From national security to decolonial ecological security: the contradictions of the US military approach to climate security and its intersections with alternative security discourses.

by Ceara Webster

*note from the Editor: this piece was written months prior to the current situation in Afghanistan. Commentary on climate emissions, forward operating bases (FOBs), and counterinsurgency were in the context of the Afghanistan War (2001-2021).


The United States’ (US) military is, in itself, a threat to national security. Climate change, in dominant discourses on climate security, is considered either a threat or a threat multiplier. It has a human cause and significant adverse impacts on the environment and social stability of our world. Considering the US military is the single largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons, petroleum in particular, globally (Belcher et al., 2019: 2; Nuttall et al., 2017: 3), they directly contribute to generating this ‘threat’ of climate change. This essay outlines the national security approach that remains prevalent in the US and geopolitics today. Then, because a key securitising actor in national security discourse is the military, the paper explores how the US military simultaneously secures and exacerbates climate change. The essay then provides some alternative imaginings of climate security, including: i) ecological and decolonial security from literature on ecological security and the Beirut School of Critical Security Studies, or ii) desecuritising climate change entirely. Further research would be needed to fully scope out the referent objects, actors, threats, and resulting policies that may emerge from these latter approaches. This essay makes a start at this work, but due to practical limitations can only offer these as provocations. The main thesis of this paper therefore is that current dominant security approaches to climate change are insufficient to tackle the root cause of climate change. Specifically, the involvement of the US military in securing the nation-state against climate change is counter-intuitive, given their “carbon boot-print” (Belcher et al., 2019).

Security discourses: national security and securitisation

To explore different security discourses it is important to clarify key terminology, including: security, broadening and deepening, referent object, and securitising actors (or key ‘agents’ of security). Security is a contested concept, with “changes in the practices of security over time” changing the meaning of security (Stritzel, 2014: 18). This is a discursive change (Hajer, 1995) done by broadening and deepening the security discourse. Broadened definitions of security incorporate novel challenges like climate change as security issues (as climate security) (Stritzel, 2014). Deepening the security agenda includes new ‘referent objects’. The referent object refers to “whose security is at stake” (McDonald, 2014: 43). In traditional security studies, the referent object was the state. Deepened security agendas include referent objects, like humans (in human security), populations or circulations (in biopolitics), and international order (in international security).

Agents of security – like states, the military, NGOs, and citizens – are responsible for responding to a particular threat (McDonald, 2014: 43). These agents enable climate change to undergo the process of securitisation. Securitisation occurs when a political issue is transferred from the realm of ‘normal’ politics to the realm of security. Security is where exceptional measures can be taken to ensure the survival of a given referent object (Buzan et al., 1998: 24-29 in Stritzel, 2014: 15). This paper elucidates how the military as a security agent (in)effectively secures the referent object of the state against the threat of climate change; so the paper examines a broadened national security discourse.

National security discourse is one of the most poignant contemporary discourses about climate security (McDonald, 2013). In the US, the Department of Defence (DOD) defined climate change as a threat that “impair[s] [the] DOD’s ability to prepare for or carry out the National Security Strategy or create[s] instabilities that can threaten US National Security” (Floyd, 2010: 89). Alternatively, climate change has been framed as a threat multiplier (The CNA Corporation, 2007: 5) which facilitates existing unrest that “could directly challenge US national security” (McDonald, 2013: 45). Responses to potential climate threats can be mitigation strategies or adaptation strategies. By and large, national security discourse largely focuses on how states can adapt (McDonald, 2013).

Adaptation strategies “do not address the causes of climate change and even position those affected most by it as threatening” (McDonald, 2013: 45-46). For example, a 2003 report commissioned by the Pentagon argued that self-sufficient states may need to “develop more effective border control strategies” to prevent displaced populations, due to climate change, from crossing the national border (Schwarts & Randall, 2013 in McDonald, 2013: 46). This framing could encourage a military response which is incongruous to delivering effective solutions to problems of environmental change and maintaining the status quo of security in global politics (Deudney, 1990 in McDonald, 2013: 43-44). In the next section we examine this incongruity.

Failed climate securitisation: the case of the US military

A 2015 report the DOD provided to Congress stated that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 11). Six years later, the DOD announced they had an action team dedicated to helping the DOD to adapt to climate change (Vergun, 2021). While on the surface this may appear to be positive, it focuses on adapting – techniques that deal with the effects of climate change – as opposed to mitigating – reducing anthropogenic climate change at the source, through decreasing carbon emissions, for example.

Without mitigation efforts, global temperatures are estimated to “increase by 1.8-4℃” by the close of the twenty-first century (McDonald, 2013: 43). Such temperature changes will result in sea level rise which threatens low-lying lands and increases the frequency and intensity of severe weather events (McDonald, 2013). These changes typically are felt most intensely in the “developing” world (McDonald, 2013: 43), but are also felt in the US in places where low-lying land is at risk of flooding and the increased risk of more devastating hurricanes. Economically, “if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change…could rise to 20% of GDP or more” (Stern, 2007: xv). There are, therefore, ecological and financial incentives for the US to take action against the threats of climate change and securitise their nation. One agent responsible for this is the military (from here onwards ‘the military’ or ‘military force’ refers to the military of the United States).

