Part three: Energy security vs climate security

Reblogged from Saving humans:

It is clear that energy security opens up some difficult questions about what or whose security should be prioritised. At the centre of this is the growing conflict between the focus of much energy security policy and discussion on fossil fuels, and the human need for a stable climate and environment. Energy security as currently understood by most policymakers is incompatible with a stable climate. We see perhaps the biggest conflict between energy and climate security today in China.

As recognised by the International Energy Agency, burning fossil fuels for energy is by far the central source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. If climate change and air pollution are also considered, fossil fuels ultimately no longer provide security. China’s rapid economic development has led to a huge growth in its demand for energy. It still relies largely on domestic resources, which makes it ‘secure’ if you equate energy independence with energy security. However, nearly 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal – which is both cheap and domestically available. Coal is by far the dirtiest source of energy, and contributes more to global warming than any other fossil fuel.

China’s air pollution problems became world news last winter, when the air quality hit new lows. The US embassy in Beijing has been measuring air quality since 2008, and publishing the data on a twitter account using a pollution measurement scale from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The air quality index suggests measurements between 101 and 150 are unhealthy for ‘sensitive groups’, meaning children, the elderly and those suffering from asthma. For pollution levels between 301 and 500, labelled ‘hazardous’, they recommend everyone to refrain from doing any physical activity outdoors. Last winter, readings reached 755 – on a scale that stops at 500. The ongoing ‘trend’ has been labelled an ‘airpocalypse’, with high levels of pollution linked to increased levels of some types of cancer, as well as respiratory illnesses. Air pollution is also a cause of acid rain, which contaminates food supplies and damages ecosystems. Air and water pollution has been linked to a new phenomenon of ‘cancer villages’ in parts of China, where inhabitants suffer unusually high rates of cancer.

A photo of the same view in Beijing, on a clear day and during bad pollution during winter 2013

Unsurprisingly, people are increasingly unhappy about the social and environmental costs of development, and the number of environmental protests in China is rising. The government is attempting to tackle the issue, but growing energy demand means that a reduction in coal use is unlikely to happen even in the next decade. The growing conflict between increasing energy demand to support economic development and environmental stability is going to be one of the biggest challenges for China in the next decade. The government has repeatedly stated that economic development does not have to be unsustainable, but it is yet to back this up with serious action.

While the situation in China is at the centre of this debate, the rest of the world has also failed to come up with a clear solution. Existing approaches to energy security still largely overlook the impact policy choices have on the climate or the environment. Some argue that the environment or the climate are not ‘security’ issues, and while I personally disagree, whichever position you take it is clear that these are issues increasingly affecting the lives and livelihoods of human beings. The question we seem to be left with is: do we have to choose between energy security and a stable climate? Is it possible to ‘have it all’?

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Part two: Saving humans or saving states?

Reblogged from Saving Humans.

For some states, growing concern over energy security is turning them inwards as they attempt to maximise their own energy supplies. Much of the US energy security debate is centred around the desire for energy ‘independence’, an enticing dream of a United States which does not need to depend on anyone else. A key part of the solution presented by policy makers is to maximise domestic fossil fuel production. Both George W. Bush and Obama have emphasised the need to increase domestic production of oil and gas, resulting in an energy boom with much attention on the current ‘shale revolution’. A recent article in the Economist titled ‘Saudi America’ reflects the current mood well.

Frackin the Bakken shale play, from the Economist, Saudi America

While the internal debate puts the focus on producing more oil and gas domestically, energy independence is unlikely to be the saviour and solution that is hoped for. Shale gas has been hyped as a ‘bridging fuel’ which will replace dirty coal stations, thus moving the US towards a cleaner energy future. However, not only are the ‘green’ credentials of shale gas dubious at best; cheap and easily available shale gas is also replacing renewable energy sources. US coal use may be in decline, but rather than keeping it in the ground for environmental reasons, it is being exported to pollute elsewhere, making any net-climate benefit shale could have produced virtually inexistent.

In practice, climate change is largely off the agenda in energy security discussions, and leaders rarely talk about ‘coal’, preferring to use the term ‘clean coal’ – despite the fact that the effectiveness and reliability of clean coal technology is still unproven. Federal subsidies have tended to focus on fuels which emit high levels of greenhouse gases over renewable energy sources. George W. Bush noted that US ‘dependence on foreign oil is like a foreign tax on the American Dream’ (2005). Obama has argued that ‘homegrown’ sources of energy ‘make us more secure’ (2012) – whether renewable or not.

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Photo from USA today: Energy Independence is no longer a pipe dream

Of course, the United States is not alone in its desire to reduce dependence on others. However, securing the American state by maximising domestic supply in this way does not provide security in any meaningful sense. While it gives a much-needed boost to the economy today, failing to invest more in renewable energy sources which will still be here in the future is a dangerous and short-sighted strategy. The US is the second biggest CO2 emitter globally and its continuing high emissions affect human beings within and outside of the state itself, with a huge increase in pollution-related illnesses. Likewise, it contributes to climate change, endangering the future of the planet and climate that human beings depend on to survive.

