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How should world leaders protect us?

25 February 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
A total fire ban was declared for NSW on the smoke-drenched evening last November when Professor Ole Wæver gave a talk “Hope vs Fear: climate change as a security issue”. When his six-month SSSHARC fellowship ended in January, he had watched the most destructive bushfires in Australia’s history turn the country into a dramatic case study for his theory.

"The Australian experience underlines another crucial step in the argument that I tried to make in November, which is that I do think in the coming five years we will see a total transformation of global climate policies,” Wæver said in an interview for the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) before he left Sydney.

“It’s not that Australia shows us what a securitised climate looks like, but Australia shows what a tipping point looks like, what it means for the discussion on the issue to change abruptly.”

Wæver is Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, and globally renowned as the founder of the theory of securitisation, which broadens the traditional definition of security, and for leading the social sciences at an academic conference on climate change that ran parallel with the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. 

For more than 30 years he has studied how non-military issues such as ethnic conflict, religion, terrorism, migration, pandemics and climate change can be seen as a national or international security risk and push governments to take top-down emergency measures that override democratic control.

There’s a role for social scientists in climate change politics

Climate change is his “favourite subject” for discussion because of its interdisciplinary relevance to both natural and social scientists.

“A lot of climate researchers have had this sense for a long time: ‘We’ve said it, we’ve shown it, why is nothing happening? You psychologists and sociologists and political scientists have to find out what’s going wrong with people.'

“That is to some extent a role we can’t accept because it’s making us just a transmission belt. So it’s not the end of the story, but it means they are super open to saying, ‘We can’t deal with this on our own, we did our job 10 years ago’.”

Securitisation theory, laid out in the 1998 book Security: A New Framework for Analysis, co-authored with Barry Buzan and Jaap de Wilde, is influential in both academic and policy circles around the world. It is not a how-to guide, said Wæver, but “most of the time it’s a warning to think twice”.

“You politically scrutinise [the problem] and say, why do you think it’s a security issue, what are we willing to give up in order to deal with this? Wouldn’t it be better if we could deal with migration as a humanitarian issue rather than making it a security threat? Wouldn’t it be better if we could deal with environmental issues as part of normal concerns? Will we be better off by dealing with it as a security issue?”

In his public lecture for Sydney Ideas, “Hope vs Fear: climate change as a security issue”, Wæver quoted an argument that “the dangers posed by climate change are as dire as those from nuclear weapons” and described two ways of viewing climate change as a security threat.

Military experts see mass migration of climate refugees as a possible cause of war. Seventeen million people had to leave their homes in 2018; by 2050 the number may be 150 million, and billions this century if the planet warms by three degrees. A rise of one degree in the average global temperature has been estimated to cause a relative increase in civil war in Africa of almost 50 per cent.

However, Wæver cautioned against thinking in terms of “climate wars”. Climate change alone will not cause war, he said, but could aggravate ethnic, religious, economic and territorial tensions. In his view, climate change itself is the greater danger and the way governments deal with it will determine the future.

“By naming climate change as a security issue we elevate it and make it urgent, so that it overrides everything else. This way you can get things done but it also mandates governments to take extraordinary measures. This can be good and bad.”

Sydney Ideas lecture audience

Sydney Ideas Talk Hope vs fear: cilmate change as a security issue. L-R: Professor Charlotte Epstein, Councillor Jess Miller, Ms Olivia Arkell, Professor Ole Waever. Credit: Ash Berdebes

From “do or don’t” to “try or do”

There was resistance when Wæver first put forward his theory in the 1980s, from both traditional security experts, who said that making everything a potential security issue ruined the concept, and environmentalists, who feared that declaring a security risk could lead to militarisation and excessive state powers.

“Now it seems the urgency has arrived,” he said, displaying images of the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion protests. In a recent opinion poll two-thirds of Australians had named climate change as a critical threat to Australia’s vital interests – “even in this country, which has been one of the most resistant to the idea”.

In our interview two months later, after ongoing bushfires had destroyed 25 million acres of land, 3000 homes, more than 30 human lives and perhaps a billion animals, Wæver said: “I think a lot of us have this sense that climate change has moved from future tense into present tense”.

Extreme weather has been increasing for years all over the world. Denmark, for example, has more concentrated rainfall, which floods sewage systems and basements. But Wæver thinks Australia’s experience has made abstract statistical arguments concrete. Photographs of the fires may become a more persuasive illustration than images of polar bears clinging to melting ice.

For all his pessimism about the lack of response to climate change, Wæver can see some positive changes emerging from Australia’s loss.

