Firepower, Climate and the Dilemmas of Security

Main Image Credit In need of a safety valve: the landing site of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline at Lubmin, Germany. Image: Stefan Dinse / Alamy

Investments in oil and gas are not the answer to the supply disruptions caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has once again highlighted interconnected security problems in Europe, but might, as numerous crises often do, offer an opportunity for policy innovation that simultaneously deals with multiple security problems. But policymakers and agencies in Europe must rethink how to connect the dots between what are frequently still considered separate policy domains.

Not least, the conventional formulations of climate security need to be extended to cover more than just potential threat multipliers in the Global South, and focus instead on the vulnerabilities generated by fossil fuels. These include both direct, in terms of fuel supply problems, and, ironically, indirect considerations because of the consequences of burning those fuels. Both, as the rest of this commentary will suggest, are forms of ‘firepower’ in need of constraint to ensure multiple forms of security.

Yes, we now need to consider firepower in civilian terms too, because the fuel that powers industry, vehicles, domestic heating and much else is based on the controlled use of fire. Hence, we need a nuanced interpretation of the current crises, suggesting that the physical sources of insecurity, both military and climate, lie in the widespread use of combustion; future security lies in constraining both kinds of firepower.

Traditionally, security dilemmas point to dynamics where actions by one state generated fears and further military preparations, enhancing fears and insecurities. Ironically, preparations to enhance security set in motion processes which are counterproductive. Although it is a bit of a stretch from traditional notions of the dilemma, the widespread use of fossil fuels confronts modern societies with a new form of security dilemma in that actions to enhance security are having perverse counterproductive consequences.

Now, once again, attempts to provide security of society and economy, this time using huge amounts of fossil fuels, are generating unanticipated reactions as more extreme and unpredictable weather already indicates. Climate change may not have a conscious agent, as in John Herz’s classic notion of a security dilemma, but the unintended consequences of this particular form of security provision are coming home to roost, threatening societies that rely on combustion to power them – and doing so twice over.

While the short-term scramble to diversify sources of fossil fuel supply generated many headlines, the long-term security implications of continued dependence on fossil fuels are much more serious

The war in Ukraine highlights the importance of firepower, and the use and control of it for numerous purposes. Modern combat is directly about the use of firepower to defeat opposing forces. Not just the sheer amount of combustion, but the ability to direct it, as the obvious importance of guided missiles in the hands of Ukrainian light infantry has demonstrated.

The war has also emphasised the importance of fuel supplies, both to military forces, and to civilians and modern economies. Russian fuel supply problems are at least part of the reason why convoys of military vehicles were apparently stalled in various places in the initial phase of hostilities. But fears of fuel disruptions in Europe are also part of the conflict, as numerous calls to end oil and gas imports from Russia as part of the sanctions regime went unheeded.

While the short-term scramble to diversify sources of fossil fuel supply generated many headlines, the long-term security implications of continued dependence on fossil fuels are much more serious. This is so because of the vulnerability of long fossil fuel supply lines to geopolitical disruptions and to related price volatility. Beyond that, accelerating climate change promises more meteorological disruptions in terms of storms and floods, with food production disruptions as well as direct damage, not to mention the gradual onset of drought and coastal inundations. In some cases, these climate change-induced disruptions are, due to infrastructure damage, likely to compound the difficulties with fuel supply.

All of which emphasises the insecurities inherent in relying on fossil fuels. Thus, there are multiple interconnected reasons to reconstruct economies and societies in ways that are not dependent on firepower in both its senses.

Is this stretching the use of the word firepower too far? At first blush it might seem so, but the currently accelerating climate change problem, which, as endless scientific reports make clear, needs urgent attention, is based on the unrestrained use of combustion. Likewise, the dangers of nuclear warfare, in particular, stem from the potential damage of widespread combustion.

It would be a tragic failure of security policy across NATO if the response to the double threats of war in Ukraine and the fuel crisis in Europe was simply to invest in further gas and petroleum infrastructure

During the Cold War, arms control was a key policy tool to constrain the dangers of nuclear warfare, not least by limiting the total amount of potential combustion but also by making the future more predictable, and using various verification measures to ensure transparency and hence build confidence about how to avoid potentially threatening activities that were likely to occur in the future. Failure to do all this promised mutually assured destruction.

Now, the current patterns of fossil fuels use are also promising future assured destruction. Climate disruptions are already increasing at an alarming rate and unless fossil fuel use is limited very soon, the trajectory is clearly to runaway ecological breakdowns which even rich and powerful countries will not be able to avoid. As became clear with the dangerous expansion of nuclear firepower during the Cold War, constraints to reduce the danger and to make political management of crises became essential.

The parallels with accelerating ecological disruptions are obvious, and clearly fossil fuel controls are needed to avoid assured (climate) destruction. This is what the Paris Agreement on Climate Change at least tentatively offered, but there are numerous problems there with agreeing to limit combustion as well with transparency and verification – matters entirely familiar to those working on arms control agreements.

The conflict in Ukraine offers an opportunity to think much more carefully about security, and about the need to consider the multiple self-inflicted vulnerabilities that firepower now presents. Clearly, a sensible exit strategy from reliance on both forms of firepower is essential for long-term security in Europe as elsewhere.

It would be a tragic failure of security policy across NATO if the response to the double threats of war in Ukraine and the fuel crisis in Europe was simply to invest in further gas and petroleum infrastructure. While this might be good for the short-term bottom line for fossil fuel companies, it will only exacerbate the accelerating climate crisis which, on present trajectories, promises much larger disruptions in future decades and insecurity for all in an increasingly unpredictable world.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Simon Dalby

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