Environmental Security

The Basics

"Environmental Security" is the nexus of environmental threats such as climate change and national security concerns.While energy security is a component of it, it is only one factor within environmental security which involves a number of other factors as well. This first in this series explores just what comprises environmental security and some additional background on it. It is not a new concept whether it goes by this name or other related titles but is often misunderstood as to its actual meaning and the implications it holds for not only the natural world but the relationship it has with geopolitical forces that can result in conflicts that might not otherwise have taken place but for he stresses placed on the environment.

Part I: Further Basics

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States instructs Americans, among other things, to “insure domestic tranquility” and to “provide for the common defense.” In this first of the series I would like to lay out the case that can be made for the necessity of examining what is termed “environmental security” to meet those responsibilities. In a more focused context this means that security and the natural environment are connected and may be of constitutional significance when it has security implications. Consider that currently:

>Climate change may be the preeminent environmental challenge

>For that reason it is largely the environmental community that is concerned

>Many who term themselves "conservatives" do not think this is occurring

>To reach an agreement and take action on stabilization/decreases of climate change emissions, it will take a broader consensus than just the environmental community

>Climate change may present certain potential dangers to national and global security

>More people, including conservatives, are concerned about national security than climate change which is presented almost purely in environmental terms

>Thus far there has been limited progress in setting and meeting carbon reduction goals and this will not happen without enlisting those who may not share those environmental goals but who may consider certain arguments based upon security concerns.

>Both energy efficiency and renewable energy are common solutions to both climate change and many other security issues.

In some ways it is safe to say that climate change suffers from what might be called the “Adlai Stevenson” syndrome. In 1952 when Stevenson was a presidential candidate, he was on the campaign trail when a woman approached him and said “Mr. Stevenson, every intelligent American will vote for you.” He is purported to have replied “we’ll need a lot more than that to win.”

Likewise with climate change, we will need a lot more than the existing “true believers” to convince our elected officials to set targets and timetables to meet the long-term goals. Indeed, in just about every survey and poll that is conducted by professionals in an unbiased manner, the climate change/global warming issue has not ranked particularly highly in importance compared to issues such as the economy and the many forms of security (national, employment, economic… See the recent Pew Research Center for People and the Press).

In many ways anything attached to environmental issues is looked upon as being mostly discretionary and something that we can only afford to do when we have a strong economy. Missing is the concept that to truly have a strong economy and, hence, a strong defense, you must have a strong environment as a cornerstone. The environmental security connection was particularly well-expressed even before it had a name by Dr. Albert E. Burke, former Director of Graduate Studies in Conservation at Yale in the 1950s:

“It is a problem of education, education to inform Americans about the close tie that exists between a wide margin of resources and freedom. Reduce the margin of resources, reduce the quality of resources, and you reduce what Americans have always meant by the word ‘freedom’.” [1]

There is also the formidable problem of how to maintain societal attention on the climate change issue which requires a tight focus over at least the 50 years needed to merely stabilize greenhouse gas reductions in some plans. Some have said that even that is a modest goal and we will need to go well beyond.

In most cases, we are still moving backwards and producing more greenhouse gases, not less. Lofty marketing-oriented sound-bite goals of “20% by 2020″ mean less than something like “1 lousy percent by 2012″ that at least go in the right direction in the terms of office of currently sitting public officials. The inability of getting any real traction is particularly true in the transportation sector but also in electricity production and in buildings as well when the economy is “normal.” The only “progress” has been recently where there have been some reductions but mostly attributable to reduced economic output due to the recession.

In this approach that relates climate change to national and global security we need to begin by setting a basic definition. One such definition states:

… the intellectual, operational, and policy space where environmental considerations and security concerns converge. [2]

More definitively it might be said it possesses the following attributes:

It is the relationship of environmental factors to national security.

It recognizes the degradation of ecosystems, stress human health, culture and resource requirements.

That these additional stresses can result in competition for food, energy, water and other resources (some of which will be examined in Case Study #2 to come in a separate post.) It can lead to conflicts that might not have otherwise arisen and could be seen as a threat multiplier.

One interesting case study from antiquity revolves around the mystery of Easter Island and what may have happened there to its early inhabitants. When early explorers arrived, they found giant stone monuments but none of what must have once been a flourishing civilization. After much research and discussion it has been assumed that they had degraded their environmental assets to the point of making themselves largely unsustainable. One summary notes:

“…without trees, and so without canoes, the Islanders were trapped in their remote home, unable to escape the consequences of their self inflicted, environmental collapse… there were increasing conflicts over diminishing resources resulting in a state of almost permanent warfare.” [3]

Another early practitioner of environmental security going back as far back as the mid-1970s is Dr. Norman Myers, who had reported on a war between Ethiopia and Somalia that had been caused to a large extent by a combination of deforestation, soil erosion, population growth and poverty. This led to famine and mass migration which Somalia viewed as a “prelude to an invasion.” [4]

It was also recognized by Sir Crispin Tickell in his 1977 book Climate Change in World Affairs where he stated “there is an increasing risk of social disruption within regions, countries and communities over such age-old issues as fertile land and water supplies,… and, perhaps worse for our species… fouling the future for the sake of the present.”

Some years later Paul Nitze, former nuclear and arms negotiator who had taken a hard line with the Soviets throughout his career, wrote that climate change:

“..requires changes… are of such scope and magnitude that courageous multilateral steps, beyond what has been accomplished even in our landmark arms control agreements, are necessary. Such bold steps also are essential if we are to address the looming threat to geopolitical stability posed by climate change.” [5]

In closing Part I of this series it may be important to heed the words of James Hansen, the well-known scientist at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies of NASA who in July of 2006 warned of the time limitations we have to undertake action:

“… we have at most 10 years — – not 10 years to decide upon action, but 10 years to alter fundamentally trajectory of global greenhouse emissions.” [6]

In the next part we will examine some emerging trends from, among other places, the Pentagon that is responsible for our defense policy, planning and implementation. We will also investigate certain “fingerprints” indicating that climate change may have already been at work as a contributing factor in conflicts around the globe and if not adequately addressed may have even more serious repercussions for our security in its many forms.

Environmental Security Part I: The Basics

Environmental Security Part II: Enter the Pentagon

Environmental Security Part III: Old Soldiers Never Die, But They Can Change

Environmental Security Part IV: The Pentagon is My Friend?

Environmental Security Part V: Climate of Conflict

[1] Burke, Albert E. Enough Good Men. 1962. p. 202.

[2] Foster, Gregory. National Defense University. A New Security Paradigm. Worldwatch. January/February 2005 p. 40)

[3] Ponting, Clive. The Lessons of Easter Island Also see: Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

[4]Myers, Norman Dr. Environmental Security: What’s New and Different. 2004.

[5] Nitze, Paul. Editorial in Washington Post. July 2, 1997.

[6] Dr. James Hansen quoted in The New York Review of Books Volume 53, Number 12, July 13, 2006.