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Climate Change, Arms Trade, and Mass Surveillance are the Greatest Security Threats of our Time

Anna & Michal, flickr
Written by Vera Wilde

Following the government’s lead, a Washington Post email subject last week asked: “Is Snowden to blame for Paris?” The question focuses attention on blaming national security whistleblowers for violent extremism. Aside from the insufficient evidentiary basis for such suggestions, this question allows neoconservative government officials to frame the public debate in ways that favor their own, powerful interests. It fits the broader narrative about global politics that privileges a particular conception of security that is factually incorrect in ways that harm the well-being of billions by distracting from the greatest threats of our time: climate change, the arms trade, and mass surveillance. Forget ISIS. We are facing the potential collapse of the global ecosystem and economy as we know it. That’s what I call a global security crisis.

Democracy loses out on robust public debate when ostensibly autonomous media organizations and their representatives permit government officials to decide what questions they should be asking. Similarly, the world loses out on security when we permit terrorists — or law enforcement — who cause relatively small numbers of deaths to decide what threats we should be mitigating most seriously. More Americans die annually from air pollution than from firearms deaths, about twice as many of those gun deaths from suicide compared to homicide, ten times as many from homicide by citizen than by cop, and an order of magnitude again more die from police violence than from terrorist violence.

Global deaths from pollution outnumbered those from terrorism by about two orders of magnitude in spite of last year’s doubling of terrorism deaths, at 3.3 million versus 33,000. Annual global deaths from the arms trade are about 58,000. Environmental degradation trumps terrorism and the arms trade when it comes to body count. Mass surveillance backfires and hurts security while constraining peaceful democratic organizers from addressing these major collective action problems, systematically suppressing freedom of association from Shanghai to Jacksonville. Environmental activism has been suppressed in the U.S. since at least Rachel Carson’s fight to publish Silent Spring. This combination of freedom and democracy-undermining government tactics — state media control, mass surveillance, and the coordinated state-cooperate crackdowns that enforce them is the biggest threat to Enlightenment values today. And it keeps people from organizing effectively to tackle the biggest security threats of our time.

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NASA says the evidence for rapid climate change is compelling, 97% of climate scientists concur it’s probably man-made, and most leading scientific organizations globally have endorsed this position. The National Research Council has called for a comprehensive climate change science enterprise — a 21st century Manhattan Project.

General Mills has warned climate change threatens to disrupt global food supplies. This disruption has political consequences. As the Arabic proverb says: الجوع كافر. Hunger is an infidel (meaning: a hungry man is an angry man). Researchers from the Center for American Progress, the Center for Climate and Security and the Stimson Center suggest climate change may already be contributing to the global security threat of state collapse, as when changes in food and water availability contributed to the Arab Spring. The grain shortages and price spikes associated with the Arab Spring may have been an early illustration of how food supply changes from forest fires and low crop yields from drought can create political instability.

That’s why former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warned the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) beginning Nov. 30 in Paris can’t be a repeat of the last such conference, which climate scientist Bill McKibben called a spectacular failure. It’s why Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) director and Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact research (PIK) chief economist Ottmar Edenhofer says of COP21: “In 2009, at the summit in Copenhagen, I was relaxed. But now I start getting a little worried.” And it’s why we need to take back security as being about the greatest security threats of our time: climate change, arms trade, and mass surveillance.

Neoconservatives tend to successfully frame debates about public health and safety in terms of a false opposition between liberty or privacy and security. In their terms, these are competing values and we have to weigh the pros and cons of trade-offs between them. But those terms let hawks own the terrain of security, framing the debate in ways that set up democratic peace activists to fail. We must take back security from those who are not really making us safer.

People are understandably more concerned with the tragedies they can see unravel with visible villains than with the long, slow train wrecks of climate change, the arms trade, and mass surveillance. But when we dig for causality and long-term solutions instead of knee-jerk reactions, the visible crises lead back to the less visible. It’s no mystery how extremist groups recruit. When they are not forcing child conscripts into battle, ISIS has made it imminently visible that their violence responds to the Congressionally documented U.S. torture and kidnapping that high-level federal officials broke the law authorizing, lied to Congress about, and continue defending. Some Iraqis and other Middle Easterners might also be upset about the hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced as a result of the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, and other ongoing hostilities. Pretending the security issue here is email encryption tools — which were not used in 9/11, Madrid bombings, or Paris attacks — or slick social media use is a sick distraction from the fact that America will remain less credible on the world stage and more vulnerable to retaliatory violence the longer we keep threatening to invade anyone who tries American servicemembers for war crimes — instead of reforming interrogation and trying the high-level officials who planned those crimes in the first place.

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During the COP21, we should talk about climate change as the paramount global security issue it is. That will be more difficult than ever with Paris on lockdown and environmental activists under house arrest. Just as security measures post-9/11 changed the environment in which the nation’s best scientists were busy evaluating the science of mass surveillance, so too will security measures in effect in Paris during the COP21 change how leaders think and talk about climate change.

Climate change is not secondary to violent extremism as a global security threat. Rather, violent extremism such as the illegal and immoral ISIS attacks in Paris respond — like the Syrian conflict that seems to have spawned those attacks — to belligerent U.S. and NATO foreign policies that are driven by perceived energy resource scarcity. By the numbers, pollution already kills orders of magnitude more people more than terrorism. Climate change threatens to displace and potentially kill an order of magnitude or two more. Climate scientists and the policymakers who listen to them must reclaim security from the hawks by insisting that facts take precedence over fear.


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About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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Climate Change, Arms Trade, and Mass Surveillance are the Greatest Security Threats of our Time

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