Thus securing the US state by maximising domestic fossil fuel supply does not produce security in the longer term. The obsession with energy independence works to reinforce national borders and the state-system, making the need to secure ‘us’ with ‘homegrown’ sources of energy appear common sense. However, in an increasingly globalised world even an energy independent US cannot be isolated from the world. Climate change crosses borders and cannot be dealt with in these terms. The human impacts also cross borders – the West coast of the United States, for example, suffers from air pollution drifting across from China.

Traditional political thinking on energy security emphasises the need to secure state supplies of energy, focusing on fossil fuel supplies. Part of this is of course about providing citizens with energy. States also require energy to keep their economies stable, and any government which fails to ensure enough energy to keep its economy going faces the threat of uprisings, protest or even losing power. Energy shortages have a huge impact on human lives, too. However, continuing focus on fossil fuel exploitation is hugely problematic, and energy security understood in these terms is fundamentally incompatible with human security or a stable climate.

Energy security brings together a wide range of security issues and leaves us with serious and difficult questions about whose security should be prioritised. When it comes to energy security, should we save humans, or save states? Conversely, to save humans, do we need to save states? What about the current economic system? In a world with an ever-greater list of issues regarded as threats, how do we prioritise or decide which threats or security issues are more important?

Energy security and saving humans

This week, I’ll be doing a series of blog posts on the theme of energy security and saving humans, written for the  Saving Humans initiative in the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Birmingham, and reblogged here Monday-Friday. Part one:

Energy Security and saving humans

Energy security is increasingly the subject of headlines around the world. Most states rely heavily on fossil fuels to serve their energy needs, and as these fuels are finite they will eventually run out. There is an ongoing debate over whether or not we already have or will hit ‘peak oil’ in the near future, but either way there is increasing worry over the availability of, and access to, energy in years to come.

Energy security is a nebulous term which is often used by politicians to justify a range of different policy choices, but the term itself is rarely explicitly defined. Generally, it is used to refer to the availability of secure and reliable energy supplies at stable or reasonable prices. It is worth unpacking this a little further. Unlike renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, fossil fuels are geographically bound in a territory. They are not considered part of the global commons, but rather as the ‘property’ of the state in which they are located.

In this way, ‘secure supplies’ tends to refer to energy resources which are supplied from one state to another, implicitly putting the focus on fossil fuels which are traded openly on the global market. The emphasis on security of supply also suggests a state-centric focus – energy security policy aims to secure energy supplies to the state. The focus on ‘stable prices’ indicates a heavy focus on oil, as the energy resource most vulnerable to volatile prices in the global market. These factors are at the centre of most discussions of energy security today.

EIA map showing world oil chokepoints, which are at the centre of discussions on security of energy supply

There are a number of problems with understanding energy security in these terms. Firstly, securing states through continuous fossil fuel supplies is clearly not sustainable, neither geologically nor environmentally. It’s biased towards developed, energy importing countries, and large scale energy industries – energy exporting countries conversely need security of demand, and in parts of the world many still rely on locally collected firewood for energy. It also does not consider the impact of current energy exploitation on human security.

There are a number of issues and unresolved questions around energy security which are relevant to saving humans, and this is what I’ll be blogging about this week. At the centre of this is the growing conflict between the focus of much energy security policy and discussion on fossil fuels, and the human need for a stable climate and environment. Current patterns of energy exploitation also affect human security directly, which will be the subject of another post later in the week.

Ultimately, the planet cannot survive if we continue to consume fossil energy at current rates. Yet, continued energy supplies are essential to maintain human life as we know it. The world still depends largely on finite and dirty sources of energy, and the growing pace of human development has been accompanied by ever-faster resource depletion. Energy security is one of the most important issues today, bearing direct impact on the continued survival of human civilisation as we know it.

For more on this and related issues, have a look at Saving Humans – this interdisciplinary initiative can also be followed on twitter via #savinghumans – enjoy!

World Press Photo Awards 2014

The World Press Photo Awards have been announced today and they feature some amazing  photography by some of the best photojournalists on the planet.

The awards go to the very best images created by photojournalists. Judged by a panel of experts ‘the contest creates a bridge linking the professionals with the general public. As the announcement of the winners makes headlines around the world, so the inspirational role of photojournalism is highlighted to an audience of hundreds of millions.’

The World Press Photo Awards have now been running for 55 years and the prize winning photos from this year are all worth checking out. Below are a few of my personal favourites, selected because they not only show important events but because they are incredibly good photos.

