Today marks the Earth Day, held annually since 1970 in support of environmental protection. Schools, universities and workplaces worldwide organise events to raise awareness about the importance of individual action, such as using less paper or taking shorter showers.
And tomorrow, life will go on, business as usual.
Although the environmental crisis is too urgent and monumental for us to ignore, this is precisely what we do. As British sociologist Anthony Giddens aptly put it, environmental issues tend to be “back of the mind issues”: We recognise their importance and urgency, but more immediate concerns occupy our attention. This applies to both individuals and policymakers.
Who then could and should lead the way?
There are two common narratives for seeking to motivate environmentally-friendly choices and actions: The first one puts emphasis on the role of the government, and the second on the individual. But unfortunately, neither of these is useful in practice.
Everyone agrees that decision-makers should lead with ambitious policies to reduce wasteful natural resource consumption, switch to clean energy and prevent polluting the air, land and sea. Most recently, Swede Greta Thunberg has inspired youth globally around school “strikes” that demand governments to enact more ambitious emission reduction policies.
But vested financial interests, entitlements, perverse incentives and a bias towards business as usual often prevent this from fully happening. Decision-makers fear undertaking what they perceive as unpopular reforms, such as increasing utility or fuel prices or taxing carbon. As President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said, “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we have done it.”
Individuals, according to the second narrative, have the power to make a big positive impact through their everyday choices as consumers. If we all do our small share, the world will be saved from mass extinction and catastrophic climate change. But so far, the opposite has been the case. Our collective greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels and we are driving the largest species extinction in the past 60 million years. Switching off the lights just does not cut it.
If the current narratives are not working, better ones are needed. One alternative approach is known as threat framing. Despite its significant potential pitfalls, it is worthwhile to explore how the lenses of risks, threats and security may help instil the needed urgency and mobilise collective action.
The idea of framing contemporary environmental challenges as existential crises, or “securitising” them, is not a new one. Small island states, threatened by rising sea levels, commonly frame climate change as an existential threat to their peoples and cultures. US environmental leader Bill McKibben has called climate change a world war, pointing out that in the past “in the face of a common enemy, Americans worked together in a way they never had before”.
Critics worry that securitisation can lead to militarisation of the approach to environmental challenges, which could change the dynamics of policymaking and limit the number of actors involved. Or it could foster an us-versus-them mentality. This is problematic because environmental security challenges are complex. They involve a number of factors and are almost never caused by a single actor or source. Take the case of Syrian uprisings, in which droughts, and perhaps climate change, played an igniting role, but so did unsustainable agricultural policies and ill-timed fuel subsidy reforms.
‘Tragedy of the commons’
Solving environmental challenges usually requires cooperation among multiple actors. This will be the case for managing the growing seawater desalination volumes around the Arabian Gulf, which are a textbook case of the “tragedy of the commons” in which individual actors consume a shared resource without paying for polluting it.
If utilised thoughtfully, however, security can be a useful frame for prioritising everything from individual choices through business investments to government policies. The UAE’s Permanent United Nations Representative Lana Nusseibeh recently spoke to this at a UN Security Council open debate, urging that: “Though not strictly a security issue in the traditional sense of the word, ... we must recognise that climate change will worsen existing security concerns in the future and potentially create new ones,” which is why “curbing greenhouse gas emissions and funding livelihoods in drought-stricken regions ... are in fact investments in security, and should be understood as such”.
A new study I authored looks at the environmental security challenges the UAE might be facing in the near future. Water and climate change are the obvious suspects. Unlike many other countries in the region, however, the UAE can be considered relatively resilient to environmental security threats, due to its high-income status and technological and institutional capabilities.
But the UAE should not rest on its laurels. This present-day resilience provides us all, from individuals to decision-makers, a window of opportunity to reframe our mindsets. Instead of thinking about the Earth one day a year, let us have it at the front of our minds. In the words of climate advocate Greta Thunberg, we need to act as if the house is on fire because it is.
Earth Day is every day.
Dr Mari Luomi is a senior research fellow at Emirates Diplomatic Academy.