The military has been integrated into security strategy because national security discourse sees climate change as “at least as serious as the prospect of nuclear proliferation” which needs to be approached with a “major military risk analysis” (Mabey, 2011 in Dalby, 2014: 1; Mabey, 2011). Attempting to push climate change into the realm of security aims to lend legitimacy to the use of exceptional measures that may be invoked by security actors – in this case, the state – which calls forth the involvement of military force.

The US military has begun to plan “contingency operations to deal with disasters and related political instabilities as well as protecting their facilities from” climate change (Dalby, 2014: 1). Military leaders remain concerned about climate change, convinced it “seriously threatens US national security” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 4). This is motivated in part by the fact that in Alaska “many facilities are at risk of collapse or damage as the permafrost on which they sit begins to thaw” and in “California, wildfires burn on or near key bases” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 10).

In response, the DOD “is investing in renewable energy, including solar power and biofuels. By the end of 2020, the armed forces expect to generate 18% of on-base electricity from renewables” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 13). Even with these actions, discourses advanced by this agent of security rely on the assertion that people “might be persuaded to take action when they hear from respected generals and admirals that the nation’s security is at stake” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 16). This narrative is easy to demonstrate as, for example, the Air Force is still paying US$5 billion to rebuild Tyndall (an air force base in Florida) and another base and move F-22 operations elsewhere due to a hurricane (Roblin, 2020). Fully successful securitisation, however, is impossible given the inherent contradictions in US military climate security strategy.

Belcher et al.,’s (2019) important work highlights how the Defense Logistics Agency –
Energy (DLA-E), a sub-agency in the US DOD, is the “primary purchase-point for hydrocarbon‐based fuels for the US military, both domestically and internationally” (Belcher et al., 2019: 66). The DLA-E’s bureaucratic and infrastructural capacity was utilised to fulfil carbon-intensive requirements of US military operations and facilitate “carbon-intensive American imperialism” (Belcher et al., 2019: 66) because, while the US military has invested in renewable fuel sources, like solar power and biofuels, the institution “consumes more liquid fuels and emits more CO2e (carbon‐dioxide equivalent) than many medium‐sized countries” (Belcher et al., 2019: 72). In 2017 alone, “the US military purchased about 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted 25,375.8 kt‐CO2e by burning those fuels” (Belcher et al., 2019: 72). For the period of 2010-2018, US military GHG emissions “amount to 593 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent…an annual average similar to the annual GHG emission output of 14 million passenger cars” (Belcher et al., 2020: 989) and they are the 47th largest emitter of GHGs in the world when accounting for emissions from fuel usage alone (Belcher et al., 2019; Neimark et al., 2019).

The most common fuels the DLA-E supply are jet fuel and terrestrial and marine diesel (Belcher et al., 2019). Pollutants emitted from the burning of military jet fuel are more potent than its terrestrial counterparts because burning at high altitudes can result in “warming 2-4 times greater than on the ground” (IPCC, 2014 in Belcher et al., 2019: 73). The Air Force emits the most GHGs, 13,202.4 kt‐CO2e, followed by the Navy at 7,847.8 kt‐CO2e; they are also, unsurprisingly, the largest purchasers of fuel, with the Air Force purchasing “US$4.9 billion worth of fuel and the Navy US$2.8 billion, followed by the Army at US$947 million and Marines at US$36 million” in 2017 (DLA, 2017 in Belcher et al., 2019: 73). These visible costs fundamentally undermine the efforts of attempting to switch to alternative fuels.

However, what about hidden carbon costs? These can be unearthed when looking at path dependencies. Fuels supplied by the DLA-E “power everything from routine base operations in the USA to forward operating bases [FOBs] in Afghanistan” (Belcher et al., 2019: 71). Path dependencies are “built-in to major strategic commitments such as weapons systems…and the bureaucratic requirements that facilitate the operations of those commitments. Every step is dependent on a hydrocarbon fuel commitment” (Belcher et al., 2019: 75). During the Afghanistan War, there were over 100 FOBs throughout the country and one typical FOB required a “minimum of 300 gallons of diesel a day to operate” (Deloitte, 2009 in Belcher et al., 2019: 75; original emphasis in Belcher et al.). A single typical combat brigade requires in excess of 500,000 gallons of fuel per day (Deloitte, 2009: 15). At the beginning of 2010, approximately 30-40% of bases were being supplied by air due to the Taliban having control over a lot of Highway 1 (Gregory, 2012: paragraph 6). When recalling that burning fuel to transport the fuel would cause warming 2-4 times more than on the ground, it becomes clear that commitment to military doctrines like counterinsurgency run contrary to the ability to secure the nation-state against climate change.

The expansionist act of generating and maintaining extensive international path dependencies and supplying them with DLA-E budgets and infrastructure is endangering the lives of every being on the planet. The military actively increases the risk of exposure to the effects of climate change to those living in developing regions who may be framed later as an alleged security threat due to having to flee the effects of climate change. The military is, in effect, breeding human and ecological national security threats.

