If A War Is The Answer, What Was The Question?

Dr Samuel Randalls
Department of Geography
University College London

The notion that climate change should invoke security-laced rhetoric and a military-style response is not new (de Goede and Randalls, 2009). To give just two examples: Claims of crisis were made in the Impact Team report ‘The Weather Conspiracy’ published in 1977. Here the threat, a new ice age, required ‘crusaders’ to go out and encourage energy efficiency to prevent the enemy (ice) from destroying civilization as we know it. In 1989, Al Gore stated that climate change would challenge nations strategically and that the USA would, in a military parallel, deal with climate change at the point at which the ‘nuclear option’ would be invoked. The idea that climate change demands a war footing therefore has historical precedents, but these arguments have been couched in the different concerns and contexts of the time (ice, cold war politics).

Likewise, climate change today attracts a wide variety of commentators expressing different views on what the problem is really all about and how to solve it. For example, economists may see climate change as a market-problem, an insufficient pricing of greenhouse gas emissions that is to be corrected through the implementation of adequate pricing mechanisms. For those concerned with behavioural change, climate change represents an individual’s failure to take seriously the consequences of their (in some inflections, Capitalist) consumption patterns and choices. Changing our lifestyles would be a central solution. But given that in political rhetoric maintaining our lifestyle has been held up as a central discourse which no politician would willingly trample over within a democracy (Kurz et al., 2010), there are clear limitations if climate change is framed from the point of view of political expedience and politically agreed interventions. For climate security professionals, immediate action could be required to reduce the existential threats that climate change poses for national interest and security whether through concerns about refugees, radicalization, or simply protecting large cities. Perhaps geoengineering or other grand designs, tinged with military heritage and limited deliberation, might come to ultimately resolve the (security) challenge in this worldview.

These are all diverse, overlapping, and yet also contradictory approaches to climate change. In other words, a solution to one does not mean a solution to all the others. If we accept that climate change is considered a problem in multiple different ways, then the question is: what is the problem which a ‘war footing’ would solve? And, if we’re going to tackle climate change as though going to war, who or what would be the enemy in each case?

If we take climate change policy as being simply about the reduction of anthropogenic impacts on the global climate, then the enemy in this case, greenhouse gases, is also ironically crucial for our survival on earth. So one is instantly in a position of having to decide which (otherwise chemically-equivalent) molecules are ‘evil’. Good CO2 vs Bad CO2. Perhaps this might follow the classic Agrawal and Narain (1991) distinction between luxury and survival emissions, though it is hard to specifically call luxury an enemy when the majority of emissions in richer countries would fall under that label.

The enemy in a different scenario might be large business, particularly the 90 companies that have been responsible for the majority of historical greenhouse gas emissions (Heede, 2014). The obfuscation and delaying tactics that these companies have frequently adopted makes them easy to label the enemy, particularly for those on the political left. This labelling perhaps only entrenches a sense that environmental pills are watermelon in colour for those that favour market-based solutions in which companies take responsibility and innovate to create economic-environmental win-win solutions. For these, the enemy might be characterised as government, whether a fear of too much or insufficient government incentives or structures.

For yet others, the enemy might be said to be our alienation from nature. Within this argument, it is not just about greenhouse gases. Ultimately the enemy is our present Capitalist culture that privileges consumption and exploitation over any meaningful connection to the world around us. Conquering such an enemy would require a war within as much as a war without; a war of ideas and emotions, as much rooting out the internal disconnect with the planet as an external war against businesses.

The point is that depending on the way in which you see climate change as a problem, you will have different ideas of who the enemy might be, and how to resolve the conflict. The question then is not ‘is a war footing needed’ but, accepting this language for a moment, of what kind and to achieve what? We could go on a war footing with investment in geoengineering technology, but while we might fix the planet to a particular temperature target we determined (assuming all the hubris of technological success of course), we’ll become even more alienated from ecological and atmospheric rhythms. If we alternatively go on a war footing to deal with individual behavioural change, perhaps monitoring and managing everyday lives in extensive detail, parallels in terrorism point to the risks of such a strategy vis-à-vis liberty and freedom. There would therefore be multiple war footings to fight multiple wars with different outcomes in mind, and it is likely that those with power would have a greater ability to stake a claim for their war being the ‘war to end all wars’.

As such, I find metaphors of war in the climate change literature deeply troubling. The urgency they instil obscures vital political questions about the sought-for goals that should be open to much broader debate than the current policy paradigm. We need to expose the legitimate disagreements about how to respond to a changing climate rather than obscuring them in the hurry to fight an enemy that remains amorphous and multifarious. A war footing to reduce emissions doesn’t necessarily answer the various, broader meanings of climate change in society today. To a large extent, if we have to go to war, it means we have failed.


This post is a response to the CAOS Provocation Climate Change: War Footing or Peaceful Solidarity?. Read the other responses:


Work referred to:

Agrawal, A. and Narain, S. 1991. Global warming in an unequal world: a case of environmental colonialism, New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

De Goede, M. and Randalls, S. 2009. Precaution, preemption: arts and technologies of the actionable future, Environment and Planning:D, 27, 859-878.

Gore, A. 1989. The global environment: a national security issue, in: DeFries, R. and Malone, T. (eds) Global Change and Our Common Future. Washington: National Academy Press, 177-186.

Heede, R. 2014. Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuels and cement producers, 1854-2010, Climatic Change, 122, 229-241.

Kurz, T., Augoustinos, M. and Crabb, S. 2010. Contesting the ‘national interest’ and maintaining ‘our lifestyle’: A discursive analysis of political rhetoric around climate change, British Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 601-625.

The Impact Team. 1977. The weather conspiracy: The coming of the new ice age. New York: Heron House Publishing.