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IDIG Speaker Series 2021-22 Continues with Prof Simon Dalby on Rethinking Environmental Security.

7 December 2021

13 mins

On 19th November 2021, the IDIG Speaker Series 2021-22 had the privilege of hosting Prof Simon Dalby from Balsillie School of International Affairs, and Wilfrid Laurier University, with a talk entitled Rethinking Environmental  Security: From Stockholm to Glasgow.

Simon Dalby is a  Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Balsillie School of International Affairs, and at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada.  He is also part of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo. Prof Dalby has published widely on environmental security in academic journals, as well as written and edited several books including Anthropocene Geopolitics: Globalization, Security, Sustainability (University of Ottawa Press, 2020), Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (co-editor, Routledge 2019), and Reframing Climate Change: Constructing Ecological Geopolitics (Routledge 2016), Security and Environmental Change (Polity, 2009).

At a time when the world’s eyes are on the UN COP26 Glasgow Climate Summit, this was a timely discussion, generating a lively debate among IDIG academics, PhD researchers and Master’s students, as well as academic colleagues from other disciplines.

The Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance hosts the Speaker Series to bring together academics and other professionals to present their latest work and experience on a wide range of topics. Take a look at the events and speakers that are lined up for this year, here.

In the blog below, Dr Tatevik Mnatsakanyan, Lecturer at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University London, presents Prof Dalby’s talk, and shares her insights and thoughts on the subject, offering her reflections on climate change denial, and linking these to her own recent research on the status and practices of denial in the politics of (in)security.  

Rethinking Environmental Security; Rethinking Denials

Dr Tatevik Mnatsakanyan

Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University London

In a recent talk delivered as part of the IDIG Speaker Series 2021-22, Prof Simon Dalby generated a thought-provoking and lively debate on climate change and environmental security. In his talk, entitled  “Rethinking Environmental Security: From Stockholm to Glasgow”, Prof Dalby advanced his earlier critiques and ideas on environmental security, while reflecting on the COP26 UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow, the lessons learnt or the opportunities missed since the first conference in Stockholm in 1972, and on possible futures ahead. In doing so, Prof Dalby was drawing on some of the ideas he is currently developing in his book manuscript Rethinking Environmental Security; and his most recent publication as part of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report Anthropocene Insecurities.

In this blog, I reflect on Prof Dalby’s talk and link it to my own research. In particular,  I focus on the politics of environmental and climate denialism – not explicitly addressed in Prof Dalby’s talk, but inherent to and with implications for his work – and draw parallels with my research on the politics of (in)security more widely.

For some two decades,  since the seminal Environmental Security,[1] Simon Dalby’s work has compellingly attempted to shift conventional thinking on environmental security.  Conventional thinking has concerned itself with the consequences of environmental change – both climate change and environmental degradations – as causing or exacerbating armed conflict and instability, and thereby posing threats to “national security”. Hence, scholarly and policy discussions have been dominated by preparations to deal with risks to national security, which has pushed for major military risk analysis; discourses securitising “climate refugees” as current and future threat; and reforming and preparations for new types of military interventions by the West due to climate change-induced instabilities and exacerbation of conflicts elsewhere.[2] While climate change and environmental degradation have transboundary causes, discourse, and at least until recently most policy thinking, has focused on nationally-bounded and only symptomatic outcomes defined as new threats. In addition, there has been the trend of attempts to benefit from some of these outcomes as part of geopolitical competition. However, as Dalby has warned, ‘focusing on the scramble for access to the resources that may become available once the ice melts…is to fail to tackle the larger implications of what is now in motion’.[3]

Dalby has variously unpacked and cautioned how outdated geopolitical thinking that takes narrowly national security interests as central not only needs to be revised, but must be fundamentally reversed, if we are to tackle the current global climate and environmental challenges. In order to achieve such reversals, first we need to recognise the contradictions involved between the dominance of nation-state based security thinking and the demands of transboundary climate emergencies. Thus, to illustrate, the dominant idea of “national energy security”, concerned with guaranteeing the flow of fossil fuels to international markets and  securing continuous and ‘reasonably priced sources of fusil fuel’ against geopolitical risk such as conflicts[4] is in contradiction to, and incompatible with, the alternative, non-nation-bounded, idea of environmental security. In the latter, the referent object of security is, or rather should be, the planet, ecosystems, bio-species; and the sustainable capacity of human civilization to coexist in the environment.

