Planetary Security, or the Subversion of Collapse

On 3 November 2015, the Dutch Ministry of foreign affairs organises the conference “Planetary Security: Peace and Cooperation in Times of Climate Change and Global Environmental Challenges” at the Peace Palace in the Hague. This conference accompanies the worldwide mobilisation for the United Nations summit on climate change (known as “COP 21”), which will take place in Paris, France, from 30 November to 11 December 2015.

The peculiarity of this conference lies in the fact that it infuses the idea of security with a political, strategic and societal meaning, while security also remains clearly defined as a moment of exchanges between policy-makers and experts on the threat caused by climate and environmental change.

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In other words, the very existence of this conference reveals that new dynamics are supporting the emergence of a political awareness of the novel interactions between the global planetary change and national and international security issues. This creates a new paradigm, necessary to understand the strategic challenges of geopolitics on a changing planet.

The emergence of the “planetary security” strategic concept

From a political scientist’s point of view, if one focuses on the programme of the conference, thus considering it as a primary research material, it is interesting to note that it is one of the very first and few conference organised and hosted by a European nation-state, which officially aggregates notions about the anthropogenic global changes of the Earth system (Global change-international geosphere-Biosphere programme) with issues related to strategic thinking, defence and security, peace and war.

Indeed, the programme of the conference through roundtables and working panels, addresses issues related to climate and war in Syria, security and climate change in the Arabian Peninsula, Arctic security and conflicting interests, food security, water diplomacy, risk assessment and risk management, thus, more generally, the strategic significance of climate change (Valantin, “Is climate change a geostrategic issue? Yes!”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 14 October 2013).

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In fact, one could say that this programme is a way to socialise and translate the discovery of scientists into the political European and NATO higher structure. It is a way to, literally, “train” the actors of the decision-making process at the level of ministers, be they within states or within international organisation in understanding and integrating the very notion of “planetary security”.

This notion has been emerging, in different forms, over the last decade, alongside the understanding of global change as a threat to the modern industrialized way of life (James Howard Kunstler, The Long emergency, 2005). It results from the convergence of the works of a growing number of Earth system researchers, with major studies on societal vulnerabilities, and with the identification by Harald Welzer (Climate wars: what people will be killed for in the 21st century, 2012) and other security and military experts of the numerous links between the current environmental and social crises as a new kind of security issues.

This “cross-pollination” of climate, biological and sociological studies, on the one hand, and of strategic thinking, on the other, emerged first in the leaked U.S. Department of defence, when, in 2003, the Office of Net assessment, published the report “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Consequences for U.S National Security”.

In 2007, it was then officially endorsed, when Secretary of Defence Robert Gates asked for a report on the effects of climate change on the U.S. National security to a panel of very high-profile “young” retired military leaders. Since then, climate change has become a growing topic in military thinking (Gwynn Dyer, Climate Wars, 2010).

Furthermore, in 2005, the destruction of New Orleans by the Hurricane Katrina showed that a moFlickr_-_Official_U.S._Navy_Imagery_-_The_Great_Green_Fleet_demonstrates_biofuels_during_RIMPAC_2012.dern megalopolis of the U.S., then the sole super power, was vulnerable to a “simple” extreme weather event. Since then, the U.S. Department of Defence, rapidly followed by the entire U.S. national defence and security community, has been working on the strategic, operational and tactical consequences of global warming (Valantin, Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique se prepare à la guerre du climat, 2013).

In the same time, a cognitive revolution, which deeply changes the comprehension of the relations between the human species and our planet, took place.

Bridging the gap between planetary security and political thinking

The relationships between the human species and our planet started being understood as un-secure in 1972, when the Club of Rome published its famous report “The limits to Growth”, which it had commissioned to a team of scientists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Dennis and Donnella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III).

The report established that the combined pressures exercised by both the growth of industrial production on the planetary resources and the growth of pollution and environmental degradation was going to increase the costs of the economic system, while decreasing its efficiency.

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These twin dynamics would go on until the whole system would stop being able to support and sustain itself, once the planetary carrying capacity would be exhausted and the environmental conditions and life conditions be fatally degraded.

This pioneer report opened multiple areas of research, of which emerged the wider field of research about sustainability and its limits. It was updated in 2004 (Dennis and Donnella Meadow, The Limits to growth – the 30 years update, 2004).

