Framing the Climate Crisis as a Terrorism Issue Could Galvanize Action

Most Americans see “global warming” as an environmental, scientific, and political issue. Over half of Americans do not see it as a national security issue. While it is informative to present the climate crisis primarily through scientific data on global temperatures, atmospheric carbon concentration, and emissions levels, it does not galvanize people to action nearly as much as characterizing it as a matter of immediate national security. Doing the latter would make it a much higher priority for people in power.

The U.S. military already quietly recognizes climate change as a matter of national security, in part because it sparks conflict and unrest in other countries. In order to conceptually link the climate crisis to national security for the broader public, climate activists should expand and increase rhetorical focus on how the climate crisis worsens migration, foments geopolitical instability, and thereby aids terrorist organizations. Presenting the climate crisis in security-centric concerns and consequences ensures that all Americans — including right-leaning voters and people who would not be swayed by conventional appeals to ecological conservation or species preservation — become aware of how consequential it is. Security-centric framing would also help to shift the tone of climate activism toward addressing immediate threats, rather than simply encouraging global cooperation for the sake of future generations.

Reorienting climate rhetoric around national security also brings the action to a level that feels more achievable — at the national rather than global level. Whereas preserving the planet for future generations sounds aspirational and spiritually uplifting, it is an intrinsically international goal that calls upon many countries to work together for success. Framing plans to deal with the climate crisis in a way that requires concerted goodwill tends to encourage cynicism and blame-shifting when countries fail to meet carbon emission reduction targets. The vast majority of countries are failing to lower emissions to levels that would keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, as the 2015 Paris Agreement aspires to do. This collective failure dissipates blame and often disincentivizes countries from shouldering the burdens of emission reduction. Furthermore, focusing overtly on country-level climate reduction targets conceals the fact that emissions are largely generated by a handful of international corporations — over a third of all carbon and methane emissions since 1965 have been produced by 20 companies, including Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell.

Holding corporations accountable for emissions requires immense political momentum, which is more easily galvanized by framing climate action as a necessary defense against immediate danger than as a voluntary restriction of certain economic activities for global well-being. While global cooperation to reduce emissions is what the international community should strive for, using nation-centered rhetoric that focuses on security threats can be an effective conduit to achieving this broader goal. Furthermore, linking the climate crisis to terrorism could increase the motivation and capital for countries to press hard in climate negotiations; in the face of immediate danger, the inertia of other countries or companies seems a paltry excuse for inaction.

Jennifer Zhang is a student at Barnard College, Columbia University. This storyis published courtesy of Earth Institute, Columbia University.