To bring this case study back to the larger problem at hand – how the military undermines national security – framing climate change as the threat misses the essence of the problem. It ignores the ‘cause’ which is not climate change itself – though its effects do still present a threat to human and more-than-human life. It is rather that “global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 , methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750” (IPCC, 2007: 5). Broadly, but not exclusively, humans and institutions in the global North are the driving forces behind global anthropogenic climate change. The US military has locked itself in a carbon future through their contractual obligations (Belcher et al., 2019), accelerating anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, the US military comprises one of the root causes of insecurity for the nation-state, threatening its own bases, broader ecologies, and humans in ‘developing’ nations. The solution demands radical system change, though this seems unlikely as North American security actors “are interested in both denying for as long as possible the significance of climate change and emphasizing the utility of force in dealing with political difficulties in peripheral places” (Dalby, 2014: 8).

Alternative security discourses

So, if securitising climate change under the discourse of national security is inadequate, what are some alternatives? The two alternatives briefly outlined here are: i) transition from national security to ecological and decolonial security discourses, and ii) desecuritise climate change altogether.

In ecological security the biosphere itself is the referent object. Ecological security discourse is mainly advanced by NGOs and critical academics (Pirages, 2005 in McDonald, 2013) and therefore is not prevalent on the security stage like national security discourse is. It calls for “systematic structural change in our relationship to the natural environment” (McDonald, 2013: 48). A subsequent focus on the effects of climate change, the causes of accelerated climate change, and species and habitats beyond the human, is key to establishing security. Proponents of the ecological security discourse are “reluctant to wholly endorse a discourse of (climate) security” and instead focus on the agency of people to alter their “ecological consciousness” (McDonald, 2013: 48).

Commonly, the Westphalian System, arising from the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in Germany in 1648, can be seen as the “progenitor of modern nation-state sovereignty” (Farr, 2005: 156), which “became the primary governing system among European states” and underpins modern IR (Farr, 2005: 156). Protection of the nation-state and its sovereignty then, is rooted in the protection of a European imagining of what it means to have a strong nation-state. The technocratic weaponisation of a ‘War on Nature’, in the name of defending the nation-state, continues into the treatment of nature and those in states most affected by climate change as threatening ‘Others’ to not just the nation-state, but the very idea of what makes a strong nation.

The Beirut School of Critical Security Studies “suggest alternative ways of studying security against the grain of European research agendas or ‘schools’” (Abboud et al., 2018: 275). These ‘alternative ways’ aim to advance the idea that “decolonial encounters are meant to shed light on and experiment with disrupting the ways in which some language systems are recognised and measured against others” (Abboud et al., 2018: 278). In this sense, it draws attention to the fact that it matters who speaks security – i.e., which actors are able to securitise.

The issue with both of these approaches though is that they do not provide specific ways to secure their referent object(s), nor explicitly say who can securitise. This is probably because suggestions arising from these approaches would be radical challenges to a status quo which continues to privilege expansion and profit over genuine decolonial security of the environment. Currently, dominant national security discourse actively pushes those most under threat from the effects of climate change into the same ‘threat’ group as nature, effectively rendering both as threatening ‘others’ that need not be secured from those who threaten them (polluting institutions), but are something to be secured against. That said, the ecological and Beirut general premises can guide ideas about the impacts on policies made – for instance, a focus on more mitigation and more collaborative and pluriversal engagements in security exchanges in international fora.

The other option is to desecuritise climate change and move it into the realm of ‘normal’ politics which would allow it to be collectively debated as opposed to acted upon by specific security actors only. Securitising climate change raises the profile of climate change to the top of the policymaking agenda, but simultaneously adversely impacts “the natural environment and…the most disadvantaged members of international society” (Floyd, 2008: 63). Current national security discourse that emphasises reducing economic losses due to climate change motivates solutions that “are often far from environmentally friendly, and some, such as biofuels, even counterbalance reductions in GHG production” as forests may be cleared to create space for biofuel plantations (Floyd, 2008: 62). This is further evidence to suggest even the mitigating shift to biofuels in the military is simply performative.

Closing provocations

The effects of climate change can threaten human and more-than-human life, but choices of particular institutions, corporations, and powerful states and state agents are what is accelerating climate change. One of these institutions includes the US military. Framing climate change away from this reality and towards an externalisable nature – of which humans conveniently seem to not be a part, further entrenching dualisms of Human/nature – that needs to be controlled is not effectively securitising climate change. It does, however, strengthen imperial logics that continue to frame not only nature as a threatening other, but also those who may seek protection from the effects of climate change. Climate change illuminates an inherent ontological insecurity: that every state has vulnerabilities beyond their control.

Different approaches to this reality include securitising the biosphere using ecological and decolonial ways of thinking. This orients discourse away from a status quo which upholds expansionist tactics justified by national security discourse. Alternatively, climate change could be moved from the realm of security to the sphere of ‘normal’ politics allowing for democratic debate which may allow for a broader range of actors to engage with climate change mitigation. These are, admittedly, partial and imperfect alternatives. Further research extending the specific dynamics would allow more complex security discourses to acknowledge our positionality as part of the very nature we must cease threatening.


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