Environmental Security in a Globalizing World

Stimson Spotlight

Environmental Security in a Globalizing World

As the world celebrates Earth Day today, the links between environmental concerns and global security challenges are sharper than ever. Since the end of the Cold War, the potential for conflicts driven by growing pressures on environmental systems or increasing frictions over shared natural resources has risen rapidly on the international agenda. The 2014 U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review, for instance, highlights environmental degradation, mounting competition for energy and water supplies, and continuing global climate change as stressors that could exacerbate existing tensions and destabilize economies, societies, and governance institutions worldwide, particularly in fragile states. Similarly, the 2015 summit of the G7 foreign ministers identified climate change as among today’s most serious international challenges, heightening the risks of global instability.

Environmental concerns have now taken their place on a crowded list of emerging security issues. Yet students of human conflict have long recognized environmental factors among the common causes of organized violence between communities. Indeed, the first recorded war for which there is any archeological evidence, waged between the Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma in 2500 B.C., appears to have been fought over control of irrigation canals. Ever since, the quest to acquire or to defend access to natural resources – from arable land to valuable minerals – has contributed to clashes across history, recurring through European colonial expansion to the First Gulf War and 21st century skirmishes between herders and farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Analysts have posited several pathways by which environmental factors could contribute to political conflicts. Increased demand, driven by population growth or economic development, or declining supply, driven by overexploitation or environmental change, could create scarcities of key natural resources, generating competition between affected countries or communities. Conversely, the abundance in certain areas of highly valuable natural resources such as oil fields or diamond mines may render these areas a target for contending powers, whether neighboring nations or domestic insurgents, seeking to exploit the resources for revenue. Finally, severe and chronic environmental pressures such as drought, or sudden acute disasters such as floods, may displace refugee populations from one region into another, straining local capacities and possibly sparking conflict between the sending and receiving communities. 

Yet where there exists potential for conflict, there also lies the possibility for cooperation. Where environmental degradation and competition for natural resources may undermine development and disrupt social stability and political order, policies to effectively manage and maintain the resource base and protect environmental systems can alleviate these risks. Transboundary river basins provide an example. Collaborative management can allow neighbors on international rivers to coordinate their water needs, using the same river flows to support hydropower generation, irrigation, and navigation for instance, producing joint benefits that can be shared or exchanged among all the riparians.  

Ultimately, securing human well-being depends upon protecting the environment from human pressures; that is, safeguarding the natural resources and ecological systems that sustain us all from over-exploitation by human demands. At the same time, preserving human security depends upon protecting populations from environmental pressures; that is, safeguarding us from the physical threats, economic damages, and social disruptions of natural disasters or grave resource scarcities. Promoting environmental security entails developing the policy practices and the governance mechanisms and institutions to meet these collective challenges, mitigating the risks of future conflict and seizing the opportunities for cooperative benefits.

At the Stimson Center, our work examines modern environmental stresses and their security implications. The Environmental Security Program explores the enduring governance challenges, evolving security risks, and emerging peacebuilding opportunities raised by global environmental change. The program focuses particularly on the cooperative management of transboundary waters, while also investigating areas such as building green economies in the Arab transition countries and exploring maritime policy intersections between climate change, infrastructure development, and resources management in the world’s coastal zones and the oceans.

Stimson’s Southeast Asia program has pioneered analyses of the potential trade-offs and possible accommodations between food and energy production and water demands on major rivers such as the Mekong and Salween. By the same token, vital food security and energy security issues also arise offshore, as access to fisheries and to oil and gas developments play critical roles in the contending territorial claims advanced by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and others in the South China Sea.

Environmental security risks can arise not only from ineffective or inappropriate policies and practices, but also from illegal and illicit activities. Poaching, wildlife trafficking and the illegal logging, fishing, charcoal, mining and waste trades, for instance, pose considerable threats both to conservation and biodiversity as well as to international security and economic growth and development. The same criminal networks that conduct illegal fishing and wildlife trade, for example, often overlap with illegal arms trade and drug smuggling. Likewise, insurgents and warlords increasingly turn to poaching, trafficking, and the illegal logging, waste, or mineral trades for revenue. In Kenya, Stimson has launched a pilot project focused on wildlife crime at the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West National Park. This project is part of a larger initiative recently begun within the Managing Across Boundaries initiative addressing the issue of environmental crime.

Sustainably managing multiple and mounting demands on the world’s shared environment and natural resources will require cooperation to integrate competing uses and reconcile contending interests. The Stimson Center is committed to increasing understanding and advancing opportunities for cooperative strategies and collective institutions to meet shared environmental challenges. On our planet of interconnected societies, economies, and ecosystems, all nations must come together to solve common environmental problems, or together they will face the consequences.

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Photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via flickr