and that lead to feuds and deaths among tribes, are a prime example of climate change risks that cause social and local unrest and suffering. But the effects can also be seen on a larger scale, like for example during Hurricane Kathrina in 2005. Even though there is no official clear statement that the hurricane was caused by climate change, the Times wrote in 2005 that ‘One especially sobering study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that hurricane wind speeds have increased about 50% in the past 50 years. And since warm oceans are such a critical ingredient in hurricane formation, anything that gets the water warming more could get the storms growing worse. Global warming, in theory at least, would be more than sufficient to do that. While the people of New Orleans may not see another hurricane for years, the next one they do see could make even Katrina look mild.’ (, 2005). Extreme weather events can not only lead to major destruction of infrastructures and cost the lives of hundreds of people in a single event, it can also have long term effects like food shortages due to draughts that can destabilize whole regions. Climate change will cause states to become weaker, and already weak states to fail and being unable to sustain their borders causing large migration of climate refugees. Figure 1 shows current border barriers and a clear pattern can be seen between industrialized and developing countries. While the developed world which is responsible for the majority of the greenhouse gases continue to consume a large proportion of the goods produced globally, the developing world is increasingly cut off by barriers and fences, and therefore prevented from entering wealthier nations.   

Teichopolitics and national threats

Figure 1, Border barriers, a world map. 
Source Habiter Laboratory, 2010

Teichopolitics plays a crucial role in controlling the circulation of people. ‘Organising circulation, eliminating its dangers, making a division between good and bad circulation, and maximizing the good circulation by eliminating the bad’ (Foucault 2007, as cited in Aradau, Claudia and Blanke, Tobias 2010). Referring to medieval ages when city walls would control the flow of people, animals and goods through the centuries, city walls have become state borders and the main concern of the regulation of the circulation is due to potential threats in the form of terrorism, spread of diseases and illegal immigration. Preempting suspicious movements and the management through contingency is applied in order to guarantee a good circulation (Aradau, Claudia and Blanke, Tobias 2010). 

Refugee camp of Somalians west of Massawa, Eritrea. Photo by Reinhard Dietrich.

One major concern for the US government is the threat of radicalization in weakened states, especially in the Middle East. Fanatic clerics and leaders could use this opportunity to blame the ‘West’ for water shortage in the dry region and fuel resentment towards the western nations (Ingram, 2015). Dillon wrote about risk groups which are unfit for adaptive emergence that will emerge after disasters and who are considered to be ‘dangerous’ to the stability to regions due to chaotic coping strategies, mass migration and violent conflict over resources. This can be linked to Bigo’s banopticon dispositive in which the profiling of ‘dangerous’ populations is deployed through modern technology and science, in order to achieve a care free, perfect future. Groups of people who are considered to be vulnerable are at the same time labelled as a risk group and therefore also considered to be dangerous which means that they need to be put under surveillance and profiled (Oels, 2010) 

The New York Times reported in October, 2014 that the Pentagon described climate change as an ‘immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages.’ (Davenport, 2014). Furthermore Davenport mentions how the military disaster response will have to react to an increasing number of global humanitarian crises and extreme weather events (Davenport, 2014). In another example, the Centre for Naval Analyses stated in one of their reports that Climate Change is ‘acting as a “threat multiplier” for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world and identifies key challenges that must be planned for now if they are to be met effectively in the future’ (, 2015). This represents what Angela Oels referred to when she wrote about the climatization of security rather than the securitization of climate change, because States have been gradually preparing for the worst case scenarios (Oels, 2013) even though there have not been any major policy adaptations. The way that climate change is treated in the security discourse has undergone a shift and Oels is drawing heavily on Foucault’s frameworks in order to explain this new paradigm. Oels take on the new framing of security and climate change is particularly interesting since it delivers new insights in climate change politics through a Foucauldian perspective of governmentality. She uses his theory in order to conceptualize Risk Management in relation to climate change and investigates how far the security framing has moved since Foucault’s death with new concepts such as Dillon’s risk management through contingency or Aradau and van Munster’s precautionary risk management. Dillon argues that ‘life has undergone substantial changes in the 25 years since Foucault’s death (Dillon and Lobo-Guerrero, 2008, as cited in Oels, 2013) and therefore the traditional Foucauldian take on risk management is not contemporary anymore. The major argument of Dillon’s risk management through contingency and Aradau and van Munster’s Precautionary Risk Management is that, unlike the traditional risk management promoted by Foucault, their approaches perceive scientific knowledge as unreliable and therefore take political discussions and decision-making at the limits of science. This leads us into the territory of knowledge creation and the debate on whether climate data, or any other scientific date for that matter, is 100 percent accurate or just an accumulation of models and predictions, without any ‘real data’. This is a large thematic field in itself but I just want to emphasise the most important aspects. Edward wrote in his book on climate models and predictions A Vast Machine: ‘When we want to evaluate the security issues associated to climate change, it is important to consider how risks are presented. Are they knowable, calculable by science? The role of science play an important role in decision/making as does the creation of climate data’ (Edwards, 2010). Finding scientific data is one side of the story, however, the presentation, interpretation and dissemination of the data and the related risks is another crucial aspect.  If we look back at the different risk management framings, we can say that in Dillon’s risk management through contingency concept, climate change is a risk we have to adapt to and learn to live with. Furthermore, Dillon argues that there is a price attached to risks and it can be traded and speculated – we can “underwrite security” (Dillon, 2008, as cited in Oels, 2013). In the traditional form of risk management, represented by Foucault, climate change is a risk that needs to be kept at a tolerable level and this can only be achieved through global management. Lastly, precautionary risk management advocates that climate change will lead to catastrophic irreversible outcomes and poses a major risk and needs to be avoided at all costs (Oels, 2013). Thus, before there can be any agreed upon measure on how to address risks, there is a lack of the basic notion of what risks actually are. The traditional risk management concept was adopted by the IPCC (O’Brien, et al. 2007, as cited in Oels, 2013) and there was a strong focus on the vulnerability aspect of the states that are most affected by future regional climatic changes. 

