In the Global North, “climate security” has become a dominant frame for thinking—and not thinking—about the climate crisis.
The framing assumes that climate change will disrupt weather and environmental systems, putting pressure on economic and social systems as well as natural resources, leading to large-scale displacement; all of this is expected to create instability, to worsen tensions and create new ones, and to increase the threat of violent conflicts. Though views within this framing rarely claim that climate change is the sole cause of conflict, they often see climate change as ushering in “an era of persistent conflict… a security environment much more ambiguous and unpredictable than that faced during the Cold War.” Climate change is framed as a “threat multiplier,” driving insecurity and violence, particularly across the Global South. While this body of research points to very real and worsening problems, it also pulls attention and resources from addressing the causes of the climate crisis and the necessary solutions.
It is critical to note, however, that the “security” that is of most concern in this framing is threats to the security of powerful states in the Global North, and “security” is taken to mean the ability to defend not only their state borders, but also their political, economic, and military dominance. The privileging of this narrative stems in part from the fact that Global North departments of defense typically have far more power and resources, particularly when it comes to international interventions, than those governing development or the environment. But it goes beyond institutional power and resources. We can only fully explain the privileging of security institutions and framings (especially their influence on the climate crisis) and the grip they have on the popular imagination by paying attention to gender.
Indeed, securitization is a gendered dynamic. It is the process of situating issues in the military sphere, which is itself rendered “serious” and “realistic” by ideas about gender. For generations, the idea that militaries are the most effective means of achieving security has been naturalized by its association with ideas about masculinity: that strength is defined by being able to protect oneself using physical force; that bullies only understand force; that vulnerability invites attack; that security requires impenetrable borders; and so on. This association of manliness with a militarized conception of national identity and national security helps make militaries, military spending, and military solutions seem like the superior, realistic, natural, and obvious routes to achieving security. Conversely, any potential refusal to privilege them is feminized, marking alternative ways of thinking as weak and unrealistic; consider US Ambassador Nikki Haley framing her opposition to discussing a nuclear weapons ban this way: “As a mom, as a daughter, there is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic.” Ideas about gender naturalize militarized conceptions of security and securitization itself, helping render the “climate security” framework as the most powerful and realistic way of addressing the climate crisis.
Yet there are multiple problems in this gendered “climate security” framing, as well as dangers with the overall securitization of the climate crisis. First, it centers a vision of the world from the perspective of Northern elites, which locates climate change threats as coming from “out there”—from its victims, from outsiders, from people in Global South countries where the violence that threatens “stability” will supposedly occur, and from where displaced people will supposedly be trying to flee—instead of correctly locating the threats to the planet as coming from the Global North countries, militaries, and corporations that are actually the most responsible for it.
Second, it is a framing that leads to a militarized response, which justifies increases in budgets of military and other “security” institutions, capturing the resources we need to solve the climate and wider ecological crises. It further compounds the problem by fostering and legitimating the expansion of military training and operations—thereby increasing their vast use of fossil fuels and other forms of environmental degradation—making the climate and eco-crises worse, not better.
Third, it sets up preservation of the status quo as the goal, whereas dealing with the climate crisis requires massive changes to the status quo. This is especially so if the countries that are least responsible for carbon emissions, and where those most affected live, are ever going to get access to the resources they need to respond.
Fourth, and perhaps the most devastating, is that, if our intention is to head off the worst of climate change and even try to reverse it, framing the climate crisis as a security crisis completely misdirects our attention. The climate crisis is not a crisis of security; it is a crisis of extractivist capitalism, an economic system that incentivizes the exploitation of natural resources as if they were unlimited and “externalizes” the environmental costs of production—from pollution to the release of greenhouse gases. Through its dependence on fossil fuels for cheap energy and industrial agriculture that overexploits soil and water supplies, extractivist capitalism champions growth at all costs, including the destruction of the environment. Its neoliberal insistence on “liberating” markets and denouncing regulation and collective action has made it impossible to take the actions needed to halt climate breakdown.
And it misdirects our attention because the climate crisis is not a crisis of security; it is a crisis of a white western masculinist framing of the relation between humanity and nature. That is, it is a crisis that is a reflection of western, white, male-dominated philosophical and religious traditions, in which man has been seen as separate from and independent of nature, his proper role to dominate “her” and bend her to his will. As Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and feminists around the world have long argued, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of humanity’s relation to the rest of nature. It fails to recognize that not only do we need to take care of nature, but that nature takes care of us, that we are part of nature, that nature has agency, that humankind is just one species among many on this planet, and that our fundamental relationship to the more-than-human world is one of complex interdependence and reciprocity.
To say that the climate crisis is a crisis of extractivist capitalism, and the western masculinist mindset that underpins it, is not to ignore that the climate crisis will cause tremendous “insecurity” in people’s lives. But that word abstracts, misnames and erases the reality. The climate crisis will cause more people to go hungry; more children to be malnourished, their growth and capacities stunted. More people will drown in floods, typhoons, and hurricanes, or burn to death in wildfires, while others will only have the places they live destroyed. More people will lose their only means of livelihood, as the plants, animals, and ecosystems that have been part of their material survival and cultural identity for generations perish. Many more will be uprooted from the territories of their ancestors and communities that sustain them because those places have become unlivable; others will sicken, be disabled, and die from infectious diseases new to their areas, to which they have no immunity. And a lack of resources—a result of grotesque global inequality—will prevent untold numbers from escaping or protecting themselves and the people they love from any of these impacts.
That is not insecurity; it is a human and species-wide disaster of catastrophic scale, and the answer cannot be to “secure,” to “enhance security,” or to talk of “climate-related security risks.” If we misname, and misunderstand, what this is a crisis of, we will misunderstand what we need to do to try to fix it.
What we need to do is transform the root causes of this catastrophe, which will take nothing short of a paradigm shift: from a model that conceives the purpose of economic activity as ever-increasing extraction, exploitation, and consumption of nature’s resources, and human labor, for the purpose of profit, to one which focuses on meeting human needs and ensuring the sustainability of the resources and ecosystems on which life depends. In other words, we need a feminist green transformation: a restructuring of production, consumption, and political-economic relations along truly sustainable pathways.
First steps could include developing a feminist political-economic analysis of the transnational actors and processes that present the largest threats to sustainable life on Earth; mapping routes to intervene in those processes; and articulating policy alternatives that transform our understanding of the purposes of economic activity and of humans’ relation to the planet. We have been calling this a “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace and Planet.”
As we have argued elsewhere, we need to unapologetically claim the mantle of “realism” for an economic system based on an ethics of care—for people and planet—over the short-sighted, destructive ethic of unlimited individualistic acquisition and corporate consolidation of wealth; a system that recognizes interdependence—among people and among nations—as the basis for mutual collaborative action, rather than mutual armament. One that recognizes that the goal of sufficiency, of ensuring livelihoods and lives of dignity, will never be achieved in a system that deepens, rather than transforms, inequalities.
Carol Cohn is the founding Director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Claire Duncanson is Senior Lecturer of International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.
The authors are currently working to create a “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace and Planet.”