I’m writing this during a break at an academic conference on Literature and the Environment. We’re gathering as researchers in the environmental humanities to trade ideas, hear about new research, and to stock up on reading list material to share with our students in the coming year.
We’re interested in discussing what kind of stories succeed in informing and convincing people about the climate and ecological emergency and asking what the results of a successful story would look like. In this sense, literary critics, writers and artists are asking the same kinds of questions as the journalists working to find a “hook” to draw attention to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York or the forthcoming IPCC special report on the oceans.
Indeed, at our 2015 conference, the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin spoke to us about the pressure of journalistic formats which insist on short, sharp reports covering clearly defined stories, leaving little room for explanation of complex environmental politics or the nuances of scientific findings. In a news cycle already working at hyperspeed and weighted with “big” stories from day-to-day politics, the environment often struggles to make itself heard in its 30-second slot, even if in the long term it may prove to be the biggest story of all.
In our little corner, we eco-lit nerds are into everything, and will huddle happily all day long to listen to papers about the weather in medieval literature, the punk anthropocene, allotment poetry or who did the gardening in Milton’s Eden. But we’re only too aware – occasionally paralysingly so – of how pointless and navel-gazing it might seem to talk about stories representing climate emergency or our relationship with the environment, when the results of that relationship and that emergency are already being experienced around the world.
We believe in experts. We believe knowledge must inform decisions
This prompts questions akin to the environmental journalist’s dilemmas: how to convey accurate science to non-scientists? Is it better to inspire or terrify? Is it OK to be entertained by stories of apocalypse or environmental disaster? Are our established forms and genres able to tell the stories we need to share?
Climate change is speeding up
One thing we have learned is there’s no sense waiting for a single “hero” book that will affect hearts and minds and prompt the kind of universal political action that Greta Thunberg and the school strikers rightly demand. At our conference, Adeline Johns-Putra, who has written extensively about the emergence of “cli-fi”, suggested that the “ethical efficacy” of literature in climate debates now arises not from single works but from the increasing ubiquity of environmental themes and settings. Awareness is emerging in every genre and form, and is no longer confined to the nature writing or cli-fi shelves.
Novels still have the power to affect the way societies see themselves: Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale has been eagerly awaited worldwide, for instance, while Nineteen Eighty-Four remains part of the vocabulary through which we understand political tyranny. But when it comes to climate change, we haven’t always had faith in our inherited literary modes and narrative structures to encompass such a huge and unimaginable catastrophe.
Back in 2005, Robert Macfarlane talked about the “creep” of climate change, how the slow motion disaster of ecological decline didn’t lend itself to the crash-bang dynamics of the apocalyptic imagination. Nearly 15 years later that creep is closer. It has picked up pace, we feel a greater sense of urgency. We’re discovering the horrible domino effects of climate change events, where an alteration in one area of the biosphere hastens and worsens effects in another, creating feedback loops: for example, “abrupt thawing” in the Arctic will release ancient greenhouse gases, which will hasten the atmospheric changes which cause the thawing.
Where climate change might have once been to difficult to portray due to the challenge of representing a slow apocalypse, we’re entering a speedier phase, with record-breaking temperatures every summer and “abrupt” environmental disasters occurring more often. Maybe the long-form novel is now too slow to keep up.
Eco-dystopia is everywhere
Of course literature is not the only place to offer us ways of imagining the future. No doubt some of the excitement about Atwood’s sequel is fuelled by the success of the HBO adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. The dystopian thriller or sci-fi has become a staple of recent serial TV (Black Mirror, Extinct, 3% among many others.) Floods and extreme weather events become part of the backdrop to a range of genres, from the lyrical drama of Beasts of the Southern Wild to the schlocky horror thrills of Crawl. And beyond literature, film or television – our usual sources of story – gamers are immersed in apocalyptic landscapes and eco-dystopia in video games like BioShock, Fallout and The Last of Us.
We’re entering a phase where a sense of ecological and climate crisis haunts stories which are not consciously environmental narratives at all. The crisis must be part of the backdrop of any story set in this and future worlds and an inescapable part of our readerly mindsets when we look back at the literature of the past.
We ecocritics will get together in another couple of years. I don’t know where our stories will be by then: I hope they’re optimistic ones. But one thing is for sure, all our narratives – whether they’re horror films, love stories, allotment poetry or children’s books – are Anthropocene stories now.
Do you know Alex Verbeek? If you do, please read on to see whether our thoughts about him are aligned. If you do not yet know him, you are in for a treat. If you are concerned about the climate emergency, but feel awash with information and warnings, without knowing how you personally can help, welcome to the same lifeboat as the rest of us: Alex Verbeek is our wise counsellor and guest lecturer.