As Dalby warns, in the era of the Anthropocene – the geological epoch in the history of the Earth where humankind has fundamentally altered the globe’s geological make-up – a ‘global environmental security’ has no alternative.[5] And yet, and in another example of nation-bounded  policy thinking incompatible with the age’s demands,  Western practice has increasingly militarised climate change. This has happened through the strategic lens of seeing climate change as a “threat multiplier”: in an ‘increasingly alarming’ trend, such vision treats climate change as fuelling insurgency, terrorism,  increasingly requiring military interventions, as reflected in US, UK and some European countries’ national security and defence reports of the past decades.[6] The Western development agenda has similarly been affected by the approach treating the symptoms/outcomes rather than the causes of climate change and environmental degradation, by aiming to enhance governance and resilience of “fragile states” purporting to enable them to respond better to climate-change induced instability and conflict.[7]

Instead, what we need is a recognition of the Anthropocene and challenges to traditional notions of “security”;[8] and to resilience-based development thinking and policy[9] that often serves to offload responsibility.[10] To do this, we need to shift fundamentally the cause-and-effect rationale behind such policies. Thus, linking global economic practice, and dominant geopolitical and security policy, Dalby has warned, ‘Considering matters in terms of the Anthropocene, it is clear that a major cause of the problem of political instability is not peripheral peoples threatening peaceful metropoles but the consequences of metropolitan consumption working themselves out in those peripheries’.[11] And looking into the future, he has further urged: ‘[t]he key point now is not what climate change will do for geopolitics, but what geopolitics does to climate change….No longer is this a matter of environmental changes causing human insecurity, but rather…how decisions as to what gets produced will shape the future configuration of the planet and hence who is insecure where’.[12]

Building on some of these earlier arguments, in his talk with us at IDIG, Dalby reflected on most recent developments. While there has been increased acknowledgement of the transboundary nature of the challenge and increased political energy for collective action in the context of COP26  in Glasgow, the described security thinking still remains dominant. As part of his developing book project, Dalby emphasised two ideas that need to be explored, in order to continue confronting the dominant paradigms of security. One was his suggestion to rethink how we understand, relate to and act upon the notion of “environment” – not only as the natural world that needs protecting, but the environs humans have and continue producing, including through the infinite growth logic of capitalist systems, and the type of geopolitical thinking outlined above. It is within this active production of a human environment then, that the dominant paradigms of security promise  survival, promise security as the continuation of the status quo of the adopted lifestyle (recall the promise of the unhindered flow of cheap fuel), and claim to be delivering “security”. The other is the idea of “firepower” – for decades understood in the conventional and in particular Realist IR thinking as the power acquired thanks to arms and armament capabilities of states that have the capacity to kill and destroy by firing/creating fire in various forms, the culmination of which is nuclear weapons. Instead, Dalby provokes us to rethink “firepower” as the capacity to burn large quantities of material (fossil fuel) by extracting them from the depth of the Earth where geologically speaking, they should have remained, and thereby the “power” to bring about the Anthropocene and now the power to produce starkly unequal global distribution of  the impacts of climate change and insecurities emanating from that.[13]

While these ideas are still developing in Dalby’s manuscript, and this short outline cannot do full justice to them, I’d like to reflect on one important aspect related to his concerns, namely the issue of climate change and environmental denialism.

For several decades, campaigns for environment and climate change awareness and action have been up against powerful lobbying and groups involved in climate denialism – the spread of pseudoscience sowing doubt and dampening the case for drastic and fundamental global action. However,  a most recent analysis claims that increasingly we witness less direct climate denialism and more the appropriations of the tropes of climate-change induced “threat”. Thus, ‘[the] wrapping of ecological disaster with fears of rampant immigration is a narrative that has flourished in far-right fringe movements in Europe and the US and is now spilling into the discourse of mainstream politics’. These narratives have  ‘shifted from outright dismissal of climate change to using its impacts to fortify ideological, and often racist, battle lines…[often] echoing eco-fascist ideas that themselves are rooted in an earlier age of blood-and-soil nationalism’.[14]

However, to come to terms with the status of this shift, we must see this as part of the wider status of denial in the politics of (in)security. In a recent publication, I propose that  the explicit theorisation of denial needs to be put centre stage in the study of security.[15] Drawing on the political thought of Michael Dillon and his theorisation of the unstable duality of (in)security, namely the reliance of the promise and process of “securing” on the continuous non-fulfilment of being secure,[16] I argue that denial fundamentally structures the Western promise and practices of security. Theorised in two co-dependent forms – denial of complicity and denial of the impossibility of security – I conceive of denial as ontologically necessary for the politics of (in)security, and as an endless resource for both public and private actors involved in the provision of security. Synthesising Dillon’s thought with an assemblage theory inspired by Deleuze and Guattari, I argue and demonstrate how assemblages of (in)security traversing the public/private dividethrive on the twin ontological denials of security.

