Shifting the Climate of Security

This article was originally published by Joe Brewer of the Rockridge Institute on May 15, 2007.

We are in the midst of a debate over the meaning of security. This has been ongoing since the end of the cold war almost twenty years ago and it is taking place behind the scenes right now. Progressives have an opportunity to reclaim our rightful place as the responsible protectors of our nation after a decades-long smear campaign to frame us as weak on security issues. The old idea of national security that dominated U.S. policy at home and abroad during the Cold War can be replaced with a new one that offers a more appropriate perspective on relevant issues in our globalized world. The broad public recognition of the looming climate crisis can be the catalyst for this change.

A Clash of Moral Worldviews

Earlier this month an article was published in the New York Times titled Bill Proposes Climate Study Focused on U.S. Defense. The writer, Mark Mazzetti, informs us that the Democratic Congress has proposed a National Intelligence Estimate examining “political, social, economic, and agricultural risks” associated with the climate crisis.

Republicans are critical of the proposal, declaring that it is an “unnecessary burden on intelligence agencies” whose priorities should be the demands of Iraq, Afghanistan, and “efforts to combat Islamic radicalism worldwide.”

This is not simply a partisan divide between two political parties. It is an ideological struggle about the meaning of security between progressives and conservatives based on very different moral worldviews. Mazzetti points to the history of this struggle when he identifies a shift in priorities in the intelligence community that took place after the end of the Cold War:

“In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, intelligence agencies shifted more money and people into exploring the potential effects of pollution, migration, and scarce natural resources, but cut back drastically on those efforts after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.”

Some observers may see parallels between this timeline and changes in presidential party affiliation, but the real story runs much deeper. It is a story about the meaning of security itself.

Opposing Meanings of Security

Security is a contested concept. It is an idea that means different things to different people. There is a central meaning that we all agree upon, which is that security is providing protection from harm. Security issues emerge when a threat appears that produces an element of risk that harm will occur. Protection against this threat requires that the risk of harm be reduced or eliminated. This requires the source of protection to be strong in order to stand up to the threat, but strength itself is contested and has two very different meanings.

The first meaning for strength is protection against an impending force, exemplified by a levy that withstands a tidal wave or a city wall that stands up to attack. The second meaning is strength through the use of force, which can be thought of like a fist trying to punch through a board. These different meanings, when applied to a situation involving a security issue, lead to two opposing meanings:

Meaning 1: Security is the elimination of risk through strong forms of protection against threats

Meaning 2: Security is the elimination of risk through the use of force — or threat of force — to eliminate threats

The progressive understanding of security builds upon the first meaning as being about protection against threats. This understanding stems directly from our core values of empathizing with others and recognizing the responsibility we all share to take care of each other. Progressives strive for safe working environments, improved international relations, and environmental regulations to keep toxic chemicals out of air and drinking water. All of these actions express the understanding of security as providing strong forms of protection. In the context of national security, progressives emphasize responsibility to protect our own nation. This responsibility extends to people of other nations in some situations.

The conservative understanding of security builds upon the use of force to destroy threats, including the threat of force as a deterrent. Primacy is given to the core values of authority and discipline. Conservative security policies focus narrowly on the use of military force to provide physical security to the citizenry.

Conservative philosophy, as expressed by conservative leaders today, deems issues of personal security to be the responsibility of individuals. Hard-working, disciplined people are rewarded with improved living conditions while those who suffer in squalor lack discipline and deserve the punishment of their condition. Social responsibility is not recognized [insert accountability link] and government policies that protect citizens from harm are viewed as coddling by a nanny state.

A noteworthy example is when harm arises from sources beyond individual control, as in the case of natural disasters. In the event of hurricanes and earthquakes, conservative security policies emphasize military strength first and give consideration to natural disasters second. The disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina [insert Katrina link] provides a telling manifestation of this.

Emphasis on different moral values leads progressives and conservatives to opposing ideas of what security is. Dramatic changes have taken place in our globalizing world and we need to consider which version of security will be most effective at addressing concerns like international terrorism and global climate change.

Security Debate Warms Up as Cold War Fades

The economic collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Cold War. It was not simply a military victory. The U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons, tanks, fighter jets, and munitions were not presented on the battlefield. The Soviet Union did not surrender after an onslaught of military force. Instead, the world was shocked when one of the great superpowers of modern times collapsed under the bureaucratic weight of its economic excesses, due in part to the immense military budget spent on the arms race.

