War, climate breakdown, and economic injustice: tackling the triple crisis

Prof Paul Rogers, University of Bradford, examines the interlinkages between the world’s major crises, and outlines some ways forward.

Article from Responsible Science journal, no. 6, Spring 2024

Advance online publication: 21 February 2024

More than 50 years ago, the economic geographer Edwin Brooks warned of the risk of a “crowded glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threated by desperate men in the global ghettoes”. [1] It seemed thoroughly dystopian then, but is all too believable now.

In the past four years, there has been an upsurge in war – especially in Ukraine, Sudan, and Gaza – as well as increased marginalisation stemming from a failing global economic system. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 15 million people [2] and exacerbated health inequalities and, above it all, we have the looming reality of climate breakdown as environmental limits to growth really do kick in. Even now though, most of society still doesn’t accept that fossil carbon as the main energy source is now obsolete.

To make matters worse, the elite response to migration and climate breakdown is to ‘close the castle gates’, while the armourers are thriving in the wake of new wars. A divided world really is facing limits to growth, but this is in a security culture of hard militarism where Brooks’s “buttress” is there to protect the wealthier elites.

This prompts three questions:

  • Can we respond to climate breakdown in time?
  • Can we transition to a much fairer economic system?
  • Can we change from hard security to human security?  

Behind all of this are three core elements that turn these challenges into an immediate triple crisis. One is that they are integrated, not separate. The second is that the current neoliberal economic system and its emphasis on the free market cannot respond to climate breakdown in time, and third, the emphasis on hard security using military force will exacerbate the crisis, not control it. [3]

The interconnections are shown most clearly with the climate challenge. In the past ten years, there has been the start of a sea change in potential for more effective responses.   The scientific case for urgent action is far stronger, the public mood is more powerful, especially among younger people, and there is a near-revolution happening as the cost of energy from renewable resources – especially solar and wind – plummets.

Yet the neoliberal economic system has, over the past 40 years, put a premium on deregulated market fundamentalism that prioritises short-term gains in a shareholder-based  system. This is glaringly obvious in the determination of fossil carbon industries and producer states to reap all the profits they can while they can. Leading fossil carbon producers have known for decades that fossil fuel energy sources are unsustainable, yet they persist just as hundreds of neoliberal think tanks across the world continue to argue even now for business as usual.

Rapid decarbonisation is possible and is already starting to happen but selective subsidies in many countries could have started that revolution years earlier. The UK, for example, could have been at the centre of change over the past decade if serious funding had gone into warm-home schemes, home-based solar photovoltaic systems, electric vehicle charging points, onshore wind farms and the like.

Much of this is now happening but it is very late in the day and, as challenges such as climate-related migration and violent responses to marginalisation increase, our third problem, an obsolete security paradigm comes to the fore.

Right back in 1960, US President Eisenhower – a five-star general during World War II – warned of the power and influence of military-industrial complexes which are found in most countries, especially those with large military forces. They include the military themselves, civil servants, arms corporations, intelligence agencies, private security companies, think tanks and university departments, all in a closely integrated system.  

They are mostly very profitable systems replete with multiple revolving doors, especially between the military and the corporations, and able to use well-funded lobbying pathways to maintain their necessity in the public eye. Any critics are all too easily labelled unpatriotic.

If faced with challenges to elite security stemming from climate breakdown or deep socioeconomic divisions, the security response is to try to maintain stability, if necessary by the threat or use of force, rather than addressing the underlying causes of the problems. This is ‘Liddism’, keeping the lid on the pot not turning down the heat, an approach which is doomed to failure.  

Take the response to the 9/11 attacks more than two decades ago. The US and its supporters went to war four times, Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011), and Iraq/Syria in 2014. The result? In Afghanistan, the Taliban took back control after 20 years of bitter war, Iraq remains deeply troubled, as does Libya which also acts as a conduit of arms and movements for paramilitary wars across the African Sahel region.

A root and branch rethinking of security is needed, but it must start by recognising that the post-9/11 wars have been abject failures and the challenges opened up by an unjust economic system exacerbating climate breakdown cannot be suppressed by military force. It will also require substantial cuts in the current $2 trillion a year global military budget.

The immediacy of climate breakdown means that we must move rapidly to radical decarbonisation. The current targets to reach net zero emissions by 2050 are far too distant. [4] The richer states should aim for 2035, as well as providing the funding for much of the Global South to help achieve net zero worldwide by 2040 at the very latest. States such as the UK, with its impressive renewable energy potential, should be at the forefront of this decarbonisation.

In parallel with this, the deepening wealth disparities are nothing short of obscene.  According to Oxfam’s January 2024 report, Inequality Inc., the world’s five richest people more than doubled their wealth to $869 billion in the previous four years, hugely outstripping inflation while the world’s poorest 60%, close to five billion people, lost money. Overall, the world’s dollar billionaires controlled $3.3 trillion and grew their wealth by three times the rate of inflation over the same period. [5] 

Radical decarbonisation will require heavy expenditure, and this could come in part from a much fairer sharing of the wealth within the UK and at the global level. The need for a new economics to enable this transition is essential and it will also hasten the market-driven system on its transition to a fairer and much sustainable economic future.

What makes such radical action essential is impending climate breakdown, with the need to be well on our way by 2030. It can be done given public and political will, and the role of organisations such as Scientists for Global Responsibility is clear enough. People with science and technology backgrounds have a particular role to play in staying up-to-date and, as ever, speaking truth to power. Indeed, in one specific sense time is on our side.

That seems a strange comment at a time of rising climate breakdown concern and a lot of near-despair around but look at it this way. It is surely clear enough, from an SGR perspective, that we are seeing the actual effects of climate breakdown happening right now, and increasingly so. As people, especially younger people, see it happening, along with more wars and more marginalisation, a major task for SGR and science-based organisation like it, is to keep making the connections especially as society becomes more receptive to progressive solutions.

Paul Rogers is Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. He has written/ edited 30 books on international security, arms control, and political violence.

Image credit:  photo by Tengyart via Unsplash.


[1] Brooks E (1973). In: Vann A, Rogers P (eds). Human Ecology and World Development. London: Plenum Press.

[2] Msemburi et al (2023). The WHO estimates of excess mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature, vol.613, pp.130–137. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-05522-2

[3] Rogers P (2021). Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (4th edition). London: Pluto Press.  https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745343679/losing-control/

[4] Anderson K (2023). Getting real: what would serious climate action look like? Responsible Science, no.5, May. https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/getting-real-what-would-serious-climate-action-look

[5] Neat R (2024). World’s richest five men double their wealth as poor get poorer. The Guardian, 15 January.  https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2024/jan/15/worlds-five-richest-men-double-their-money-as-poorest-get-poorer