Q&A: A new lens on global security

June 15, 2023

By Wendy Stocker

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 44 Issue 2 Summer 2023

A conversation with Kenneth Epps

Long-time readers of the Monitor will be familiar with Kenneth Epps and his work on the Arms Trade Treaty, the Canadian Military Industry Database, and Canada’s annual report on exports of military goods. As a program officer with Project Ploughshares, he was most involved with conventional weapons control. Now, he remains interested in global security, but from the perspective of climate change. In 2022, Ken began talking with Ploughshares Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo about how Project Ploughshares could expand its research program to include climate change as an existential threat to global security.

Wendy Stocker: Ken, can you describe the journey that led you from conventional arms to climate degradation?

Kenneth Epps: I have been aware of the climate emergency for some time, but it was not until 2020, when I joined Seniors for Climate Action Now!, that I better recognized its extent and urgency. It is no exaggeration to state that climate breakdown is a global existential threat, and like the other existential threat, nuclear weapons, it is a problem created by human action that can only be solved by human counteraction. I realized that, for the sake of my granddaughter if no one else, I must try to contribute to the climate action movement.

WS: Explain the links you see between climate change and global security.

KE: Project Ploughshares has long argued that security should not be the exclusive purview of the military, that there are many conditions – once called basic human needs – that must be met before human populations are secure. In the 1990s, the United Nations adopted the term “human security” for this concept.

As the world faces more unprecedented and frequent weather-related disasters like wildfires, flooding, typhoons, it is apparent that, although armed conflict persists – as the war in Ukraine reminds us daily – the climate emergency presents a level of threat that we have only begun to understand. But while we are oversupplied with systems that can fight wars, we are woefully lacking in systems that can sustain peace under climate breakdown.

WS: How do you envision Canada’s role in connecting security with climate change? What should be the Canadian government’s top priorities?

KE: The Canadian government must begin by acknowledging that, in addition to nuclear weapons, climate breakdown is the pressing security threat of our time. Then, as Seth Klein argues compellingly in his 2020 book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, Canada should “spend what it takes to win” against the threat. To cite one example, this means that spending $70 billion on Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to facilitate Canadian pilots’ participation in future invasions by the United States should no longer be a priority.

Rather, Canada should revisit the “responsibility to protect” doctrine it once championed, most immediately by diverting military spending from short-sighted combat programs and to programs that deploy Canadian Forces in missions, including peacekeeping, that can address the wide-ranging security impact of climate change.

As well, ignoring the neverending calls to boost military spending, Canada should instead look for ways to reduce military spending and devote more of the federal budget to climate adaptation and mitigation efforts that must expand with time.

WS: What new role do you see for Project Ploughshares?

KE: There are two important elements to a possible Project Ploughshares program that I would call something like “Climate, Peace, and Security.” The first, and perhaps the most important, is to explore the “peace” challenges and opportunities of the climate emergency.

As the world faces more unprecedented and frequent weather-related disasters like wildfires, flooding, typhoons, it is apparent that ... the climate emergency presents a level of threat that we have only begun to understand.

Quite rightly, there is growing concern about the security threats of climate change, not least within military forces. In its most recent budget, the federal government committed $40 million for a NATO Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security based in Montreal. Currently, NATO attention to climate change is focused on its threats of global upheaval and the challenges it poses to the equipment, installations, and operations of NATO forces.

I would like to see more attention to the climate action needed to build peace. This might involve advocating specific projects such as peacekeeping missions that boost stability in war-torn communities by supporting local, reliable, and renewable energy systems. It could also include, for example, research and analysis of how weaning the world off fossil fuels could reduce conflict as well as greenhouse gases.

The second element to a Project Ploughshares program is analysis of Canadian climate and security policy, as well as proposals for alternatives. Ploughshares could draw on its experience providing defence policy analysis and engaging partners in exploring peacebuilding options.

Overall, I think we must work to resist the militarization of climate security. We do not need another “War on Drugs” or “War on Terrorism,” both of which failed but incurred heavy human and resource costs.

WS: What can ordinary citizens do? How can they get involved in solutions?

KE: Regarding solutions to the climate emergency, we are spoiled for choice. We have many opportunities to take individual action to reduce our carbon footprint. We also can close our bank accounts to exert pressure on the major Canadian banks that are leading investors in ongoing fossil fuel exploration and production. Divestment was an important tool in the struggle against South Africa’s Apartheid and it could be effective in helping to end the use of fossil fuels.

But we must press for collective climate action, that is, social, industrial, and government action at all political levels – municipal, provincial, and federal. And we must be skeptical of calls for greater military spending, especially if, and when, it is framed as a necessary response to the climate emergency.

WS: Are you hopeful about our ability to avoid the worst effects of climate change?

KE: One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons depicts Charles Dickens listening to his publisher say, “I wish you would make up your mind, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both.” Many of us experienced the COVID pandemic as the best and worst of times, and I think it is quite possible that the climate emergency will take both to a new level.

Which is why we must work to support the best – climate action that emphasizes social justice and peacebuilding – but also work to resist the worst – those entrenched interests that deny or resist the remedial changes that are needed across the globe. These interests include industries currently making record-breaking profits under the status quo: fossil fuel industries, financial institutions, and military industries.

In my view, the extent to which we avoid the worst effects of climate change will depend on the extent to which we break the power of these industries. I know it won’t be easy, but I retain hope that it can be done.

WS: Ken, you could be spending your time reading a classic crime/mystery novel, listening to jazz, and savouring a single malt Scotch. Why have you taken up this new challenge?

KE: Both the Anthropocene – the current geological period of global human impact – and the Cold War began about the time of my birth. A coincidence, I hope, but I do feel a real connection to an unprecedented period. Largely through luck, in this time I have had many benefits, and the least I can do is to try to pay some of them forward.

This is not to say that, for my mental health (and for those around me), I do not indulge in the pleasures of retirement. I regularly play oldtimers ice hockey (a great way of emptying the mind) and I have been known to enjoy a Glenfarclas whisky (from one of the last family-owned Scotch distilleries) while reading Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series – detective and historical fiction set in Germany during the rise and fall of Hitler. The populists were ever with us. □

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