Simon Dalby: Rethinking Defence & Security For the Anthropocene

An Interview with Simon Dalby

“European societies are suddenly discovering that they’re dependent on Russian gas. The problem is that they’re dependent on gas, not Russian gas. That’s the crux of the issue.” 

Rethinking Defence & Security For the Anthropocene 

The UK and Australia undertook national security reviews that reframed their approaches to defence and security, emphasizing linkages between traditional security, human security, and climate security. To what extent do you expect our upcoming defence policy review to adequately address climate security?

It depends on whether it’s forward-looking enough. One of the difficulties with this is that we need to think long-term if we’re going to do a review. In defence, thinking about long-term procurement—what are we going to need to have in place a decade or two down the road? —is the trickiest part. As the world changes rapidly, having the flexibility to modify our defence forces a decade down the road must be a priority. Whether the mandate the review has allows for that kind of long-term thinking remains to be seen. The key is recognizing that we live in an increasingly environmentally disruptive world and need to plan accordingly. That is what earth systems scientists have been telling us we need to do. One can only hope that military thinkers will recognize that the world is changing rapidly, and these kinds of reviews must address scenarios a decade or two into the future. The ecological disruptions that are happening need to be on that agenda too. Hopefully, we can focus on that, because the world is not the same as the one we had decades in the past.

What implications does Canada’s hosting of the NATO Centre of Excellence on climate change and security have for understanding climate security impacts and response policies?

It’s a great opportunity for Canadian input into this issue. On the other hand, if one looks across the Canadian research community, over the last decade or two we’ve been remarkably slow to pick up these issues and tackle them across academia. Back in the 1990s, Thomas Homer Dixon and a few others were pushing the conflict-and-environment discussion forward—the conversation has been relatively neglected since. Canada has a whole lot of catch-up to do. In that sense, it’s useful for us, because it forces us to address this as Canadians. However, the amount of people that are actively researching this area is small in Canada. It is genuinely a NATO operation, at least for the first few years until we can get some in-house talent trained up to do this. It’s useful, although it’s kind of ironic that one of the countries which doesn’t have a major research agenda on this issue is volunteering to host its centre. Hopefully that becomes an opportunity to get up to speed. Nonetheless, the potential for failure, given our lack of in-house capability, is a concern that we need to address.

Some of your work suggests that traditional strands of geopolitical thinking and social sciences are inadequate, in the sense that they don’t incorporate earth systems science into their analysis. What implications does this have for the way we think about security, particularly climate security?

My latest book Rethinking Environmental Security points out that much of international relations, which one would assume would be the discipline that would be grappling with this, has yet to make climate a major focus in its research. I think the current generation of researchers that are emerging, the PhDs and postdocs now, are beginning to pay more attention. Certainly, some junior faculty are now making this their major theme. Most faculty in recent surveys across the discipline will say, “yes, this is important”, but they’re not working actively on it. The exceptions are important. There’s good work being done in various places, but the discipline of International Relations has been slow to pick this up as a whole. Yes, the sub-discipline of global environmental politics has been hammering away at this. But relatively speaking, it’s been a minor issue around climate.

We have got disciplinary silos. The meeting across the disciplines has been slow to develop. The reason this is important is that the field of earth system science is making clear that we no longer live in a world that works the way it used to, for our grandparents or even for our parents. The sheer scale of human activity, not only in burning fossil fuels, but all the other things we’re doing, is changing quite literally how our planetary system works. It’s now a much more dynamic, much less stable place. That changes fundamental assumptions about modernity, which assumed a stable environment is a backdrop for human activity. We can no longer rely on the old assumptions, that weather of the past is a reliable predictor of the current range of events we are likely to see in the future. The hydrologists talk about this as non-stationarity, in other words, the overall range of meteorological phenomena is different from the past and hence predictions are much more difficult. With that goes agriculture, the river flows, and all the crucial environmental parameters that we must plan for—those are no longer stable or predictable.

