Putting the “Crisis” in “Climate Crisis”: The Impact of Securitization on Climate Change Policy

April 3, 2021   /  

Name: Olivia Azzarita
Major: Political Science
Advisor: Dr. John Valdez, Dr. Matthew Krain

In the collective global effort against climate change, some countries take more action than others to reduce their negative impact. My I.S. examines the reasons for this through the lens of Copenhagen School securitization theory, which posits that security threats are socially constructed through speech acts or “securitizing moves” (Buzan, Wæver, and de Wilde 1998). I hypothesize that when government actors frame climate change as a security threat, as opposed to a risk or a normal political issue, climate change mitigation policy will be more effective. In this study, I compare the framing of climate change and the policy response to climate change in three industrialized countries, which as a state type contribute the most to climate change through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and are therefore the most in need of climate performance improvement. Countries were chosen based on the effectiveness of their policy relative to other industrial and post-industrial countries, measured on the independently conducted Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) from 2010 through 2020. I found that individual securitizing moves are connected to improvements in climate policy performance within countries, but that securitizing moves only have lasting effects if they succeed in changing the political culture surrounding climate change. Even in the case where climate change is fully securitized and the country performs well on the CCPI, current policy performance is not at a level sufficient to meet international goals in any industrialized country.

Olivia will be online to field comments on April 16:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

24 thoughts on “Putting the “Crisis” in “Climate Crisis”: The Impact of Securitization on Climate Change Policy”

  1. Congratulations, Olivia! What an interesting subject: crisis framing and policy response. Certainly seems like a slow-motion disaster to me.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Lantis! “Slow-motion disaster” is a great way to put it. Unfortunately, considering climate a slow-motion disaster has led to slow-motion action; even with certain predictions that conditions will become irreversible in a few years, some political actors still treat it as a future problem that is less of a priority than more immediate, fast (or normal?) motion disasters. I suppose we can all be inclined to procrastinate, but the lack of foresight here is concerning. That’s where framing climate change as an immediate, existential threat comes in – elevating the level of priority to the same or greater than other disasters.

  2. Very interesting, Olivia. Great to see such serious work on environmental policy and the climate crisis. Your note about “changing the political culture” seems very astute. Can you give a few specific examples?

    1. Thank you! I’d be happy to elaborate – changing the political culture is an element of securitization theory that there isn’t enough space for on a concise powerpoint. A political climate in which atypically drastic measures are justified in order to prevent the threat is indicative of successful securitization. This means that when an issue is securitized, there are few or no serious political actors that debate the validity or gravity of the issue as a threat. For example, in Sweden, the case in my study where climate change was most securitized, the government’s view of climate change as a threat did not change substantially between the Moderate-led liberal-conservative government that was in power until 2014, and the center-left Social Democratic government from 2014 to now. All of the parties in Parliament, except one controversial populist party, acknowledge climate change as an existential threat. In addition – and this is more from personal observation than my IS, but it does illustrate my point – environmentalist movements have massive public support, and sustainability has become a major priority among the population to the point where people frequently talk about “flight shame” and advertisers use sustainability as a major selling point. This is what a political climate of securitized climate change looks like, where the vast majority are conscious of the threat and committed to stopping it in some way, even if their efforts don’t quite turn out to be enough to do so.

      1. Thanks for the detailed answer. I’m not surprised to hear that Sweden is one of your illustrative case studies. Basically, one imagines a day when the reality of climate change is as unquestioned and is taken as seriously as the reality of drunk driving, or smoking cigarettes, or wearing a helmet on a motorcycle. There will always be people who disagree or who don’t take it seriously, but the goal is to shrink that set of people to a very small minority. Excellent work!

  3. This is a really compelling way to think about the climate crisis and the relationship between how we frame it and the actions we are likely to take. Great work!

  4. Such an important topic of study! My biggest concern with the securitization of the climate crisis and response is any potential future hostility it could create between countries. As you conclude, what’s most important is changing the political environment so we don’t have to rely solely on the securitizing moves which don’t even garner the full action we need anyways.