The story told by conservatives is that “free market” capitalism allowed the U.S to carry the burden of the arms race, while Soviet communism was not up to par. Our military spending has been promoted as the inducement for the Soviets to increase their own, which led to economic collapse because their centralized planning infrastructure was not flexible enough to withstand the burden of large military spending.

Meanwhile, the United States had funneled enormous amounts of public money to defense contractors, accelerating the arms race. A by-product of that arms race was the “loose nukes” from the former USSR that stands as a worrisome threat to the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. This is a direct consequence of the conservative meaning of security dominating foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

Some scholars in the international relations community gave an audible sigh of relief as the Cold War drew to a close. Norman Myers, a former member of the State Department and consultant in environment and development, argued in 1989 for a broadening of security (1):

“The conventional approach to security interests surely reflects an overly narrow perception of security problems and of available responses, largely military, to security threats.”

Jessica Tuchman Mathews, then Vice President of the World Resources Institute, called for a “broadening definition of national security to include resource, environmental and demographic issues.” (2)

Both authors acknowledged the threat of global climate change as a key motivator of this broadened perspective because of its capacity to destabilize strained regions of the world by disrupting food production, polluting drinking water, and driving mass migrations of people on unprecedented scales. These ideas are not new. They have been around for quite a while and concrete steps have yet to be taken.

This conceptual shift was not without its critics.

A band of scholars called neo-realists described this broadening as a distraction that “has no basis except as a rhetorical device aimed at drumming up greater support for measures to protect the environment,” according to Marc Levy. (3) Levy, a professor at Princeton University, argued that environmental concerns introduce ambiguity into security studies that “alienate foreign policy intellectuals.” He argued that “focus on the actions of foreigners is a defining trait of security studies” and that “linkage [of climate change] to the security issue promises risks but no benefits.”

This debate remains unresolved in public discourse today, in part because the significance of framing has not been recognized and incorporated into the dialogue.

Framing National Security

The United Nations Development Program has this to say about security: (4)

“In the final analysis, human security is a child who did not die,
a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut,
an ethnic tension that did not explode into violence,
a dissident who was not silenced.
Human security is not a concern with weapons –
it is a concern with human life and dignity.”

This excellent description is exemplary of progressive security. By framing the principle concern of security as an issue of human life and dignity we immediately recognize a broad arena of relevance including the spread of disease, job security, ethnic conflict, freedom of speech, and so on. Alexandra Amouyel expresses the importance of point-of-view on the meaning of security: (5)

“If you accept to change the referent of security to the individual, then you simply cannot avoid analyzing and attempting to treat the threats, be they military, physical or other, that affect the individual, you cannot prioritize (and therefore securitize) military threats over public health threats or economic threats in a world where over 1.2 billion people live on less than a dollar a day.”

This point-of-view is a frame. Rather than thinking of security as a military issue — based on the frame of war [insert occupation link] — this perspective tells a story about the struggle of a human being to flourish in the world. It is based on the assumption that every human life is valuable and thus is imbued with dignity.

The alternative, framing security as about the use of force to protect national interests, is grossly inadequate in today’s world. International politics plays out in a deeply interdependent web of activities with our global economy and immense social challenges. The barrel of a gun cannot solve the AIDS crisis. The strongest military in the world cannot destroy extreme poverty. Carbon dioxide cannot be zapped by space-based lasers or conquered by an invading army. The war frame is completely irrelevant to these concerns and the absurdity of these statements provides all the testimony necessary to recognize this fact.

The military is still an essential component of national security. But it is no longer in our best interest (if ever it was) to think so narrowly about the protections necessary for any country to thrive in the world today.

Narrow Focus on Nations

Security analysis directed primarily toward nation states is often counterproductive in our deeply interdependent world. This is clear with the invasion of Iraq four years ago. The invasion was a distraction from efforts to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice or generally deter acts of terrorism.

The focus on Iraq was partly attributable to the mistaken understanding of terrorism as relating to nation states. Our military “defeated” the national army of Iraq in eight days, yet the conflict has only increased in intensity with the “fall” of the state actor. This is because the narrow focus on military action between nations, and the subsequent understanding that we are at war with Iraq, fails to capture the true nature of international terrorism. Nation-to-nation conflicts do not address the international and sub-national ethnic components of terrorism.