Social life must be rethought. It must be much more flexible than it used to be because those predictions from the past are no longer a reliable guide to what’s coming. This is a real problem. Our universities are not designed to think about things across the sciences and humanities. I have been jumping up and down for a long time trying to get social scientists to pay attention to the earth system sciences, and vice-versa. Integrating them is a major intellectual task, simply because we haven’t designed our intellectual institutions to do these kinds of things.

How can we balance short-term disaster response with the need to cultive the global transformation that is necessary for us to survive this century and beyond?

This is something we need to stop and think about carefully. A decade or two ago we would talk about mitigation and adaptation as two separate things. Mitigation was reducing the dangers—adaptation was dealing with what dangers we couldn’t mitigate. But they’re two sides of the same coin. If we’re going to plan disaster management, we need to think in terms of how we respond when disasters happen. Can we use electric vehicles? Can we use warning systems that don’t rely on fossil fuels? We need to think in terms of disaster and prevention together, because if we can prevent disasters, we don’t have to be ready to respond to them!  

We also need to think about how we do things like build buildings that don’t require fossil fuels. I think the war in Ukraine has revealed European vulnerabilities to fuel supplies. One of the things that gets disrupted in disasters is energy. In many cases, it’s fuel supplies that get disrupted. We should not be designing buildings with furnaces that burn fuel. We know how to build passive houses. We know how to rig solar and wind power systems so that heat pumps, which are much more energy efficient than 20th-century designs, can heat and cool buildings. We’ve been slow with thinking about disaster prevention, and our response to increasingly severe weather. If you don’t have buildings that require fuel supplies, then you don’t have to worry about the disruption of fuel supplies, because you don’t need fuel. That’s prevention.

Resilience is important. It’s not reconstructing after disasters, it’s thinking about how to prevent damage from entirely predictable, increasingly severe storms, droughts, and heat waves. If you manage to build buildings that don’t use fossil fuels, then you’re simultaneously adapting to changing circumstances— you’re reducing the climate change consequences for those buildings. In terms of national security, and for Canada in the long run, that has to be a key part of how we make ourselves more secure. That is rather distant from the traditional notions of defence. Again, we are thinking in silos—energy supply here, and building codes over there—we need to make links and connections between seemingly disparate things. It’s difficult to do, but it’s increasingly urgent that we try to come at this from whatever part of the institutional structure we find ourselves in and think through those connections. If we can do that, then we focus less on disaster response, because there are fewer people in vulnerable situations. That is crucial to national security for Canada. If we fail to do that, then the social disruptions, the protests, and the legitimacy of government gets compromised by its failure to think ahead and plan for these things. It all ties together in a comprehensive understanding of security.

What are some of the reasons our institutions have been so slow to respond to crises like climate change?

Katharine Hayhoe said we built a civilization for a world that no longer exists. Our world is changing dramatically. In the Canadian context, politics has a huge amount of influence from the fossil fuel industry. Oil and gas has been tremendously influential in shaping the debate across the country—much of the discussion about climate change is about our consumption. There are endless discussions from the oil industry about clean gas and oil, just refusing to bite the bullet on the fact that we need to ramp down the production of fossil fuels. Globally, we’ve already burned more than our share across the planet, which is the only political comparison that matters. We cannot go on pretending we can have clean production of fossil fuels, which destroy the climate. That contradiction must be tackled—this isn’t a matter of conspiracy.

The politics of this is nasty. Within Canada, we have not grappled with the larger policy questions of how to build an economy after oil. Alberta, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia are dependent on oil. The gas industry is still making progress, making proposals for further infrastructure. We have not yet realized that we have to stop financing this stuff. We will probably have to continue running many of the existing structures until they run out of gas. But the expansion of that industry must be tackled because globally, that’s what everybody else must do too. Until we figure out how to come up with international agreements that tackle the production of fossil fuels, and until Canada gets on board, we haven’t grappled with the crux of this issue. There are all sorts of ideas for international fossil fuel exploration bans, coal-ban treaties, and so on. Increasingly, if you look at the scholarly literature and the environmental commentary, this stuff is coming, but it’s slow-moving. Canada has been especially slow moving on this. We need to stop and think about what our economy looks like after fossil fuels.

