Climate Security: Beyond the Binary of Denial or Doomsday

February 23, 2021

In its most dominant representation, climate change is said to be an existential crisis. Within this apocalyptic vision, arguments exist that only a crisis, actual or perceived, can produce real change. This view is supported in scholarly literature by Anshelm and Hultman (2015), who argued that apocalyptic climate scenarios are “prerequisites for making global, political, radical sub-politics possible” (p.9).

Another perspective presented by Hartmann (2017) argued that framing climate change as an “apocalypse” is not useful when it comes to creating meaningful change. For it is through such “end of the world” narratives that efforts to create positive change can become paralyzed by fear based approaches. “And it ends up boosting the authority and power of the military-industrial complex, encouraging responses that call out the troops and beef up our borders to prepare for the coming crisis” (Hartmann 2017, p. 203).

The geopolitics of climate change, and more specifically, climate security, has become attached to some very destructive modes of thought. Of particular interest are the ways in which the work of Thomas Malthus has become attached to the meaning of climate change. As a quick refresher, Malthus is best known for his work on population growth and resource scarcity. Malthus argued that population growth increases exponentially while food production can only grow in a linear fashion. The consequences of this imbalance, as the story goes, will result in famine, disease, violence, and wide-scale suffering.

A point among many that is typically absent by those who reproduce Malthusian thought is that Malthus was actually concerned about a particular demographic of people (poor people) being a burden to those who he claimed were more productive members of society (rich people). In his concern, Malthus was actually arguing in favor of private property rights as a solution to subsistence rights. A point that most people miss is that Malthus’s argument reflected a political debate during his era and region. Not forever and global in scale. Yet, the basic premise of Malthusian discourse seems to live on and is generally applied to all crisis narratives.

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According to Ross (2000), Malthusian narratives have a long history of being inserted into geopolitical circumstances of different eras, and had more recently attached themselves to a variety of concerns about the well being of capitalism. This worldview combined stories about resource scarcity and developed countries in order to explain to us what an “immediate threat” looks like. “Particularly in the form of potential waves of immigration from poorer to richer countries” (Ross 2000). A way in which Malthusian thought has become attached to the discourse of climate change can be found in explanations that tells us climate change will, without question, result in an increasingly poor and violent future, as seen in the case of Syria.

From approximately 2012 to 2015 several people in positions of power supported the idea that the Syrian civil war (that is still on-going) was, in part, due to climate change. People who supported this narrative ranged from Prince Charles, President Obama, John Kerry and Bernie Sanders to several government reports as well as military think tanks, academics and political commentators (Selby et al 2016).

Within this story, several factors other than climate change are acknowledged to have contributed to the violence in Syria. However, climate change, through the representation of drought was said to have resulted in crop failures and large-scale migration which was the “tipping point” that sparked the civil war. There are three scholarly sources that are the foundation for this climate crisis narrative in Syria (Femia & Werrell 2012, Gleick 2014, Kelley et al 2015).

What is not widely known or discussed in the case of Syria is that Selby et al (2016) critically reexamined the data from the three original sources. It was found that much of the supporting evidence as provided by Femia and Werrel (2012), Gleick (2014) and Kelley (2015) did not hold up to scrutiny. Several of the talking points across the three sources were found to be over simplified and the literature did not include any precipitation data for Syria, specifically. Kelly’s (2015) geographic focus, as an example, included 14 countries in addition to Syria that did not experience civil war.

All three sources also did not account for Syrian government policy changes that impacted their economy between the 1990s and 2008. Those economic and political changes included the privatization of state farms, a move toward trade liberalization, and the removal of fuel and fertilizer subsidies. By eliminating those subsidies, fuel prices were said to have increased by 342% overnight, and fertilizer increased between 200 to 450%.

Selby further showed that there was no meaningful foundation for the claim of 1.5 to 2 million climate refugees having been displaced by drought. Syria did experience migration, but the early cause of that migration was attributed to the changes in government policy and economic impacts mentioned above. It is true that Syria experienced drought during the winter months of 2006/2007, and again in 2008/2009. However, that drought was shown to only impact the northeastern region of Syria, and it did not last as long as stated by the original three sources. Given that 60% of Syria’s wheat production took place in the northeastern region (Hasakah), agriculture there uses irrigation. In this way, drought would have had little impact upon crop yields in the only region of Syria that experienced drought. Yet, the removal of subsidies surely would have impacted the entire country. According to Selby et al (2016),

We find that there is no clear or reliable evidence that drought related migration was a contributory factor in civil war onset. In our assessment, there is thus no good evidence to conclude that global climate change-related drought in Syria was a contributory causal factor in the country’s civil war.

