While much has been made in recent months of both US President Donald Trump’s myopic rejection of the Paris Climate Accord and his reckless nuclear sabre-rattling over North Korea, the opportunity has been lost to re-orient public and political debate around the links between climate change and militarization—including the militarization of responses to environmental crises.
Obviously, one of the many evils wrought by war is its environmental destructiveness. This impact is not limited to devastated battlefields (urban and rural) but encompasses a whole cycle of destruction—from the mining of resources (frequently on stolen, indigenous land), through the development, testing, production, storage, disposal and, all too often, murderous use of weapons in war.
Disarmament and the decommissioning of weapons, particularly nuclear weapons, present formidable challenges, while the question of what to do with stockpiles of banned chemical and biological weapons still haunts the world.
Knowledge of these impacts, however, has not yet changed the military-industrial status quo and the state-centric mindset it depends on.
What has changed, as global warming approaches the point of no return, are the stakes for the planet, a fact symbolically registered by the famous Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, first set at seven minutes to midnight 70 years ago.
Introducing the 2017 Doomsday Clock Statement, Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin, explained one of the main reasons the time now stood at a terrifying two and a half minutes to zero: “In 1947 there was one technology with the potential to destroy the planet, and that was nuclear power. Today, rising temperatures, resulting from the industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels, will change life on Earth as we know it, potentially destroying or displacing it from significant portions of the world, unless action is taken today, and in the immediate future.”
Noting that the election of Donald Trump had already “made a bad international security situation worse,” the Statement warns that “inaction and brinkmanship” on these twin threats are “endangering every person, everywhere on Earth.”
But, despite his absurd demonization of climate change science as a Chinese “hoax,” Trump can hardly be blamed for the decades-long failure of the most powerful members of the international community to, as the Bulletin urges, “take the steps needed to begin the path toward a net zero-carbon-emissions world.” Instead of heeding these words, however, those holding the levers of power continue to seek security in military solutions. Now we find ourselves today on a path warned against by the German scholar Lothar Brock decades ago-with the militarization of environmental issues rather than the demilitarization of security issues. Such leaders and policy-makers are not concerned about climate change per se as much as the effects of climate change on the “existing security landscape”: the status quo they wish to keep benefiting from. Such orthodox analysis, however, fails entirely to address the causes (including militarism) of accelerating human and natural insecurity. And because of their circular mindset, we are all caught in a vicious cycle.
NATO, for example, certainly takes climate change seriously. Its concern, though, is about the “risk factors” complicating the traditional exercise of state and military power—its own legitimacy and utility rather than the risk to the environment and humanity.
In a 2015 “Strategic Foresight Analysis,” NATO notes that the impacts of climate change are “becoming readily apparent and are projected to increase in the future,” to negatively impact the “members of the Alliance.”
So here we have a nuclear-armed, influential organization expressing concern about climate change, yet forging ahead with its military power, so as to maintain its dominance. The search for military solutions to climate change problems—water wars, mass migration and the like—is seen as normal and logical, whereas calls to confront the root causes of the crisis (including state-centrism and militarism) are dismissed.
The downward spiral accelerates, with the war-machine consuming natural and financial resources, compounding the environmental problems that militarism itself is expected to solve.
What then is to be done? The United Nations has adopted the concept of sustainable peace as a guiding principle of international relations. That can potentially set us on the right path. As the president of the General Assembly noted in January this year, “it will not be possible to achieve lasting peace in the long term without sustainable development, equitable economic opportunity, and human rights protection for all.”
In his first address to the Security Council, Secretary General António Guterres enthusiastically endorsed this “new approach,” arguing that the “interconnected nature of today’s crises require the international community to connect global efforts for peace and security, sustainable development and human rights, not just in words, but in practice.”
With so many of today’s conflicts, he argued, “fueled by competition for power and resources,” and grievously “exacerbated by climate change, population growth and the globalization of crime and terror,” it is time to end the “boundless human suffering and the wanton waste of resources generated by conflict.”
Instead of increasing defence budgets to win wars caused by resource shortages or climate change, the proponents of militarized security need to confront what is, for them, the most inconvenient truth of all: that “putting poverty to the sword” must become, as former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme Klaus Toepfer argued, “the peace policy of the 21st Century.”
Despite the rhetorical commitment of all UN states to “sustainable peace,” no shift in thinking, planning, or spending is taking place. And the Trump Administration is, alas, hardly alone in increasing military spending. Here in Canada, the Trudeau government’s recent pledge to increase military spending by $62 billion, mainly on major offensive systems (warships, fighter planes, armed drones) over the next two decades undermines its own pledge to recommit to peacekeeping, maximize “soft power” influence, and of course improve the global climate.
Such hypocrisy, however, is no reason to abandon hope in “sustainable peace,” but rather a spur. We can insist that Canada’s commitment be genuinely honoured and adequately resourced. Holding leaders accountable for policies exacerbating climate change is a crucial step in breaking the vicious cycle. And “sustainable peace” may be our best hope of seeing modern militarism for what it truly is: a war against the world.
Lee-Anne Broadhead is professor of political science at Cape Breton University and a member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. This article is based on a paper presented at Canadian Pugwash’s 2017 conference, “Canada’s Contribution to Global Security” Halifax, NS.