I am going to begin with my summary, and then go back to some of the building blocks which brought me here.
First of all, Alex speaks English. And by that I do not mean that, like almost all Dutch, he speaks perfect English without an accent. I mean that, having spent several hours studying his writings online, I didn’t once read a sentence which baffled me or even a word which sent me searching for a dictionary. I felt that I had made a friend. I have discovered ‘my own climate crisis counsellor’ (but he can be yours too). We are not alone – he has over 278,000 followers on Twitter.
Alexander Verbeek, Diplomat and Founder of the Institute for Planetary Security
My name is Alex Verbeek. I care about our small beautiful planet and want to preserve it for the next generation. I work as a public speaker, moderator, and work with others on several environmental projects.
Most of us are reluctant to picture living on a hot planet. One where increasing water, food, or energy challenges threaten to worsen existing economic, social, or justice crises. It may be challenging, but we have to imagine what all this will mean for security. Doing so will motivate us to change this future into a much better one that can be more green and peaceful. But to do so, we have to face one of our biggest challenges: our failure of imagination.
We have to imagine a future where climate change is a new enemy. Not in the classic sense as one that you can fight in military operations. It has no flag, no leader, no combatants, nor a revolutionary manifesto. But it is a killer of people. It is operating worldwide to destabilize societies. And it is a risk that is gaining strength. Climate change hits the most vulnerable people and most vulnerable countries first. That is even more unfair if you realize that this means that those who contributed least to this problem are often most affected by it. And these people are the least in a position to adapt.
Percieve, predict, prepare, and prevent
This TEDx talk is about our failure to imagine climate change threats and the need to work out scenarios to maintain peace in a dramatically changing environment. That requires training, new equipment, new technology. It also requires combining expertise from a wide range of experts, many of them without previous security involvement. Predicting and preventing planetary security conflicts also asks for making use of big data and AI. So solving the security threats of the future requires a complex, multi-disciplinary approach. And above all, it requires a lot of imagination.
Verbeek speaking five years ago – we can see that we have already advanced from then, but what he has to say about trying to communicate with others in concrete examples rather than abstractions is still very valid ( as are many of his other points).
Planetary Security: the security implications of climate change
Alexander Verbeek https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2019/12/10/planetary-security-the-security-implications-of-climate-change/index.html Nato Review
10 December 2019
An expert explains the urgent need both for effective climate change action and for steps to be taken to prepare for life in a drastically different world, where global warming and related environmental degradation will impact on security.
On the eve of the UN Climate Change Conference COP 25 in Madrid (2 – 13 December 2019), a UN report made clear that urgent action is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are contributing to global warming. A hotter planet will increasingly lead to security challenges. More awareness, better forecasting tools as well as new organisational structures may be needed.
I believe that one of the most worrying things about current developments on our planet is the lack of awareness – and thus widespread complacency – about climate change among people, in the media and at government level. Our societies tend to suffer from short-termism and there is a lack of urgency to deal with long-term threats. The media focuses on stories that will bring in money through views, clicks and “likes”. Governments concentrate on winning the next elections, which makes current spending on preparing for the world of the future less popular (proposing relevant measures to encourage people to fly less and eat less meat are still considered a career-ending move in mainstream politics). And even on a personal level, we all know that the climate emergency is generally not a welcome topic of conversation during dinner with friends and family.
We have yet to see effective and visionary decision-making that could preserve our vulnerable planet from environmental degradation. The damage to our planet is globalising faster than the global coordinated responses that are needed. There is a tendency to wait for others to act first, to point at other countries’ contribution to the problem, and to close our eyes, our hearts and our borders to those people who are most affected.
The impact of climate change that we already see now is only the beginning of more significant changes to come. A growing, but still relatively small part of the public, is beginning to realise this and is calling on governments to act much more decisively. Greta Thunberg’s ‘school strike for climate’ has inspired a global youth protest against the lack of action of their parents’ generation, and other initiatives like the Sunrise movement and Extinction Rebellion have also taken to the streets to demand more action. These new movements join the countless scientists who have warned for decades that we are doing too little too late.
There is no legitimate doubt that human activity is accelerating the greenhouse effect, which results in global warming. This was acknowledged in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and has since has been ratified by 197 countries. This nearly universal membership gives legitimacy to its main aim of mitigating the human effect on climate change. However, it was not until the Paris Agreement of 2015, that signatories to the UNFCC set targets, promising to hold global warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures and to try to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.