Living in a world of uncertainties

Climate change can have various devastating effects, however, those who are affected the most by all of those impacts, are the ones labelled as unfit for adaptive emergence and considered as potentially dangerous populations. Predictions about which parts of the world will be affected the most and which populations are being hit the hardest is down to new technologies. Climate change model predictions, will most likely support and enforce Bigo’s Banopticon theory of monitoring certain groups of people. Since we cannot be entirely sure which groups of people pose a definite risk, even with the use of modern technology, we are confronted with the question of how to act and make decisions in a world of uncertainties. As I already noted, scientific data is limited, and cannot hold all answers or guarantee complete security. There has already been major progress in the climate change debate and we do have a general consensus on the fact that climate change is anthropogenic. However, we do still live in a, what Ulrich Beck calls, ‘risk society’. As Beck describes it: “The greatest military power in history shields itself with an anti-missile defence system costing billions of dollars. Is it not also a bitter irony that this power should be struck to the heart of its security and self-confidence by an action that was utterly improbable according to every logic of risk, when suicide terrorists succeeded in turning commercial passenger aircraft into rockets, which destroyed symbols of American world power? The irony of risk here is that rationality, that is, the experience of the past, encourages anticipation of the wrong kind of risk, the one we believe we can calculate and control, whereas the disaster arises from what we do not know and cannot calculate. (Beck, 2006).


Beck states that we basically live in a state of total unawareness of the risks that surround us, however I argue that scenarios can be anticipated and we can prepare for them accordingly. ‘Scenario planning has emerged as a new source of knowledge for dealing with the uncertainties and the ‘unknown unknowns’ of climate change (Schwartz and Randall, 2003 as cited in Oels, 2013). Furthermore I contend that the debate on whether the level of risk perception is accurate or not, is made redundant by the sheer lack of inadequacy of current climate mitigation talks and policies which are mostly non-binding. Another danger is that even though it is common knowledge that climate data and scientific research cannot cover all bases and deliver absolutely accurate data, international debates rely too much on expressions such as tipping point or the 2 degree target which were formulated in order to have a specific goal in the mitigation attempts of states. Both the tipping point and the 2 degree target are inherently vague and it leads to the impression that scientists have managed to figure out the levels up to which it is safe to release greenhouse gases.  Eventually it all comes down to basic questions about human and equal rights. The train of actions such as the teichopolitics measures that climate change is triggering is furthering and increasing any pre-existing gap in societies and among states. I argue that the debates need to go beyond lip services of nations. While climate change is becoming more and more destructive to this planet, everything is being done to keep the wealthiest few percent in the safe zone and comfortable, while those who did not gain anything from globalization are now being shut out and left to fend for themselves, and expected to deal with the environmental degradation on their own. The rights to clean air, clean water for everybody is being questioned, and the debate about climate change and security is being taken into a different dimension because it has now become a human rights issue.


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Beck, U. (2006). Living in the world risk society. Economy and Society, 35(3), pp.329-345.

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Ingram, A (2015), Border Barriers, a world map, Image, GEOGG089 Globalisation and Security, University College London

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