Two very important metaphors are involved in the narrow perspective of nation-state security that need to be recognized. The first is the Nation as Container metaphor. A container has the following properties:

  • The key partition of space is the boundary of the container
  • All elements inside this boundary have representative features of the container
  • Elements inside the container are separate and distinct from elements outside the container

These properties, when applied to the concept of nation, produce the following features:

  • The relevance of security issues pertains to the boundaries of nations
  • All elements (people, places, etc.) inside the nation have representative features of the nation
  • Elements inside the nation are distinct from elements outside the nation

These features of the Nation as Container metaphor have important consequences. Emphasis is given to features of the nation itself, resulting in sub-components and transcendent components being less relevant. For example, different regions of a country at war are not readily recognized as important when emphasis is on the fact that the nation is at war. Because all elements of a container are assumed to have representative features, sub-groups of the population are not recognized as distinct from each other. A key conservative tactic is to construct narratives that simplify the nation as a single organism in this manner. Similarly, transnational features are not immediately relevant, as in the case of large rivers that cross national borders and the movement of air across continents.

Another consequence of the Nation as Container metaphor is that people in one nation are assumed to be distinct from people in another nation. This allows members of one nation to objectify human life as other in a manner that implicitly places less value on lives in other nations.

The second important metaphor is the Nation as Person metaphor. A person is a special kind of container with the additional features of intentionality and moral attributes. Examples of the Nation as Person metaphor include friendly nations, enemy nations, developing nations (based on the developmental stages of the life cycle), rogue nations, and so on. (6) Additional assumptions (7) are typically included to describe what the nature of a person is. These assumptions are critically important, requiring considerations beyond the scope of this paper. (8)

These additional features lead to the application of moral intentions to nations, as exemplified in statements like “North Korea threatened South Korea.” and “Iran is an evil nation.” When combined with the property of containers that all elements have features in common, you get the blanket application of moral judgment applied to all members of the nation. A consequence is the long out-dated (and incorrect) belief among allied nations during World War II that all Germans are evil because Germany was believed to be evil.

These metaphors have obvious limitations that need to be reconciled. This does not mean, however, that security issues should never be addressed at the national level. There exist many instances where national interests are at stake and security threats are directed toward the collective interests of an entire nation. The principle to follow is this:

Match the context of the security threat to the relevant level of security analysis.

A security threat arising from one national army invading territory of another nation should be treated as a nation-state level concern that applies security analysis at this level. By contrast, security threats arising due to water scarcity in a region affecting many nations need to be analyzed at all relevant levels of analysis, including international and sub-national regional concerns.

It is absolutely essential to recognize that there are many concerns that should not be addressed at the level of nation states. The struggle to address international terrorism is one example. It cannot be adequately addressed if it is approached with the faulty understanding that nations are people (enemy states, rogue states, friendly states, etc.). This understanding results in emphasis on nation-to-nation interactions when the reality is that national borders do not adequately separate those who pose security threats from those who do not.

Enemy or Stranger?

A central dichotomy during the cold war was the distinction between friendly states and enemy states. These words apply the Nation as Person metaphor to this selection of categories to paint the world as being filled with state actors who are either with us or against us.

An alternative set of categories, suggests Jef Huysmans, is the dichotomy of friend and stranger. (9) A stranger may not be an enemy, but can still be a security concern. Consider the consequence of sea-level rise that is expected as the Earth’s atmosphere continues to warm. Moderate estimates suggest that over 100 million people will be displaced worldwide as their water reserves are contaminated with salt from the ocean and their homes submerge. Many of these environmental refugees will be forced to migrate into neighboring countries where their presence threatens the orderly functioning of regional economies. These people are not an invading army of enemies, as some immigration reformists suggest. Shooting them is not an appropriate remedy to the crisis. They are strangers who have fallen victim to climate change.

This frame does not make sense with the metaphor that a Nation is a Person. Refugees in exodus are small bands of individuals and families struggling to survive in the absence of national protection. Shifting the frame to strangers allows us to separate security concerns from the outdated approach that deals solely with interactions at the level of nations.

The stranger frame is morally neutral. This moral neutrality is a threat to conservative authority, which is why there has been so much effort in the past to paint strangers as something to be feared. The salient feature of a stranger is that your relationship with him or her is not known. This does not require the assumption accompanying the enemy frame, which is that the person is against you and thus is inherently bad. A stranger can become a friend much more easily than an enemy can. Care needs to be taken to ensure that people who are actually strangers are not presumed to be enemies.

When we frame security as an issue of human life and dignity, we will immediately call the enemy frame into question. Emphasis is given to the shared attribute of human worth. Reactions of fear will be tempered with feelings of compassion for people we recognize as worthy of dignified treatment who have little control over their circumstances.