Sadly, we are currently too slow in taking action to meet these targets – greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. This year’s Emissions Gap Report, issued by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), has concluded that there is a huge and growing gap between what needs to be done to tackle climate change and what we are actually doing. The challenge is enormous: the report concludes that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 7.6 per cent every year for the next ten years if we want to limit warming to 1.5°C.
Ahead of the COP25 meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that, so far, the world’s efforts to limit global warming have been “utterly inadequate”. He warned that “the point of no return is no longer over the horizon; it is in sight and hurtling toward us.”
We do not have the luxury to postpone effective climate action any longer. Moreover, we need to start preparing for life in a drastically different world, where climate change and related global environmental degradation will impact human security and international security.
The need to prepare for a different world
It is hard to imagine what the combined consequences of the geophysical and societal changes could mean for us. Scientists warned in the early seventies of “The Limits to Growth” and many of their concerns have since been vindicated. The exponential growth in resource extraction, use of fossil fuels, production, consumption and waste has contributed to the rise in CO2 emissions, extensive pollution, and loss of biodiversity, impacting all kinds of other processes on the planet. Increasingly, Earth’s interacting physical, chemical and biological processes will pass tipping points, and feedback loops will further impact the environment.
‘Planetary security’ therefore captures the new security challenges of our century better than the phrase ‘climate security’, or even the wider concept of ‘environment and security’. The scale of these challenges could easily be underestimated. All the media attention on the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C may have given the impression that only two possibilities lie ahead: a temperature rise of 1.5°C or 2°C. Unfortunately, the future could have much more extreme scenarios in store for us.
As Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) stated upon the release of the WMO provisional Statement on the State of the Climate in 2019: “If we do not take urgent climate action now, then we are heading for a temperature increase of more than 3°C by the end of the century, with ever more harmful impacts on human wellbeing.”
While we should do the utmost to mitigate climate change, it would be naive not to think about how to prepare for the security consequences of a much warmer world, where a drastically changed environment will contribute to new security challenges. Given the complexities of the planet’s interacting processes, it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen at different mean temperatures –but basically the hotter it gets, the greater the disruption will be to weather patterns, ecosystems and sea levels.
Humidity and heat could make large parts of the tropic zones uninhabitable for at least part of the year. Many of the glaciers in the Himalaya that provide a reliable source of water for more than a billion people are likely to disappear. Many coastal cities risk being submerged. Billions of people may be faced with high levels of water stress or food scarcity, and many may migrate towards more habitable parts of the planet.
Already we are seeing signs of what lies ahead: heatwaves, forest fires and increased destruction by hurricanes, floods and other forms of extreme weather. In the decades to come, and certainly in the second half of this century, climate change will become the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced.
A faceless enemy
That makes climate change a new enemy. It has no flag, no leader, no combatants, nor a revolutionary manifesto. But it is a killer of people, it is operating worldwide to destabilise societies, and it is gaining strength. Climate change is therefore often described as a ‘risk multiplier’ a ‘fragility amplifier’ or even a ‘catalyst’ of conflict. While we prepared for nuclear war as a risk that could happen, we are less sure if, or how, we should prepare for the inevitable consequences of climate change.
A classic enemy is fought by the military, while every other institution in a country prepares for the consequences of the enemy’s actions. For climate change it is the other way around: diplomats, businesses, environmentalists and everybody else should fight climate change. Meanwhile the military should prepare for the consequences of climate change on security.
Increasingly, military experts are voicing their concerns. The Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC) is a global network of serving and retired military officers, and associated institutions. For more than ten years, it has warned of the potential security implications of climate change. In its first joint statement, released in October 2009, the Council warned that “failure to recognise the conflict and instability implications of climate change and to invest in a range of preventative and adaptive actions will be very costly in terms of destabilising nations, causing human suffering, retarding development and providing the required military response.”
New tools for new challenges
In my opinion, two key developments will influence our capacity to anticipate potential instability or conflict. On the one hand, climate change and environmental degradation will make it even more complicated to predict conflicts. On the other hand, the rapid increase of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) could increase our capacity to forecast future security threats. These new tools could help us to prepare for a different world with new challenges.