“People are now saying to their prime minister, ‘You haven’t protected us’, and for a right-wing prime minister that is problematic, because the thing you’re supposed to do in the traditional minimalist state is at least protection.”

In response to public outcries, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s rhetoric has shifted – “more than people acknowledge” – away from saying there’s no link between climate change and bushfires. From there Wæver predicts a general move in the discussion, in which denial no longer has a part.

“Suddenly the spectrum moves to being no longer about do or don’t but between try and do, to speak Star Wars Yoda language. I think that is what has happened in 2019, suddenly there is this voice of urgency and this basic argument, that you politicians have failed in your fundamental task, that I think is a shift to a new main axis.”

This brings with it a risk of securitisation unless governments can work together, he said. “I find it much more likely that in five years a big part of this issue will be dealt with in a kind of emergency warlike security context.

“The most plausible prediction right now would be to say we’re just failing, we’re just ending up with five degrees heating and one silly insufficient agreement after the other. But I think there will be a last-minute, very painful turnaround, partly because politicians will suddenly see the reward from being those who play that role on a new playing ground where it’s important to show you are the one who really does it.

“That game will be a dangerous one because it gives a lot of basis for strongman politics as in war and other emergencies, but it will also give us quite a lot of climate action.”

Given the compromised results of previous agreements, he suggests two options. The United Nations Security Council could declare a threat to international peace and security, and impose global emissions standards; or the five biggest decision-making powers could be “locked up” until they reach an agreement to reduce their emissions, which would “change the whole game".

Climate strike 2019. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Climate strike 2019. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

The “crazy” theory of securitisation

Wæver began formulating his ideas when he was a political science student in Copenhagen in the 1980s. Towards the end of the Cold War, others in the peace and environmental movements had initiated the theory that pollution, overconsumption, poverty and starvation threatened many people more urgently than Cold War military confrontations.

After completing his MA degree, Wæver began work at a new peace research institute, which later became the famous Copenhagen School. While there he wrote a paper outlining his theory of securitisation and presented it to a research training seminar for PhD students.

He proposed a “third position”, that measuring the comparative dangers of war and other issues was impossible. It was more interesting to examine the effects of naming something a security issue, bearing in mind that widening the issue of security was always a double-edged sword.

“Everyone was saying, ‘This is crazy, forget it, burn it, this doesn’t work’. So I did put it aside.”

A few years later he was invited to a workshop in Santa Cruz, California, where speakers presented their “most crazy ideas”. His paper became an article that was published in a book in 1995, and led to his 1998 landmark textbook co-written with Buzan. His theory of securitisation became the Copenhagen School’s most distinctive idea.

“I tell students this story nowadays as a lesson not to listen too much to us old people.”

He has always applied his theory to contemporary issues: in the 1980s Cold War tensions, in the 1990s ethnic conflict in Europe, in the 2000s religion and terrorism and, since the Copenhagen Summit, climate change.

“This was one of the few theories [in international relations] that didn’t come from the US and actually reached the US last,” he said. “It travelled from Europe to the rest of the world and then to the US, basically with the help of George W Bush and the war on terror. They could see what securitisation looked like because it was all over the place. So eventually it became a globally accepted theory.”

Wæver builds bonds between Sydney and Copenhagen

Wæver has been visiting Australia for 12 years as part of a strong partnership between the departments of politics and international relations at the universities of Copenhagen and Sydney, both considered among the most innovative in the world.

When he arrived as the James Fellow at SSSHARC last August, he planned to focus on his securitisation theory “in order to re-think its theoretical foundations especially in relation to ‘speech act theory’ within philosophy of language”.

As he explains, “In securitisation there is an idea that something happens when you securitise. You transform the politics of an issue, you constitute a new political object; suddenly you create climate change as a security issue or migration as a security issue.”

In the original speech act theory, a promise is often given as the classic example. “How do we understand the nature of a promise and how does that somehow come out of nothing? Now I owe you something, our relationship has changed.”

That creative moment is difficult to theorise and has been watered down by others to a theory of communication. Wæver wants to revitalise the “radical potential of the theory” and extend it to a general theory of politics.

He presented these ideas to a seminar at the University of Queensland and consulted with the SSSHARC director, Nick Enfield, who is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. However, circumstances meant he spent less time on his general theory and more on climate change, including media interviews in Australia and Europe.

“The real world has been a little more intrusive than I expected.”       

Ole Wæver is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, founder of the Centre for Advanced Security Theory, and Director of the Centre for Resolution of International Conflicts. He was a SSSHARC Visiting Fellow funded by the Ernest Athelstan James Bequest

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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