Not All Threats are Persons

Human security is about the elimination of risks to individual and community well-being. Some threats arise from events that are caused by natural phenomena where there is no one to blame. A hurricane is not an enemy or a stranger. An earthquake is not a successful attack by a powerful foe. So why should national security focus entirely on what the other is doing?

The problem has to do with agency. An agent is a self-propelled entity that is able to express intentions. An agent is a person. Historically, security issues have been defined relative to distinct groups of people competing for natural resources. The problems have generally been about strategies for winning these competitions with the other, referring to single or multiple societies with the Nation as Person metaphor. These problems exclude the class of threats that originate outside the realm of intentional action.

The limitations of national level analysis in security studies are due in part to the narrow scope of relevance given to intentional actors. The necessity for broadening the scope to non-agent factors has to do with the survival needs of our societies being contingent upon food production, water and air quality, and other factors that are threatened by rising sea levels, intense storms, floods, the spread of disease, and droughts.

These threats cannot be addressed by strategies directed toward others.

Choosing Paths to Human Security

We are at a turning point in the security debate. Do we continue to narrowly define security to the realm of military recourse? Or do we expand it to reflect the complex array of social, environmental, and military concerns affecting us now and into the future?

The path to success must be chosen wisely, incorporating an understanding of deep frames to recognize obstacles. A deep frame is the mental structure that defines what kind of situation you are dealing with. The phrase “war on terror” introduced a deep frame for dealing with international terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001 based on an understanding that we are dealing with a military problem that requires a military solution. This is an inadequate frame that desperately needs to be replaced [insert link to Drop the War Metaphor] with the appropriate understanding that terrorism is an international police problem that requires police solutions including gathering information, going “undercover” and infiltrating terrorist networks, arresting terrorists, and bringing them before the international court.

Terrorism has been repeatedly referred to as a military problem and public discourse has suffered. Politicians, journalists, and members of the general public now have brains hardwired with this understanding. Introducing the progressive concept for security is necessary to any effort to reframe terrorism, but it will be a hard road because the “war on terror” frame is deeply ingrained in the minds of Americans.

Climate change does not carry this burden. Deep frames pertaining to the security issues related to it do not exist, presenting a powerful opportunity for progressives to promote their understanding of security on an issue that has wide popular support among people who self-identify as both liberals and conservatives.

And this is happening now.

Climate Crisis Provides an Avenue for Change

The proposal for inclusion of climate assessments in the National Intelligence Estimate mentioned at the beginning of this article is an excellent example. Others include:

  • Barack Obama, Senator from Illinois, declared in his speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.”
  • Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, stated in her remarks to the Science and Technology committee hearing on global warming, “Movement of climate change refugees from one country to another could increase political instability in many regions of the world.”
  • John Edwards, former Senator from North Carolina, declared during a speech last month, “Global poverty is not just a moral issue for the United States – it is a national security issue for the United States. If we tackle it […] we will also begin to create a world in which the ideologies of radical terrorism are overwhelmed by the ideologies of education, democracy, and opportunity.”
  • Dick Durbin, Senator from Illinois, called for change before Congress when he said, “For years, too many of us have viewed global warming as simply an environmental or economic issue. We now need to consider it as a security concern.”

Climate as a Security Movement

Progressive leaders are not the only voices calling for change. In 2003, a report was prepared for the Department of Defense that explored the U.S. response to a worst-case scenario of global climate change, presented as a significant national security issue. The report concluded that “nations with the resources to do so may build virtual forces around their countries, preserving resources for themselves. Less fortunate nations…may initiate in struggles for access to food, clean water, or energy.”

This year the British government published the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change that presents climate change as a crisis of global proportions:

“Climate change will affect the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food production, health, and the environment. Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms.”

This has been followed by a report last month written by 11 retired military leaders, representing all four branches of the U.S. military. It opens with the recommendation that “national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national strategies.” Additional observations include:

  • The Department of Defense should examine the capabilities of the U.S. military to respond to the consequences of climate change, in particular, preparedness for natural disasters from extreme weather events, pandemic disease events, and other missions the U.S. military may be asked to support both at home and abroad.
  • The U.S. should focus on enhancing the capacity of weak African governments to cope with societal needs and resist the overtures of well-funded extremists to provide schools, hospitals, health care, and food.
  • The Department of Defense should require more efficient combat systems and should include the actual cost (10) of delivering fuel when evaluating the advantages of investments in efficiency.
  • The Department of Defense should conduct an assessment of the impact on U.S. military installations worldwide of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other possible climate change impacts over the next 30 to 40 years.

