Telling the story of climate change: threat or emergency, and does it matter?

Elizabeth G. Boulton, PhD
5 min readDec 11, 2019

[Originally published at The Power to Persuade BLOG. Part of the ‘Narration as Regulation’ series, produced by ANU’s School of Regulation and Global Governance.]

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

In popular culture, the use of terms like climate crisis, climate emergency and extinction rebellion reflect frustration that the language around climate and environmental issues has been too benign, leading to lukewarm and inadequate governance responses.

Similarly, global warming is frequently described as a threat by people as varied as David Attenborough, to Australian or US military and security chiefs, and within the Pacific Islands Forum.

Yet ‘threat’ language is commonly associated with warfare, terrorism and national security. Eric Paglia found that a climate threat or ‘security’ framing (securitization) makes people uneasy, and they vastly prefer a ‘crisis’ narrative (which he calls crisification). Additionally, historical and sociological studies warn on the dangers of a threat framing, which can reduce empathy and be a precursor for injustices.

At another level, being able to accurately understand the ‘threat environment’ — what threats exist, how they interplay, what causes them and how can they be responded to — is intrinsic to human survival.

So, in the hunt for answers about ‘how’ to respond to the climate crisis, I nonetheless, carefully explored the idea of framing climate and environmental change as a threat. Doing so allowed intriguing new questions to emerge. For example, are old pre-climate ways of conceiving threats and security still relevant to people and nations today? If it is a threat, could traditional military-style threat analysis and response planning methods offer ideas about how to respond?

Investigating climate as a ‘threat’ does not imply that a feared heavy-handed, top-down response is the best approach; rather it helps us understand our predicament better so that we can craft the best response. Additionally, conceptually, we can break free from industrial era constructs. Threat conceptualisation in the Anthropocene can be recalibrated with emerging post-human philosophical concepts, which are more attuned to the new era we are presented with. Let me explain.

Present era threats — let’s go back to basics

When confronted with a new and bewildering foe, and considering how to best approach it, military strategy begins with a threat analysis. To borrow such thinking, what sort of threat is global warming? How does it move and appear? How will it harm?

An unusual start point is eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s notion of global warming as a ‘Hyperobject’. Instead of an endless parade of data and facts, Morton turns global warming into a ‘thing’ — a strange type of monster.

We learn that this monster operates across vast timeframes and spatial scales, baffling human perceptive abilities. It outmatches us in every way, scale, capability and lethality. It cannot be seen its entirety — we only see glimpses of it at any one time.

Lit-up triceratops. Photo by S&B Vonlanthen on Unsplash

The monster also operates covertly through other ‘objects.’ For example, people may see cracked soil during a drought, but they don’t see ‘global warming’ itself. A 4-minute video helps further explain.

Another helpful concept is Rob Nixon’s notion of slow violence, which explains how environmental degradation kills in a gradual, hidden, termite-like way.

Just War Theory help us to more deeply understand why and when response to a threat is justified. For example, it suggests there are three “very good reasons” for war (or mobilisation), which are:

1. The risk of general destruction

2. Loss of freedom and autonomy (which is threatened by chaos)

3. Survival based reasons

Global warming and environmental destruction impact all these reasons.

The hyperthreat notion

I drew upon such concepts to develop the idea that global warming and general environmental degradation, collectively, present a new type of security threat — a hyperthreat, defined as follows:

The hyperthreat has warlike destructive capabilities that are so diffuse that it is hard to see the enormity of the destruction coherently nor who is responsible for its hostile actions. It defies existing human thought and institutional constructs.

It is powered and energised by three key enablers:

1. its invisibility

2. its ability to evade all existing human threat-response mechanisms, and

3. human hesitancy — the slower humans are to act, the stronger it becomes.

Understanding the Hyperthreat helps us to craft a Hyper-Response

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Having a basic description of the Hyperthreat assists with formulating a strategy for a Hyper-response. For example, if the threat’s three key ‘enablers’ are targeted, three strategic objectives emerge.

  1. FIRST, there is an initial requirement to make the Hyperthreat visible and knowable — outside the science and environmental sector. For the general public, arrays of sophisticated communication, engagement, education, multi-media, creative arts approaches and virtual reality technologies can be scaled-up to achieve this, such as the 60,000 artists concept. For governing institutions, ‘environmental intelligence’ capacities can be bolstered, especially for disaster response.

2. SECOND, the Hyperthreats ability to evade control (i.e. defy existing human threat-response mechanisms) suggests that a mega, multi-prong governance metamorphosis is required. While much work is already in train on this, a ‘hyper’ frame invites bolder, bigger, fresher thinking — to transcend our current understandings of how institutions are designed and how governance occurs. A start point is to better understand how ‘harm’ is inflicted in the Anthropocene, by whom and when, and pin-point accountability. This likely requires new institutional capabilities.

Also, the way in which the hyperthreat manifests (fog-like, everywhere) suggests a similar direction for Governance methods, for example, a shift towards enabling bottom-up transformations “everywhere,” helping us regain some control. In military talk, this is how we can re-seize the initiative.

3. THIRD, on the question of hesitation and will to act, military history reminds us that human beings have faced formidable destructive threats before — one of our main survival mechanisms is the capacity to mobilise around a common threat. Yet mobilisation need not involve uniforms and deployments, rather it could be the Green New Deal imagined on a massive global-scale. ‘Will to act’ relates to ‘agency’ and this also suggests we need to start building people’s confidence and capacity to act. In turn, this prompts the idea to support people, communities and organisations with lots of eco-transition coaches and support teams.

Overall, the more we understand how the hyperthreat has us hog-tied, the more we can outwit it and fight back.

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash



Elizabeth G. Boulton, PhD

Researcher in climate emergency responses, the climate-security nexus, threat framing & narratives. Located in Regional Victoria, Australia.