Climate change, conflict and migration

[Presentation at meeting ‘Climate Refugees, Environmental Justice and Clean Energy‘ of The Hague Earth Embassy, 22 September 2018]
In his recent book ‘Storming the wall’ American journalist Todd Miller paints a grim picture of the future, writing: “We could predict not only […] a world of Category 6 winds, ravaging fires, devouring seas, and parched landscapes, but also a world of surveillance drones, crowd-control, and walls.”
A world marked by climate change, permanent conflict and border control to stop refugees. Especially during the last decade there has been a lot of research on the links between these topics, which comes to a wide range of conclusions and predictions. Some researchers say that climate change will lead to unprecedented levels of refugees, with up to hundreds of millions forcibly on the move, while others conclude that as for now there is no irrefutable prove of a link between climate change and conflict and/or migration.
I think it is safe to say that most developments point to strong connections, however. The consequences of climate change will lead to more conflict and more refugees, in various ways. It will make areas unliveable, unfit for agriculture, it will lead to both droughts and floodings, it will lead to more natural disasters, such as storms, and it will increase hunger and poverty. On the other hand it will also form the base for armed conflicts and social unrest, which will result in more refugees as well. While most people will, at first, probably try to find another place to live and work within the country they come from, there will also be more and more cross-border migration.
Military and security experts often describe climate change as a threat multiplier that will exacerbate all major existing insecurities. There is some logic in this, and we can see that, for example, drought played a part in the start of the war in Syria, as did desertification in the Darfur War in Sudan.
Most political leaders, with some notable exceptions, have acknowledged that climate change is a serious problem, that does have consequences in the fields of conflict and migration, which will increase in the following decades. They didn’t come to these conclusions by themselves, it took a lot of hard work by environmental and other activists to get climate change on the political agenda. And interestingly enough the military has sometimes been more forward in acknowledging climate change than governments. We shouldn’t let ourselves be fooled by this, though, I will get back to that.
In his annual ‘State of the Union’-speech in 2015 European Commission president Juncker said: “Climate change is one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly”.
Last week, in his 2018 speech, Juncker just briefly mentioned climate change, stating: “Only a strong and united Europe can protect our citizens against threats internal and external – from terrorism to climate change.”
This brings us to the next step: how to deal with climate change. It is clear that Juncker takes on this issue from a military and security perspective: he presents climate change as a threat to Europe, on par with terrorism, and with migration for that matter. This is not an objective observation, but an important choice: by framing climate change and migration as threats instead of environmental, political and/or humanitarian problems, the scope of the solutions has been narrowed. These threats need to to be dealt with by the increasing use of military equipment and security and armed forces. And it brings the concept of energy security into the picture as well.
With this, we are also back to the way the military deals with climate change. There we have to see that it’s primary strategic interest is less about climate change itself and more about the adjacent problems of energy scarcity, seeking to safeguard fuel transit routes and reducing the military’s oil dependency. Second, it is also looking ahead to protect its infrastructure and military assets from climate impacts. In other words, the military is looking for ways to keep itself running, even by trying to switch to alternative fuels and ‘green’ weapons, from lead-free bullets to solar-paneled drones. . In essence this is a form of adaptation and got little to do with mitigation, it is not meant to prevent climate change but to deal with its consequences.
So, while the military may present itself as an ally in the figth against climate change, this is mere greenwashing, which also projects the military as a suitable partner for tackling climate-change impacts, justifying an increased role and budgets. In reality, this increased role will further fuel climate change and the risk of conflict and forced migration.
Making a step to this other so-called ’threat’, we can see a partly parallel discourse. Migration, that is: unwanted or so-called ‘irregular’ migration, is perceived as a security threat, security and armed forces need to deal with to keep the current status quo. It again justifies an increased role and increased budget for (para)military troops and activities. In practice this discourse has lead to the abhorrent migration policies from western states, such as the United States, Australia and the European Union. These policies share four common pillars:
  1. Boosting and militarising border security, through the increasing use of military equipment and (para)military personnel for border security and control. This includes the rapidly spreading phenomenon of erecting border walls and fences, equipped with all kinds of technological surveillance and detection tools, and the use of autonomous and unmanned systems, such as drones.
