Samir writes for the Asian Energy Institute (AEI) newsletter on ‘Climate change and human security: building a framework for action’

January 2011
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Climate change and human security: building a framework for action

‘Climate and security’ is a narrative with multiple layers and irresolvable complexities. At the very core, it continues to remain a western narrative on a looming and enduring eastern reality.This very comprehension of climate and security lends to discussions an externality that both hemispheres find hard to reconcile. But before we discuss this inherent paradox within ‘climate security’—a term used to broadly describe situations, discussions, and elements that constitute security within and resulting from climate discourse and global climate action (modest at best), it may be useful to shape the boundaries of what be the core tendencies, trends, and impulses that define it.

The use of the terms ‘climate’ and ‘security’ in popular literature conjures up images of apocalyptic storms, landslides, extreme weather conditions, deluge, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, droughts, floods, cyclones, and similar weather phenomena that will ravage countrysides, inflict loss of life and property on an unimaginable scale, and result in mass exodus of populations. Be it the Hadley Centre Report that feeds this imagery through a more scientific and nuanced approach (Department of Energy and Climate Change) or the Stern Review that deploys this description to urge action by the developed and developing worlds (Stern 2007), the correlation between climate and such threats is unmistakable. This continues to be the defining imagination of security within the climate debate—hotly contested in terms of scale, size, and timelines. Images of death and destruction remain the central argument in the arsenal of a section of the political class, both in the West and East, who are vociferously urging action, incentives, and commitments around green technology, carbon trade, and innovation.

The success of the approach of linking climate action to impending apocalypse is debatable. Also at doubt is its ability to elicit appropriate response from policy- makers and institutions. Deploying images of death and destruction within the climate debate, some argue, is ‘climate pornography.’ It is forcefully stating the obvious, and as some would argue, also the inevitable (Ereaut, Gill, and Segnit 2006).The semantics of this argument are clearly built on the ‘fear for life’ and ‘fear of the future’, and seek to compel political action on this basis by gaining support in the larger public sphere. This approach seemed to have helped create a surge in the constituency of those seeking climate action, particularly in the Western countries. This has also resonated among a specific constituency in the emerging nations, prior to the Conference of Parties at Copenhagen last year. However, it has been unable to stem the disenchantment of the larger public from matters of climate, and ‘climate fatigue’ is setting in. As per a 26-country survey conducted by GlobeScan, concern for climate change is dwindling both in Europe and North America (GlobeScan 2010). According to the survey, support to climate efforts in the UK fell from 59% to 43%, and in Germany from 61% to 47%.This narrative was also unsuccessful in appealing to large constituencies in emerging countries and the developing world. This was a result of poor communication, hypocrisy, and inherent dichotomy in the construction of the debate.This predominantly western narrative on climate security describes the outcomes (floods, cyclones, and so on) through a matrix of predictive dates and probabilistic scenarios.This was an instance of science attempting to steer policy that, as some argue, failed. Science is comfortable with probability and percentages, but people are not. Communications on the matter often sounded weak and convoluted and the messages lacked clarity.They also lacked a central appeal, but more importantly, they failed to offer a response to the challenge. This was perhaps the biggest failure in the communication of the imminent dangers of global inaction.The articulation lacked considered and feasible global responses without which communications were read as scare mongering or where there were indications of certain action (read technology as the saviour) it was read as lobbying by vested interests. Global inattentiveness to ‘climate and security’, in some sense, is as much about a failure to communicate, as it is about political differences and high economic stakes.

However, the hypocrisy within the narrative surfaces when this debate seeks placing the occurrence of extreme climate events and disasters into the future and when action is urged for the benefit of future generations (such as the US President Barack Obama’s exhortation to act on climate change or risk ‘… consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe’). If, as climate science suggests, man-made emissions are able to subvert some of earth’s natural systems, then why are the current extreme events also not a result of the last two centuries of industrialization and rampant mercantile capitalist production? To many, the answer is simple yet hypocritical.The rich would have to foot the bill today for having squatted and ravaged the limited carbon space available as a common resource for global citizenry. The impact and solemnity of the climate and security argument would have far greater weight if developed nations were obligated to make good the costs of life and property that are lost in the poorer regions today due

to floods, cyclones, hurricanes.Yet while we hear a call for action on pricing carbon (which allows the rich to usurp more carbon space), incentives for technology and securing intellectual property rights, a determined and unequivocal call for damages of past action is missing. Ensuring that the countries with the means to respond to the suffering caused by such climate-related disruptions in poor and emerging countries, are allowed to absolve themselves of any responsibility, adds to skepticism, and weakens the most important argument—that of security—for global action.