Many popular articles on ‘climate wars’ or ‘water wars’ are highly speculative. The human factor, in particular, is difficult to predict: what decisions will be taken by individuals and governments when confronted with climate change? Conflicts over increasingly scarce natural resources are not a predetermined outcome – they fundamentally depend on factors like institutional and social resources. In one case, scarcity may drive conflict and migration, while in another it may forge innovation and cooperation. It is also hard to anticipate what actions world leaders will take in the future to prevent a breakdown of our ecosystems, including the (lack of) actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
While it is hard to predict policies, the good news is that our insights into environmental scarcity and climate change are rapidly getting better. We have more and more digital data about the state of our planet. Combining remote sensing, big data and AI could make it possible to forecast risks and assess scenarios in a way we could never do before, and this could help us prepare better for future challenges.
Those working on security threats will follow with interest the ideas on the development of a ‘digital ecosystem’ for the planet, which would be able to provide transparency and assess risks in the management of natural resources. Essential for the creation of such a system would be an integration of private and public initiatives for monitoring our planet by making use of the latest digital technologies. An example is the work of the World Resources Institute (WRI). This think tank works with a range of partners on projects like Global Forest Watch and Resource Watch, which provide new insights into what is happening on our planet.
WRI combines hundreds of data sets on environment, demography, health, politics or security. It can for instance combine the satellite data on forest cover in a country with those of the same area just two weeks before. That means that the slashing or burning of an isolated forest becomes visible practically as it happens, just as reforestation can be tracked and promoted as good practice.
Another initiative of WRI, together with other partners, is the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership. Water scarcity is expected to rise to unprecedented levels in some regions due to population growth, rapid urbanisation and growing economic demands for water. Meanwhile, floods affect over 100 million people annually. These challenges are exacerbated by ecosystem losses and climate change impacts. The WPS project seeks to use global modelling, big data and satellite imagery, combined with local knowledge and increasing transparency, to make early warning and analysis of water-related societal impacts. Some first promising results were presented last year in the UN Security Council.
UNEP is one of the hosts of another digital data project called the World Environment Situation Room (powered by MapX). It also begins to map and monitor environmental and climate security risks. These data will be packaged into a global dashboard and also offered as environmental intelligence briefs to UN country teams, the UN Security Council and organisations such as NATO.
UNEP has also taken the initiative to strengthen cooperation and synergy between all these activities in order to build a ‘digital ecosystem for the environment’. Together with the Institute for Planetary Security, UNEP plans to organise a conference for all interested parties in 2020, aiming to create a partnership that will lead to a very powerful open access system that could revolutionise our knowledge of developments on our planet and boost our early warning capacity.
Failure of imagination
Future historians may find it hard to explain why we acted so late to prepare for these planetary security challenges. One of the reasons they may identify for the world’s slow reaction to both the cause and impacts of the climate crisis is that our institutions tend to work in silos and through government structures set up in a different era to confront a different sort of dangers. The scale of the climate change challenge is so huge, the risks are so complex, and there are so many actors involved, that it is safe to say we have simply never dealt with such a multifaceted risk before.
The Planetary Security conferences that have been organised in The Hague since 2015 have helped to break down the silos between scientists, policy makers and military experts. In the past few years, the UN Security Council, the European Union and other regional organisations have also increasingly been paying attention to these planetary security challenges, and some actors have developed some initial capacity to address them. But an effective longer-term structure to combine the knowledge and roles of all stakeholders is still lacking. Keeping the severity and complexity of these challenges in mind, security organisations should invest more in understanding and preparing for these future threats, together with a wide range of other relevant actors.
Technically and economically, the world should be able to deal with and adapt to this challenge. And while the public is increasingly raising its voice to demand urgent action, the ball remains very much in the court of governance. Accepting the reality of climate change, cooperating between all relevant stakeholders, and showing visionary leadership are some essential steps for the way forward. We have successfully dealt with huge threats in the past. Today, we simply cannot afford to ignore the biggest challenge of all.
What is published in NATO Review does not constitute the official position or policy of NATO or member governments. NATO Review seeks to inform and promote debate on security issues. The views expressed by authors are their own.
We are not good at imagining the future, which makes it harder to promote climate action.
Many of us fear for a future where climate change and the loss of nature make this planet a tough place to survive. Long-term climate change projections usually predict the situation in the year 2100; for instance, the IPCC reports frequently refer to the end of this century.
In the IPCC’s ‘middle of the road’ scenario, temperatures will rise to 2.7C by the end of the century. Although that is a hot planet where you would not enjoy living, the reality might be worse in 2100 because there are some optimistic elements in this scenario. It assumes, for instance, that CO2 emissions hover around current levels before starting to fall mid-century. I doubt if that is realistic, I fear emissions are going up in the years to come.
If the idea of 2,7C higher temperatures frightens you, and it should, then don’t think about the worst of the five IPCC scenarios. If current CO2 emissions levels roughly double by 2050, the average global temperature will be a scorching 4.4C higher by 2100.