Do you have any concerns at all that potential climate adaptation mechanisms might inadvertently lead to conflict? How can we ensure as peaceful a transition as possible?

Within Canada, the scenes of RCMP tactical squads confronting Indigenous activists as we tried to build pipelines across their territory suggest we got this all backwards. We need to stop making pipelines. The long-term security of Canada is with the Indigenous activists, not with the RCMP. We must secure a functional biosphere—not the further use of fossil fuels. One question that is worrisome—and it pertains to the role of National Defence in Canada’s role internationally—is, what happens if we end up with collapsing or conflict-prone states when fossil fuels begin to be phased down? If Petro-states have not come up with practical plans to ensure their populations and economies can thrive as they decarbonize, then the real danger is for implosion, or for political elites to use violence to maintain control as their economies begin to unravel.

Transition strategies are crucial to the security of most states, but the oil producers are particularly serious. Are they capable of planning serious transitions? You might argue that Venezuela is a warning case. The transition away from oil is crucial, as is cooperation internationally to wean fossil fuel producers peacefully off the revenue streams that selling them generates. All sorts of financial measures can be used both to compensate states for not mining their coal or drilling their oil—financial packages that facilitate transition strategies by buying out oil companies or facilitating rapid innovations with green energy. This requires thinking internationally about peace and stability.

Rapid adaptation is what is needed if, in the long run, we’re going to have peace and security. That is exactly counter to what most national security has meant over the last few decades, which has been about maintaining existing social arrangements. We must get off fossil fuels and think about how we power societies without them. We need to think about security as adaptive, about what the social blockages are in terms of rapid transition and have policies that anticipate those. That’s what security means if you take ecology seriously. It’s different from what we’ve traditionally understood security to mean, in terms of protecting the existing social order and its economic structure. But that economic structure, at least in terms of its fuels, must change and change rapidly.

Failure to do this means increasing environmental disruptions. Feeding a population of 9 billion people or more, which is forecasted for the middle of this century, requires thinking about agricultural systems that can be flexible, and can transport food over long periods and distances. Can we do that without relying on fossil fuel systems? All those things add up to the danger of failing to prepare for the big security risk, because when states start to implode and elites start to use violence to maintain control, then many societies are in for a rough ride.

I would want to reiterate the crucial point about fossil fuel vulnerabilities. European societies are suddenly discovering that they’re dependent on Russian gas. The problem is that they’re dependent on gas, not Russian gas. That’s the crux of the issue. The American military learned this lesson in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the casualties were because of convoy protection duties, as they were the obvious things to ambush, whether it was IEDs or other forms. The protection of fuel convoys chewed up a lot of fuel and resources. If the forces had needed less fuel, they would have been more flexible. They could devote their energies to the tasks at hand, rather than simply supply questions. On a larger scale, the same issue applies to Europe now. They’re tying themselves in knots firing up old coal-powered stations. French nuclear reactors are in maintenance mode—delayed because of COVID. It’s the dependence on fuel, and the failure to anticipate an increase in disruptive climate. Those things go together, they go to the heart of traditional military thinking in terms of logistics, but they also go to the heart of civilian security.

We can draw lessons directly from military vulnerabilities of logistics to societal vulnerabilities, from the same logistics around fuel supplies. If you’re not dependent on fuel, all those logistic vulnerabilities disappear. In much of what I’ve been writing recently, I’ve been arguing that these are two forms of firepower—the military and civilian capabilities that use fossil fuels to power things must be seen as two sides of the same vulnerability. Military thinking and civilian thinking must now coincide. Because those long-term vulnerabilities of infrastructure, all tied into fuel supplies, are a key point we need to address.


Simon Dalby


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