Calls for global action sound hollow for another reason—the quantum of commitment made by the affluent nations.While the rhetoric of preserving the planet and human life is pitched high, what we see in terms of response is tokenism.To save the planet, the mightiest nations in the world got together at Copenhagen last year and then at Cancun recently, and committed to a paltry $100 billion each year by the year 2020.2 Let us now place this pledged amount against another recent response by the world community. It is estimated that over $3 trillion was committed by the US, China, EU, and other countries to help the world economy or as some suggest, to ‘save a few banks and large corporations’ (Barbier 2010). Three trillion to save the financial system and a 100 billion to save the planet—a fact that will undermine any security discourse within the climate narrative.

The other extremity of the climate-security narrative is less popular, but fast shaping as a significant line of thought. It focuses on elements of human security outside of the ‘life and property’ paradigm.This debate places the human right to develop, grow, and aspire for a better life as a primary objective of climate action (Saran 2010). Here, too, the western narrative seeks to focus the discourse on poverty reduction within the objectives of climate action, thereby reducing the aspirations of billions in the emerging world to that of survival and poverty-line existence.The fact that the industrial economies of the OECD and their high income populations were assisted and subsidized by carbon-intensive fossil fuels is cast aside as an act of ignorance, and the importance of the use of coal and gas in determining the pace at which India and other emerging countries develop is undermined by real but superficial arguments on ethics and shared responsibility. Poverty and growing aspirations are the two imperatives for any political system in emerging economies, and there would be political unrest if the leadership in these nations were to compromise on these.

However, the climate narrative is beginning to exert itself in the development processes of poor countries. Last year, we saw the US EXIM Bank deny a loan to a coal project in South Africa, and dither on a similar proposal for India citing potential emissions as the reason. If climate positions were to become barriers to trade and finance flows, we could perhaps be discussing the most significant and impending security paradigm for the emerging world.The impact of climate negotiations, and green capitalism that is rearing its head, are some elements that will define climate and security for India and other developing countries.

Let me conclude by posing some queries that policymakers in India and other developing countries will need to respond to. Can we ignore the real threat to life and property from extreme climate events? Can the actions of India reduce this threat? How can we compel the West to vacate carbon space, and cap and reduce lifestyle emissions? How will we be able to allow billions in India and the developing world to aspire and, seek homes, cars, holidays and infrastructure? Should we? Why should the first-time users of electricity in India (nearly 500 million) have to make do with token solar lamps that work for only a few hours? Why should the poorer 80% of the world’s population be made to bear responsibility for expensive climate action going forward? How do we ensure continued access to critical finance and technology required to develop infrastructure, and afford prosperity to millions? How do we carve out a global regime that removes carbon squatters and makes them pay for their historical retention of carbon space? Why should the emerging world support or incubate new technologies, when all major economies seek to place green technologies at the centre of their plans of re-industrialization and manufacturing competitiveness? Lastly, can we ignore the ‘green economy,’ and does it really provide India an opportunity to take a position of leadership in this new world? These are some of the competing dynamics of the ‘climate security’ narrative that we will need to navigate if we are to develop a robust framework that realizes the gravity of the climate and security narrative, and articulates the differentiated needs of the diversely developed regions of the world.


  • Barbier E B. 2010. A Global Green New Deal: Rethinking the Economic Recovery. Cambridge University Press. 171 pp.
  • Ereaut, Gill, and Segnit. 2006. War m Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better? London: Institute for Public Policy Research.
  • Department of Energy and Climate. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Met Office, Hadley Centre. Available at http://www.metoffice.
  • GlobeScan. 2010. ‘Climate Concerns Decline since Copenhagen Summit: Global Summit.’ [Press Release 2 December 2010]. Available at: Cancun_climate_release.pdf.
  • Saran S. 2010. The Globalisation and Climate Change Paradox: Implications for South Asian Security. In South and Southeast Asia: Responding to Changing Geo-Political and Security Challenges, edited by K V Kesavan and D Singh. New Delhi: ORF-Knowledge World. 141–161 pp.
  • Stern N. 2007. The Economics of Climate Change:The Stern Review. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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