The main prize of the The World Press Photo Award 2014 has gone to John Stanmeyer and it’s a powerful shot of ‘African migrants on the shore of Djibouti city at night, raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia’.

Photo by John Stanmeyer

This image by Taslima Akhter was awarded 3rd in the category of spot news singles and is particularly haunting; taken in the aftermath of a garment factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Photo by Taslima Akhter

Moises Saman won the 2nd prize in the general news singles category with this image of a bomb maker in Aleppo, Syria.

Photo by Moises Saman

In the general news stories category, William Daniels was awarded second with his images from the Central African Republic. Here, a young girl stands in the doorway of a house. Two days earlier a member of her family, 21-year-old Fleuri Doumana, was killed by a grenade launched by a member of the Muslim militia.

Photo by William Daniels

Christopher Venegas, was awarded 3rd prize in the contemporary issues singles category. His image shows police arriving to a crime scene where five people have been killed in retaliation against other organized criminal groups in Mexico.

Photo by Christopher Vanegas

In the daily life singles category, Julius Schrank won first prize. His image shows Kachin Independence Army fighters, in the besieged Burmese city of Laiza, drinking and celebrating at a funeral of one of their commanders who died the day before.

Photo by Julius Schrank

Tanya Habjouqa won second prize in the daily life stories category. Her series of images explores small moments of pleasure where ordinary Palestinians demonstrate a desire to live, not just simply survive. This image depicts a young man enjoying a cigarette in his car as the back-up finally clears at a check point on the last evening of Ramadan. The sheep is being brought home for the upcoming Eid celebration.

Photo by Tanya Habjouqa

Peter van Agtmael’s portraits of Bobby Henline have been awarded second place in the observed portraits stories category. American soldier Bobby Henline was the sole survivor of an IED blast in Iraq. ‘The bones in his face were fractured, burns covered close to 40 percent of his body, and his left hand later had to be amputated. He spent two weeks in a coma. After a long recovery, Henline started providing comic relief for other burn survivors.’ This is an image of him in a Dallas motel, Bobby is now a standup comedian with a routine built around his injuries.

Photo by Peter van Agtmael

Images are one of the main ways in which we make sense of what’s going on around the world and with the proliferation of image making technologies, some people have argued that photojournalism is dying. Whether that’s the case or not, the World Press Photo Awards 2014 show that professional photojournalism is still an incredibly powerful, moving, and important art form.

View all of the World Press Photo Award 2014 winners here.

Friday Links!

Some interesting things we’ve come across this week, including some useful resources for academics:

  • As it happens to be February 14th, everyone who isn’t already familiar with it should learn a little more about V-Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. This helpful interactive chart from the Guardian traces women’s rights across the world
  • Teresa May’s new plan can make foreign born terror suspects stateless, stripping them of British citizenship
  • The remarkable journey of Stuart Hall
  • The histories of violence project has a handy series of introductory lectures on key thinkers on the subject of violence. This includes a lecture on Arendt by Kimberley Hutchings, Michael Dillon on Foucault, and Julian Reid on Nietzsche
  • An update on the Iranian nuclear deal, from Sustainable Security – responses, potential impacts and moving forward

And for academics:

 

Friday Links!

Some interesting links for a Friday afternoon/weekend read:

  • A new issue of BISA’s International Studies Today has been published, with an excellent forum, if I may say so myself (having organised it!), on Matt McDonald’s Security, the Environment and Emancipation.
  • There is growing debate over the International Studies Association’s proposal to ban those involved in editing ISA journals from blogging, claiming it is unprofessional.  Opponents of the proposal argue that blogging plays an increasingly important role in academia, both as a teaching tool and as a way to publish research more widely. There seems to be some progress, however.

And in other news:

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Syria: Whole Neighbourhoods Destroyed

The horrific figures of death and human suffering in Syria are bewildering. Over 2 million people have been forced to flee the country as refugees, over 6.5 million people are internally displaced and over 100,000 people have been killed as the civil war rages on.

It’s hard to really imagine such destruction, and several satellite images by Human Rights Watch highlight how whole neighbourhoods have been obliterated.

This is the Mezzeh area, Damascus. You can see extensive demolition of dozens of high-rise residential and commercial buildings along the main road between Mezzeh Air Base and the neighborhood of Daraya.

This is the Masha’ al-Arb’een neighbourhood, Hama.

See more images like this over at Human Rights Watch.

A Twitter Q&A on Cybersecurity with P.W. Singer

Over the past week, the defence practice group at Powell Tate communications and public affairs have been collecting questions for a reddit style AMA with P.W. Singer (director of the Brookings institute and author of Wired for War) on twitter.

I’ve always find it hard to make sense of much of the cybersecurity and cyberwar stuff I’ve read and I’ve always found this slightly worrying as I like to think I’m, ahem, a relatively smart guy with a keen interest in security and the cyber world we all now inhabit. Moreover, it’s interesting that cybersecurity hasn’t been on the syllabi of any of the security courses i’ve taken at any level of my studies. Fortunately, Singer’s forthcoming book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, looks like it’ll address this lacuna and provide a handy guide to cybersecurity for scholars and students of International Relations and Security.