In this light, the purported move away from climate denialism appears not as a fundamental shift from, but as a revised/adapted mode of denial, one that is very much within and consistent with, the dominant rationality of the western promise and provision of “security”. Neither do the more mainstream policies of security acting upon the effects of climate change outlined by Dalby, including the militarisation of climate change and the dominance of nation-bounded thinking, merely appear as the acceptance, albeit flawed, of climate change, but again, as an adapted form of climate change denialism.

This is because the denial of complicity conceptualised in my article as fundamentally structuring “security” is prominent in both. Through what I call spatio-temporal externalisation, ‘security actors render risk-threats – from “terrorism” to an “increasingly insurgent Russia” – as exogenous to the actor’s spatial reality (“it strikes us from the outside”), and to its temporal and causal imagination (“it is not of our making”). Spatiality here is…the spatial imaginary (“nation”, “the West”, “our civilisation”); while temporal externalisation is denial of the emergent non-linear effects of past pursuits of “security”’.[17] Indeed, ‘decades of such externalisation have obscured the complex non-linear co-production of today’s “risk-threats”’.[18] In this light, those militarising climate change do precisely that: rather than deny climate change as such, they deny complicity in bringing it about – the long-term, non-linear collective complicity, that has produced unequal share and distribution of both contribution to climate change and its impact. In externalising climate change in this manner, these actors reinstate the state imaginary of inside/outside,[19] and indeed deny the ultimate impossibility of security within such frame. This then in turn allows, indeed already structurally compels, not only the denial of, and hence shunning away the responsibility  for, the rout causes of climate and environmental change, but also recreates the state-bound logics that require the securitisation of the outcomes of such changes as threats that need to be prepared for, guard the nation against,  and so on.

By all means, during the COP26, we saw some signs of change in global political thinking, as Prof Dalby himself highlighted. These included renewed commitments to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees, reduction of coal mining etc. However,  there is need for thorough research into how these same commitments,  and especially those that were rejected or toned down, relate to and have been concomitant with promises and practices of environmental security understood in narrowly state-bounded manner that hinge on the same foundational denial of security described above. My research on the politics of denial, which substantively is on practices of arms trade and defence and security technologies, concludes that unless this deep-seated and often invisible denial of the dominant security rationality is made visible and resisted, all other, even if good intentioned, actions of campaign,  resistance,  and otherwise critical  scholarship  may not only be less effective but will also inadvertently feed into and contribute to the same denial that upholds the very practices to be critiqued. 

As Prof Dalby has numerously argued, a concerted shift away from environmental security in the narrow sense and towards a transboundary collective concern with the globe as the referent object of security is long overdue.  To achieve  this difficult task, we must confront ourselves with the more overarching  rationality of security in Western  politics that is built on the denial of complicity: this is what the state-based environmental security and its militarisation of climate change are merely replaying, albeit adjusted, yet in new ways.

[1] Simon Dalby (2002) Environmental Security, University of Minnesota Press.

[2] Simon Dalby (2017) ‘Anthropocene Formations: Environmental Security, Geopolitics and Disaster’, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 34(2–3) 233–252.

[3] Simon Dalby (2014) ‘Rethinking Geopolitics: Climate Security in the Anthropocene’, Global Policy, Vol. 5(1), p. 3.

[4] Simon Dalby (2018) ‘Environmental Chang’, in Paul Williams and Matt McDonald (eds.) Security Studies: An Introduction, New York: Routledge, pp. 534, 538.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See e.g. G7 commissioned 2016 Report ‘A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks’.

[8] Dalby 2018, 538.

[9] Dalby 2014.

[10] See, e.g. David Chandler (2006) Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building, Pluto Press.

[11] Dalby, 2014, p. 6.

[12] Ibid., p. 7.

[13] Also see, Simon Dalby (2017) ‘Firepower: Geopolitical Cultures in the Anthropocene’, Geopolitics, Vol. 23(3), 718–742.

[14] Oliver Milman (2021) ‘Climate denial is waning on the right. What’s replacing it might be just as scary’, The Guardian, 21 Nov 2021. At

[15] Tatevik Mnatsakanyan, ‘Denials “From Seabed to Space”: Assemblages of (In)Security and Denial in the Politics of Security’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies  (in print,  2021).

[16] See Michael Dillon, Politics of Security: Towards a Political Philosophy of Continental Thought (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] R.B.J. Walker (1992) Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, Cambridge University Press. 

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