When hearing bad news, denial is the first reaction. Climate change has been bad news for many decades, and so has our denial. That was not only a natural reaction to bad news; it was actively encouraged to deny the unfolding planetary disaster by the most powerful and best-informed people in the world: the leaders in the fossil fuel industry. When they knew that their products were ruining the planet, they decided not only to keep quiet but to lobby actively, advertise, and even infiltrate the school curricula with lies about climate change. Not one of them has been convicted for these crimes, a pleasure that you will probably not enjoy if you cry “fire” in a crowded cinema. Or, to stay closer to the fossil-fuel industry’s denial, if you shout “there is no fire” in a burning cinema.
Now that the changing climate is visible daily to all of us, a relatively new development for most people, we move from the stage of flat-out denial to more subtle reactions to make the bad news about our planet more digestible. It comes in many forms, such as saying that you can’t do anything to halt climate change (not true) or saying that you already do enough (you took a short shower) and that it is now time for others to do much more. That last thought, blaming others, is quite popular. Try it out with friends or family: start talking about climate change, and I guarantee you that fingers will be pointed at others within minutes.
Another aspect that makes us less alarmed than we should be is that the future is less far away than you think. It is a mistake that we all seem to make; when I recently called about my pension fund for the first time in my life, the adviser I spoke to told me that most people only start to think about their pensions when they are in their fifties. If that gives any guidance, you could say that we are prepared to look some 15 years in the future. That probably explains why science fiction goes a bit further to give us a feeling that it is really far away.
I remember when the second Back to the Future movie came out in my student days in 1985. For me, the idea of living in 2015 was unimaginably far in the future. Orwell used a similar time frame; he looked 36 years into the future when he wrote 1984 in 1948. (And I hate to say that the inversion of 48 to 84 is likely no more than just a popular theory. Orwell started in 1944 and wrote most of this book in ’47 and ’48. In that time, the title changed from ‘The Last Man in Europe’ to 1980, and then to 1982. One of his last amendments was that he changed it to 1984).
We tend not to take climate change projections for the year 2100 seriously because it is so hard for us to imagine more than 15 years into the future. But it isn’t that far: it is only 78 years and 95 days. So a child that is born today may live one or two decades into the next century. And that child will have children and grandchildren that will have to live on the remnants of the paradise-like planet that we had the pleasure of knowing.
Flip back in time those 78 years and 95 days, and we are on 25 June 1943; does that sound unimaginably far away? I know that quite a few readers of this newsletter have memories of what they did in that black year of world history. It was the month that German Junkers shot down a passenger flight over the Bay of Biscay in what was likely an attempt to kill Winston Churchill, whom the Germans may have mistakenly believed that he was aboard. On the other side of the globe, Yamamoto was buried. It was the outcome of a similar scenario, this time with the target on board. It is the month of the capture, torture, and death of Jean Moulin, and it was another month of unimaginable horrors of war and holocaust.
The year 1943 doesn’t feel like far when I think of my parents. Nor should 2100 feel far when we think of our children. In other words: someday your children may write in a blog in the year 2100, stating that 2021 doesn’t feel far away from the past: their parents were still alive, there was still ice on the north pole, tourists enjoyed the coral of the Great Barrier Reef, the summers were lovely, you could still enjoy butterflies and free and fair elections.
There is another risk. Not only does 2100 look far away into the future, but the projections of 2100 also give the unintended impression of an end date. As if the changing of our climate stops at that date, followed by a new stable warmer situation. I wish it would work out like that.
Unfortunately, in all likelihood, it gets much worse in at least some aspects. The first that comes to mind is sea-level rise, which will likely be much worse in the next century than in our times. Even if we somehow manage to stop the increase of CO2 in the next decade, the sea level will keep rising because of tipping points we have passed that make some ice shelves in the Arctic disappear. If we were able to project some 500 years in the future, we would see a planet that has unrecognizably changed, without the essentials for our human culture to survive. I hope you will agree that we don’t have a day to lose to reduce fossil fuel use and deforestation and prepare for the challenges of a different kind of planet that is our only home in a vast, cold, and lonely universe.
I write this newsletter because I believe that together we can do better on this beautiful but fragile planet.
Alexander Verbeek is a Dutch environmentalist, who has mostly worked on the linkage between security and the earth’s accelerating environmental crisis. He created the Planetary Security Initiative and is Policy Director at the Environment & Development Resource Centre in Brussels. He is connected as associate or fellow to several environmental or security institutions and the universities of Yale and Uppsala.