In 2005, Jared Diamond, building on transversal studies, and thus following the methods pioneered by the Club of Rome, demonstrated with his monumental “Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive”, how the choice of certain forms of development could be inadequate, given the carrying capacity of the regional environment and, as a result, lead entire societies to collapse.

This was the “official” start of what we could call the “sustainability versus collapse” studies. In this new field, the report: “Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity”, led by Johann Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center (Ecology and Society, 2009) has been a conceptual breakthrough. The research team defined nine “planetary boundaries”, which must not be crossed, because crossing them would fundamentally alter the collective life conditions of humanity. If crossed, these thresholds are nothing but “tipping points” towards deeply changed life conditions on Earth.

The nine boundaries are “ climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading” (Ibid.). The report warns that three of these thresholds, i.e. climate change, the biodiversity crisis and the interferences with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, are already crossed.

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This new research is published while the world knows a multiplication of extreme environmental events, which are impacting immense regions, such as the Arctic, while experts of the international competition for natural resources, such as Michael Klare, are establishing the new links between this competition, and the crossing of planetary thresholds.

Klare’s works, especially Rising powers, shrinking planet, 2008, and The Race for what’s left, 2012, put in perspective the way national and international politics are being intertwined with the “limits to growth”. These “limits” are the one met because of the growing demand on the Earth-system, which are accompanied by growing financial, political and even military costs.

This new vision of the links between the competition for natural resources, the growing socio-environmental vulnerabilities and new strategic tensions is particularly important for understanding what 320px-Parad_korableyis happening in the Arctic. Indeed, the transformation of the Arctic environment by global warming has triggered a massive Russian and Chinese technical, financial and military race (Valantin, “The Arctic, Russia and China’s energy transition”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 2 February 2015) in order to exploit the energy and mineral deposits that become accessible (Charles Emmerson, A Future history of the Arctic, 2010).

In so doing, the actors transform the strategic status of the Arctic, which becomes, through the combination of global warming, industry and militarisation, a “hot spot” of the emerging “planetary security”.

Towards the anthropocene geopolitics?

As a result, the “Planetary Security: Peace and Cooperation in Times of Climate Change and Global Environmental Challenges” conference is an important moment for the development, in Europe, of what can be called “anthropocene geopolitics”.

The anthropocene is the current geological era that a growing number of geophysicists and biologists define as the current new geological and biological era. It is labelled as such because they identify  human species as now the principal source of pressure on the planetary environment.

This triggers multiple feedbacks that emerge from planetary environment and put societies under new kind of pressures. As the Royal society sums it up:

“Anthropogenic changes to the Earth’s climate, land, oceans and biosphere are now so great and so rapid that the concept of a new geological epoch defined by the action of humans, the Anthropocene, is widely and seriously debated.” (Zalasiewicz, Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time ?, 2011).

The Anthropocene is thus this most paradoxical era, during which life conditions on Earth are being deeply altered by humanity, to the point that the planetary boundaries are crossed, transforming the environment into a new set of life conditions to which humanity is not adapted.

The very fact that the scientific and political conditions which made possible the organization of this conference 27 days before the COP 21 are aligned reveals that the anthropocene, as a reality as well as a concept, is now entering the field of political thought. This points out a whole new field of possibilities. It notably emphasises that the political thought and politics, which were developed through the former industrial-consumerist/North-South paradigm, are rapidly becoming obsolete (Vijay Prakash, The poorer nations, a possible history of the global south, 2014), while the new field of anthropocene politics and strategy opens up.

This may well be creating the very possibility to address the main, urgent, current issue: the development of strategies that will prevent regional and global collapse, as well as desperate wars for the last resources, and that will support new ways to “domesticate” the anthropocene. It could be the path forward to reconcile the planetary life network with human development, and achieve “planetary security”.

We are at a crossroad.

Jean-Michel Valantin, (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.

Featured image: Camp Pendleton fire by Cpl Joshua Murray, identified by DVIDS belongs to the Public Domain – U.S. Marines and fire crew on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., respond to wildfires ablaze in southern California May 14, 2014. The Tomahawk fire, in the northeast section of Camp Pendleton has burned more than 6,000 acres forcing evacuations of housing areas on base and various schools both on and off base. Aircraft from 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and the Camp Pendleton Fire Department worked in coordination with CALFIRE to prevent fires from spreading off base. Marine officials are coordinating with CALFIRE for the further use of military aircraft pending the wildfire status within San Diego County.