  2. The concept of ‘smart borders’, where wanted travellers have to pass borders as easily and quick as possible, while (possible) unwanted ones are filtered out for control. Biometric border control posts at airports are an example of this system, that feeds on racism through etnic profiling and creates a new form of ‘apartheid’.
  3. Detention and deportation of unwanted migrants, that managed to get to or cross the border despite the increased border security, and;
  4. The externalisation and globalisation of border security and control: the pressure on third countries to act as border outposts, be it African countries trying to stop migration towards Europe, the Australian model of jailing boat refugees on Naura or the Programa Frontera Sur through which the USA strengthens border security at the border between Mexico and Guatemala. This goes accompanied by strengthening security forces in these countries, often with authoritarian governments, which results in more repression, violence, the undermining of development and threatening internal stability. All factors which in the end will only lead to more refugees.
There is a striking resemblance in the way western countries, in a form of neo-colonial action, push away both their responsibility for creating the drivers for climate change and migration and the consequences of their behaviour. Once again leaving countries, that are already subject to western domination in the form of trade and power relations, to clean up their mess.
The role of military power in this is unmistakable, it forms the backbone of this western domination. The military’s only goal is to adapt to changing security situations, with the aim of maintaining its own power and influence as well as defending the interests of those who have been the main actors causing the climate crisis and the refugee ‘crisis’. As a consequence, the military, rather than providing solutions to climate change and forced migration, is part of the problem.
For the vast majority of the people in this world this future is not something to look forward to. For the military and security industry, however, this all comes with new profit opportunities. Four years ago, the Hague Security Delta, a network of businesses, governments and research institutions organised a meeting about climate change, where participants would “look at opportunities for business, the government and knowledge institutes to develop climate change resilience.” Two of the four speakers talked about “business opportunities around climate change resilience.”
More in general, in 2009 Lord Drayson, then UK Minister of State for Science and Innovation, said: “I think [climate change] is a real opportunity for the [aerospace and defence] industry.” Unfortunately, he was right. To sum up:
  • a market for ‘greener’ weapons and a military running on alternative fuels;
  • a growing market for ’traditional’ arms, because of more instability, wars and other armed conflicts as a consequence of climate change and the scramble for access to resources that get scarcer and scarcer;
  • a growing border security market, to keep out refugees that are the result of climate change and conflict;
  • a growing homeland security market, to deal with social unrest as a result of climate change and problems coming with the extraction of natural resources in order to keep the social order and the power and wealth of the elites intact;
  • an environmental and energy market, on which military companies promote military technologies for civil use
Let’s not forget that the same industry coincidentally also fuels chaos, violence and repression by exporting arms to conflict zones, human rights abusers and poor countries, thereby enlarging the problems it will later once again profit from.
Umasking the role of the military and the military security industry concerning climate change, conflict and forced migration makes clear that they are no allies in the struggle against climate change. They are part of the problem.
Of course, most of the times it is easier to identify problems and false solutions to them, than to come up with real solutions. A shift to clean energy will overcome many of the problems attached to fossil fuels, and is an indispensable step to stop, or at least slow down, climate change and its consequences. But is not to say that alternative energy is a panacee for everything. It can come with its own problems in terms of conflict and human rights, from needing other, sometimes, scarce resources to shifting existing international relations.
I do think it is important that people who are active on the topics of climate change, conflict and migration learn from eachother and work together. That we see that a large part of these problems lead back to the same source: the power of elites and the global system based on capitalism and militarism they derive their power from. And that in joining hands we have to question this system and take opposition against it, as a prerequisite for the hope of creating a more sustainable, fair, humane and free world for everyone.