    1. You have a point. Securitization is not a cure-all, and the main pioneers of the theory have made that very clear; as I point out in my IS introduction, treating just anything as a security threat can justify unjustifiable actions. I view securitization framing as a tool that political organizers may use to quickly change the political culture in circumstances where extreme action is warranted, and I believe climate change is one such circumstance. There is no single solution to the climate crisis, but treating climate change as a security threat may be an effective angle to address it.

  5. Congratulations, Olivia–really interesting work! You mention on slide 10 that securitization corresponds with “temporary improvements in policy.” Could you share a bit more about what kind of effect securitization has on climate/environmental policies in the long run?

    1. Securitizing moves and successful securitization processes are not the same. Securitizing moves, or the simple acts of stating that climate change is a security threat in a speech or public statement, are what correspond with temporary improvements in policy. The issue is that these securitizing moves do not always have the intended effect of changing people’s perceptions of the issue in the long term. This is especially likely in countries where leadership can change drastically within a few years, as we see in the US and to a lesser extent in Mexico. But when securitizing moves do successfully influence public perception, the pattern is more similar to the case of Sweden – it remains a very high priority with consistent, (mostly) effective action regardless of who is in power.

  6. Super well done! I’m fascinated. What would be the first few things you suggest we change?

    1. Here in the US? I think we are back on the right track with recent developments, such as rejoining the Paris Agreement and developing better infrastructure. But even at its peak of performance, the US was lagging behind most other industrialized countries because of our heavily car-based infrastructure, deregulated production, and general reliance on fossil fuels that limited the extent of policy improvement. So in terms of policy improvement, carbon pricing, sustainable transportation infrastructure, stricter limits on pollution, and other policies that work toward carbon neutrality are good next steps. In terms of framing, we first need to reestablish climate change as at the very least an undeniable risk. The politicization of climate change has set us back quite a bit, as my results show. So I would suggest a framing strategy that re-centers facts and risks first, using other rhetorical strategies to appeal to the national audience, and then move toward securitization. Former Secretary of State John Kerry did this well, using appeals to American international leadership and national pride to boost his securitizing moves. Of course, this may not get us all the way to where we need to be, but it’s a start.

  7. Great job, Olivia! We are super proud! Do you think that some effects of climate change are more likely to be treated as security threats than others? For example, rising water level vs severe weather

    1. I think that the effects in general are more likely to be treated as security threats than the root cause, which is climate change itself. It’s easier in many ways to respond to tangible natural disasters than it is to stop climate change from worsening, and it’s impossible to really see how much worse things could be if we did nothing at all, so there’s not always much political will to address climate change. This is why climate change is often treated as a heightened risk factor for more extreme weather, but not a threat itself.

  8. Olivia, fascinating work! I think the comment above about the risks of securitization contributing to international conflict is well worth considering–especially in the context of the rise of eco-fascism and nationalist autocracies. Like the other Kate who commented, I’m a little leery of rhetorical strategies that shore up the nation-state/emphasize individualist approaches to the problem of climate change. But I also understand the impulse to examine & pursue ANY approach that might lead to faster responses.

    I just recommended this book on Olivia Proe’s post as well because I’m obsessed with it, but I think Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement might offer a really interesting angle on the question of how cultural narratives shape the way we understand and approach climate change. Good work here and best wishes!

  9. Amazing job Olivia, what an interesting topic! Do you think the change in administration in the US will lead to securitization or politization of climate change, and did the last administration affect this? Congrats again!

  10. This is so great Olivia! It really provides insight into the impasse surrounding climate change policy we have in the United States currently. Your conclusion that politicizing climate change hurts mobilization while securitization helps it is fascinating. How has this insight changed how you view elected officials’ climate change debates you see in the news?

  11. Thank you for sharing your work and research here, Olivia. And also for sharing your experiences this semester in the Voice. I hope that you find some time to reconnect in the coming weeks. Congratulations and all the best to you.

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