The geopolitics surrounding Syria as briefly summarized here provides an account for how aspects of science transform into climate security. A sentiment widely reproduced throughout US military literature is that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that will “aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence” (QDR 2014). In other words, the War on Terror will be extended due to climate change.

However, at the time of this writing there has been only one US government report that acknowledges Selby’s (2016) critical examination of the Syrian climate crisis narrative. As found in The Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army (U.S Army of War College 2019), this report cites Selby in a footnote and only in passing. In the body of the report, however, Syria was still referred to as a security crisis benchmark.

There is, however, no question that the conflict erupted coincident with a major drought in the region which forced rural people into Syrian cities as large numbers of Iraqi refugees arrived. The Syrian civil war has reignited civil war in Iraq, and brought the U.S. and Russian militaries into close contact under difficult circumstances.

Returning to the focus of Malthusian discourse which argues in favor of private property rights at the expense of the poor, Ahmed (2013) provided a detailed account about which states have interest in controlling an oil pipeline passing through Syria. Of strategic concern for the West at that time was said to be Iranian and Russian control over that oil pipeline.  That 2009 matter of concern has aged to show intent a decade later. “We’re keeping the oil, we have the oil, the oil is secure” (Trump 2019).

The narrative that climate change will, without question, bring with it an increasingly poor and violent future as seen in the case in Syria has seemingly more to do with politics as usual than it does with climate change. With questions, however, we may very well see beyond the binary of denial or doomsday to better understand how, as an example, a two hundred year old narrative that captures a very narrow place, time and debate, became inserted into political antagonisms that are framed as endlessly and globally threatening.

We would do well to explore the differences between the actual and perceived within the apocalyptic visions of the climate crisis. For it is through such narratives that, according to Marzec (2015) the relationship between science and the military-industrial complex has essentially turned environmentalism into a militarized response. With looking forward to future articles, we will further examine the foundations of geopolitics in its environmental context so as to better understand how the framework positions the purpose of state governments as one of competition and conflict.


Ahmed, N. (2013). Syria intervention plans fuelled by oil interests, not chemical weapon concerns. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/aug/30/syria-chemical-attack-war-intervention-oil-gas-energy-pipelines

Anshelm, J., Hultman, M. (2016). Discourses of Global Climate Change. New York, New York: Routledge.

Femia, Francesco, & Werrell, Caitlin (2012). Syria: Climate change, drought and social unrest. Briefer no. 11. Washington, DC: Center for Climate and Security.

Gleick, P. H. (2014). Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Weather, Climate, and Society, 6(3), 331–340. doi: 10.1175/wcas-d-13-00059.1

Hartmann, B. (2017). The American Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and our Call to Greatness. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Kelley, C, et al. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(11), 3241e3246.

Marzec , R.(2015). Militarizing the Environment: Climate Change and the Security State. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

QDR (2014). US Department of Defense – Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, Washington, DC: Department of Defense

Ross, E. (2000). The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Selby, J., Dahi, O. S., Fröhlich, C., & Hulme, M. (2017). Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War Revisited. Political Geography, 60, 232-244.

Trump, D. (2019) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U10p3Tn9V5Y

U.S Army of War College (2019). Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army. Retrieved from https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jan/29/2002084200/-1/-1/1/CLIMATE-CHANGE-REPORT-2019.PDF


Teaser photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus


Nathan Ellis

I have a MA in Geography and my expertise focuses on critical geopolitics and climate change security. I have taught undergraduate courses at the University of Kansas in the topics of Environmental Policy, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Political Geography, and Environmental Geopolitics. My bachelor’s is in Environmental Studies, and I have studied environmental issues under several leading scholars in the environmental field (IPCC, NOAA). I am Permaculture design certified, and served as an apprentice of Steve Moring, founder of the Kansas Permaculture Institute and the Kansas Permaculture Collaborative. I also have advanced primitive/wilderness skills under the instruction of Bo Brown (https://firstearth.org/) who served as an instructor under John McPherson (http://www.prairiewolf.net/) during some of the United States Special Forces workshops (SERE instructors). Furthermore, I experienced the unique opportunity to study graduate level Environmental Geopolitics with 28 active duty Special Forces Officers which provided for some

Tags: apocalyptic predictions, climate security