Embracing the apocalypse? A debate on the politics of the climate change-security nexus

By Omar Dahi

Security in Context hosted authors Michael Klare, Betsy Hartmann and Anne Hendrixson for a discussion and conversation on the politics of the climate change-security nexus. The occasion was the release of Klare’s latest book All Hell Breaking Loose: the Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change (Metropolitan Books 2019) where he provides a comprehensive examination on the US military’s thinking and policy initiatives to mitigate climate change, including the military’s own footprint as well as to prepare for what it views as the many implications of climate change for national security. According to Klare, though the US military stays out of the national “debate” on whether climate change is real, and has ceased to speak publicly about climate change since President Trump came to power, the top leadership of the military’s beliefs and actions are in line with the scientific consensus on climate change. In fact, The U.S. Department of Defense was the only federal agency to largely ignore President Trump’s rescinding of Obama era Executive Order 13653 which had instructed all Federal agencies to study the impact of climate change on their operations. That is because according to Klare, the military views climate change not just as a national security threat, but a threat to its own ability to carry out its functions abroad or domestically.

Betsy Hartmann’s most recent book is The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War, and our Call to Greatness (Seven Stories Press 2017). Betsy situates the debate about climate change and security within a longer trajectory of apocalyptic thinking in US history. For Hartmann, the climate change-security nexus has brought together a strange alliance of activists, NGOs, international institutions and governments who exaggerate the current and future impacts of climate change on security each for their own purposes. In her book she argues that the thinking of these disparate actors follows an inverted logic: ask not what you can do about climate change but what can climate change do for you” (page XXX). For Hartmann, the military’s embrace of the reality of climate change and celebration of this embrace, is troubling. Similarly, Anne Hendrixson, who heads Hampshire College’s Population and Development program, argued that narratives about the dangers of climate change are intertwined with those about ‘overpopulation.’ Along with other colleagues, she published a special issue in the journal Gender, Culture and Society and coined the term “overpopulationism” which captures the wide set of discourses and practices about restricting population growth and movement. Hendrixson terms many of these efforts neo-Malthusian in their exaggerated discussions about overpopulation, including ones that lack nuance about North-South inequities and construct population growth and movement in the global South as a threat. A key question however was about politics. Might the military embrace of climate change allow for broader coalition building? Klare, who hopes his book reaches audiences across the political spectrum, believes that it does. In introducing his book, he argued that the debate about climate change is now  deadlocked nationally, and is mostly centered around left/progressive circles and the Democratic Party. If change is going to come, more conservatives and Republicans need to come on board if a broad-based coalition is to emerge and push for the necessary changes to avert a global catastrophe. Hartmann and Hendrixson disagreed, arguing that the military, with its hyper-nationalistic discourse, weaponizes climate change for its own objectives, and undermines coalition building with groups most affected by climate change such as people of color particularly internationally, with populations in the global South that have experienced first-hand the negative footprint of the US military. 

Click here to listen to the full conversation.

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