Natural Uncertainty: Reconciling the Contrasting Environmental Goals of America’s First Natural Security President—Barack Obama

In his September 2012 re-nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), President Barack Obama unexpectedly inserted environmental security issues into his campaign. He stated:

And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it.1

[emphasis added]

Political analysts opined on Obama’s well-timed rhetorical counterpunch to Republican presidential opponent Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech dismissal of global climate change (GCC), mocking the issue as a hoax.2 Democrats were pleased Obama was prominently placing environmental protection issues into the fall general election.3 Conservative critics painted Obama as a fossil-fuel foe, squandering taxpayer money on ill- conceived renewable energy projects dealing with a false crisis.4 Criticism of Obama also came from the left and from the environmental community, unsatisfied with Obama’s lack of commitment to reducing GCC. Al Gore charged that Obama “has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.”5

On environmental issues, Barack Obama is complex. How could a President state grave concern about fossil fuel pollutants accelerating climate change, while simultaneously supporting the US economic boon from water-draining and air polluting hydraulic fracturing (fracking) shale gas extraction? How could a president committed to reducing pollution by increasing the US automobile fleet’s gas mileage continue to approve oil and gas leases and unapologetically embrace a coal industry he assured could be made “clean?” Was Obama, once again, out of his depth on environmental issues, feeding into broader concerns about his acumen?6 What drives Obama’s thinking on environmental issues?

Obama’s rhetoric and his administration’s actions suggest that climatological dangers from carbon energy greenhouse gas (GHG) pollutants are not just ecological crises, but are formally among the small list of his administration’s most urgent US national security threats.

Growing numbers of environmental policy and international security scholars give credence to the natural security school of international politics. Its adherents argue that conflicts over access to energy and twenty first century precious minerals, the increased global dependence on fossil fuels, and rising political instability due to ecosystem harm combine to authenticate global climate change as a valid, potent US national security policy threat.7

Examination of Obama’s campaign and presidential rhetoric, his legislative work, and his administrative/executive successes, will show how he prioritizes GCC issues within the US national security portfolio. While recent US presidents have embraced components of such a worldview, the breadth and depth of environmental security rhetoric and policy suggest Barack Obama is striving to become America’s first natural security president.

Natural Security: How Resource Competition, us Energy Dependence, And Ecosystem decline Reframes American Threat Assessment

Environmental scarcity and competitive access to finite natural resources frame nature-based national security threat assessment. Environmental scholars have long warned of social and ecological costs of unregulated access to limited natural resources, while critics dismissed these writings as naive rejections of free market capitalism.8 Climate change scholars pointed to increasing ecological harm caused by increased human use of fossil fuels for transportation, power generation, homes and manufacturing.9 Record temperatures in the US and historic atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) pollutant levels of 400 parts per million (ppm) are indicators that, further validate climate change’s threat.10

OPEC’s 1973—74 oil embargo, and the first gas rationing since World War II, provided Americans a vivid example of how geopolitics and natural resource access collide. Ullman asked post-Cold War readers to reject the assumption that “defining national security merely (or even primarily) in military terms conveys a profoundly false image of reality... ignoring even more harmful dangers.”11

Matthew details multiple dimensions of the natural security worldview. One view links scarcity of environmental resources (water, food, oil) to conflict over access to such resources.12 A second view analyzes economic overreliance and corruption endemic in nation-states solely propelled by one high value natural resources (oil, diamonds, REEs).13 Environmental security also evaluates the ecological impacts of making war (radioactive pollution from US atomic bomb plants, massive air pollution caused by retreating Iraqis blowing up Kuwaiti old fields).14 Two final subsets call for greater access to military information to monitor environmental issues (e.g., desertification images from military satellites), or reemphasis on how nature can draw actors towards peaceful conclusion of conflicts.15

US realist national security advocates, focusing on sovereignty, state versus state conflict and the projection of power, find stark contrasts when attempting to embrace natural security thinking. Realpolitik advocates of economic and military power projection struggle to embrace sustainable development and/or Agenda 21 principles, with their community-based ethic of sharing resources, embracing nature, and assisting all “major groups” (women, children and indigenous peoples).16

Another criticism of natural security scholarship results from its call to embrace abstract, long-term threats. Nature-based threats rarely are included among those humanity-threatening events national security jargon identifies as existential threats. Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons use, a meteor striking Earth, or pandemic diseases are examples of such extreme global and terminal threats.17 More study and committed statecraft is needed to fold climate change threats into a security world focused on militarized force projection.

Lloyd and other Copenhagen School scholars suggest a rhetorical bridge between natural and national security. Securitization theory argues that security issues become threats as part of a speech act. If a “powerful securitizing actor argues that something constitutes an existential threat” needing immediate action for a nation to survive, continual use of that actor’s speech act validates the threat, making it more real.18 Lloyd argues that rhetoric by key national security actors is an essential first step, permits new existential threats to gain traction in national security policy circles, and validates further government action.19

Obama’s first term environmental rhetoric suggests application of the natural security speech act construct, with Obama as the “powerful securitizing actor.”

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