These observations demonstrate the clear connections between climate change and military operations. Military leaders recognize the fact that environmental catastrophes draw military resources away from stand-by positions, leaving our country more vulnerable to threats from beyond our borders. This is a step in the right direction. The meaning of security should be expanded from these military concerns to the more general issues of regional stabilization and improved U.S. reputation overseas that are directly relevant to human security. It should also be expanded beyond the narrow focus on national security to recognize the mutual threats affecting all communities on the planet.

The Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School has also chimed in with their report on the future of health. One of their key points is that “solutions to the emerging energy crisis must be thoroughly scrutinized as to their life cycle impacts on health and safety, environmental integrity, global security and the international economy.”

This was all followed last week by a letter from the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, stating that it was “entirely appropriate” to assess the “geopolitical and security implications of global climate change.” He went on to say that intelligence agencies have already planned to incorporate these implications into a report on the main security challenges for the United States through 2025 to be published next year.

Military leaders, health experts, security specialists, and economists recognize the need to expand the meaning of security beyond the use of force. These reports provide a brief glimpse into the body of activity already devoted to the study of climate change as a security issue.

Reclaim Progressive Security

Most of the 20th Century was dominated by a conservative understanding of security. The cold war has been over for a decade and a half, during which time there has been revolutionary change in global communications and trade. Security decisions in this networked world are more crucial than ever before, so it is imperative that we frame security effectively.

Security needs to be reframed as about protection against threats, which in some circumstances will merit appropriate use of force as a last resort. This allows a much broader range of considerations than the narrow meaning of security as use of force, or threat to use force, to eliminate threats.

Security needs to be reframed as about friends and strangers when appropriate so that we are no longer constrained by the judgment that those who are not with us are against us. This includes a modification of our approach to get away from myopic emphasis on interactions at the national level and to recognize the relevance of non-agent threats. Security issues in the modern world occur within and across national boundaries. They involve diverse ethnic groups struggling to survive in a complex world.

Security is about human life and dignity. We need to stop talking narrowly about national security and start talking broadly about human security. This is a critical step for moving beyond the cold war mentality that defines security as being about military threats with military solutions.

As you read these words, carbon dioxide pollution is warming our atmosphere and altering the planetary climate. Many have recognized the climate crisis as one of the most important security issues humanity has ever faced. The use of force against changes in climate is absurd. The threats do not come from an enemy. We are all in this one together, whether we are friends or strangers. This is a problem that threatens the security of humanity.

You Can Promote This Change

There are many things we can all do to facilitate this transition to a more humane expression of security that reflects the complexity of our times. Here are a few suggestions.

Community Leaders

  • Articulate your progressive values about human security
  • Publicly acknowledge the security issues arising from climate change, global poverty, lack of education, and other threats to human security
  • Express how progressives are strong on defense issues because we emphasize protection from harm

Security Specialists

  • Advise public leaders about the valid security concerns associated with threats to humanity
  • Promote climate change as a salient issue of national and human security
  • Acknowledge the limitations of nation-state analysis in security studies

Citizen Activists

  • When you hear people talk about security as a military issue, point out the need to expand the discussion to include issues about human dignity and life
  • Praise public figures who get it right and criticize those who get it wrong
  • Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing climate change and social concerns as security issues
  • If you see military frames used to describe security issues in the news, contact the media provider and point out the limitations of this language
  • Explore these ideas with friends and family (online and in person) so that their relevance is appreciated

These are but a few things you can do to help make the world a safer place at home and abroad.


1. Norman Myers, Environment and Society, Foreign Policy, Vol. 74, pp. 23-41 (1989).

2. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, Redefining Security, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 162-177 (1989).

3. Marc A. Levy, Is the Environment a National Security Issue?, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 35-62 (1995).

4. UNDP, Human Development Report 1994: New Dimensions of Human Security, New York: Oxford University Press (1994).

5. Alexandra Amouyel, What is Human Security?, Human Security Review, Issue 1, pp. 10-23 (2006).

6. See pp. 533-536 of Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999).

7. I am referring to the rational actor model, which is discussed in Whose Freedom? (2006) by George Lakoff and Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson (1999).

8. Limitations of the rational actor model will be addressed in future work at the Rockridge Institute.

9. Jef Huysmans, Security! What Do You Mean? From Concept to Thick Signifier, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 226-255 (1998).

10. Fuel costs go well beyond the price at the pump, including the cost of maintaining a naval presence for oil tankers to have safe passage across the world ocean.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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