I haven’t got my hands on the book yet, but the Twitter Q&A has provided a few short insights into some important cybersecurity issues. Below are just some of the highlights with a few comments from myself for good measure.

What?! It’s not China? Or organised criminal gangs? Or angsty teenagers in their bedrooms? Apparently not. It’s simply the fact that we don’t really understand cybersecurity and therefore don’t act in ways that are appropriate to ensure it. As in the offline world, it seems that cybersecurity threats from external actors are overplayed. It’s not a dangerous unseen enemy that poses the greatest threat to our security, it’s our own lack of understanding. And maybe if we stopped picking up USB sticks in car parks and plugging them in at work we’d be a little bit more secure.

The proto arms race sounds, and is, quite worrying. Viruses such as Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame are all allegedly weaponised forms of malware purportedly created by the USA and Israel. Intended to cause harm either by actually subverting Iran’s nuclear facilities or gathering information about them, I guess the problem with these is that once they are out of the bottle, anyone who gets their hands on them can learn from and adapt the code. Thus they’re a danger in the ‘wrong hands’ and they also undermine trust within the international community.

The second point about a more authoritarian internet seems to be something that is happening through both the NSA PRISM scandal and through the introduction of more and more legislation to regulate what can be accessed online.

It’s good to see someone actually involved in the policy world pointing out that the extent of the NSA online spying was both dumb and legally questionable. Something which several of the US NatSec community rarely point out.

Was the Fox News headline for this ‘4 month old potential terrorist launches biological weapon at airport’?! If not, it should have been.

The whole set of questions and answers is worth looking at so check out @peterwsinger and @PTdefense on twitter and drop your thoughts in the comment box below. Singer’s book looks like it’ll be a great read and I’m sure it’ll go into way more depth on the issues covered in 140 characters on Twitter.

The geography of secrecy: visualising the footprint of the US military

I’ve just come across a really interesting project by Josh Begley which maps US military installations, and it is well worth a look. The project uses mapping data from Google Earth and Bing to visualise the footprint of the US military with both a map of the world with pinpointed sites and a gallery displaying satellite imagery of the different military installations. Viewing the bases in this way really portrays the breadth of the American military enterprise in a way that numbers on a page cannot convey.

Because of differences in time-lag, some sites show slightly different views with bases changing over time, with other base locations simply replaced by a plain grey colour and a Google message saying: ‘Sorry, we have no imagery here’. Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands (which is used by the US Air Force and which also contains 22 American tactical nuclear bombs) is even ‘artistically’ erased from view in both Google and Bing searches:

Volkel Air Base (Google)Volkel Air Base (Bing)

(Both images from http://empire.is/)

The impact the project has on the viewer is interesting – the simplicity of the visual display with a seemingly endless list of square tiles showing military bases below a map showing the full geographical extent of their locations is very effective. In a sense, it becomes more than a list of satellite images, more than a map. In the words of Josh Begley, creator of this fascinating project:

‘Taken as a whole, I’d like to think this collection can begin to approximate the archipelago of militarized space often understood as empire. But I’m hesitant to say that. It seems to me that empire involves more than pushpins on a map. It is made up of human activity — a network of situated practices that preclude constellational thinking and sculpt geographies in their own image.

I’m not sure aerial photography can get at that complexity. But perhaps an outline of this footprint– of runways and bases and banal-looking buildings — might begin to chip away at the bumper-sticker simplicity much political discourse about the military-industrial complex gets reduced to’.

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Perhaps academics should start to think about using their data a bit more creatively too, following the example set by the Rendition Project – alongside the traditional outlets it seems like an effective way to both convey research and make people both notice and actually think more in-depth about the subject itself.

Ps. As someone who seems to know a growing number of people working on drones, I’d also highly recommend having a look at Josh’s Dronestream project!

Teaching International Relations With Memes

I thought I had the revolutionary idea of using memes to engage with my students on the IR theory courses I teach but it turns out Dr Jack Holland has already beaten me to it!

The idea behind using memes is that they’ll be a funny way to highlight interesting theoretical points in a concise way. I’m going to roll one out in this weeks class and then set my students a task of producing a meme related to the course content  over Christmas. Because surely they’ve got nothing better to do over the holidays…

Here’s the first one I’ve come up with that ties in to this week’s class on constructivism. Conspiracy Keanu gets to grips with a bit of Wendt…

I’m a bit worried that my students won’t be quite as nerdy as me and won’t get the whole meme thing, so if anyone out there has tried teaching IR/politics using memes then it’d be good to hear how it went down!

Here’s one meme that they should all appreciate…