The environment as a security matter

Of late, it has become somewhat trendy to consider the environment as a ‘security’ issue. The most frequently cited example is the danger of massive refugee slows caused by environmental factors (such as climate change or desertification). Also common are assertions that people will soon begin fighting wars over natural resources. While massive environmental change can obviously spark conflict, I am skeptical about claims that this constitutes a major change in the character of international security.

To me, the first strain of thinking seems a lot more plausible than the second. There are already island nations that need to think seriously about what the 7-23″ rise in sea levels by 2100 projected in the fourth IPCC report will mean for their habitability. Environmental factors like soil quality and rainfall have helped to determine the patterns of human habitation and production for all of history, and it is unsurprising that changes in such things could have serious disruptive effects. Large scale population movements, both within and between states, are concerning because of the level of suffering they generally involve, as well as the possibility that they will have problematic secondary effects such as inducing conflict or spreading infectious disease.

The idea of resource wars is one that I think has been overstated and, to some extent, misunderstood. There are certainly resources that can and have been fought over, and resource issues frequently play a role in establishing the duration and character of conflicts. Armed groups with no economic base cannot long persist in the costly business of war-fighting. That said, the idea that states will go to war over something like water seems, in most cases, implausible. War is an exceptionally costly enterprise – much more so than new purification or desalination facilities. Also, most water problems arise from irrational patterns of usage, often themselves the product of a distorted cost structure. While equity compels that people should be provided with enough water for personal needs as a standard function of government, it simply makes sense that those using it on a very large scale pay for it at a level that accurately reflects the costs of production. If that happened, we would see a lot more drip-feed irrigation and a lot fewer leaky pipes. Some perspective is also in order: producing all of the world’s municipal water through oceanic desalination would cost only 0.5% of global GDP, and there is no reason to think that such a drastic step will ever be necessary.1

I am not saying that resources and conflict are unrelated: I am saying there is no reason to believe hyperbolic claims about the nature of international security being fundamentally altered by resource issues. It is also worth noting that conflicts over resources are often used as justifications to engage in actions that can be more sensibly explained by considering other causes.

Thinking about the environment as a security issue has implications both for prevention and mitigation behaviours. Because politicians and the general public place a special emphasis on matters of security, spinning the environment that way can be a form of rent seeking. Those who see the need to do more as pressing may find that this kind of resource transfer justifies selling the security side of the environment more than they otherwise would. On the mitigation side, it suggests that dealing with environmental problems may require forceful action to prevent or contain conflicts. Given the aforementioned costs of such actions, the case to take preventative action against probable but uncertain threats becomes even stronger.

[1] Shiklomanov, Igor A. “Appraisal and assessment of world water resources.” Water International. 25(1): 11-32. 2000

PS. People interested in the hydrosphere may enjoy reading the accessible and informative chapter on it in John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun. this report from SOAS on water and the Arab-Israeli Conflict also makes some good points.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “The environment as a security matter”

  1. “Environmental degradation is not a threat to national security. Rather, environmentalism is a threat to the conceptual hegemony of state-centred national security discourses and institutions. For environmentalists to dress their programs in the blood-soaked garments of the war system betrays their core values and creates confusion about the real tasks at hand.”

    Deudney, David. “Security.” In Dobson, Andrew and Robyn Eckersley. Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press. 2006.

  2. The Water-War Myth
    Spike those stories about water disputes leading to armed combat.
    By Jack Shafer
    Posted Thursday, April 2, 2009, at 3:24 PM ET

    Attention foreign-desk editors and those in charge of the environmental beat: Before assigning any pieces about impending wars between countries battling over this essential, scarce resource, read Wendy Barnaby’s essay in Nature, “Do Nations Go to War Over Water?” (paid).

    Countries do not go to war over water, they solve their water shortages through trade and international agreements.

    Barnaby discovered this enduring truth after being approached by a publisher to write a book about waters wars. It seemed logical enough. If countries were prepared to fight over oil, which makes modern life possible, why not water, without which there would be no life? And it’s not a fringe idea, she notes. NGO leaders, academics, and journalists have all predicted that water struggles will inevitably turn into shooting wars when countries can no longer cover the demands of agriculture, industry, and citizens for the resource.

  3. “American climate-change experts say there are grounds for optimism that China will do its best. The country’s leaders, they say, are beginning to appreciate how much of a threat climate change poses to China itself. It has taken a while to convince them. In a country where every year hundreds, if not thousands, of people die in natural disasters, crops are devastated by droughts and millions of peasants migrate to cities, the extra disruption and loss of life that global warming might cause have not seemed like pressing concerns. But Mr Lieberthal says leaders now worry that climate change could pose a serious additional threat to stability. For a party that places stability above everything else, this could be a clincher.”

  4. Some things are clear. Accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme droughts and floods in some regions. Seasonal rains and monsoons are becoming more variable and less predictable. As one area grows parched, its inhabitants encroach on land traditionally farmed or used for grazing by others. Disputes erupt, some of which are already turning violent, especially in the Sahel, a huge strip of Africa below the Sahara. Environmental stress plays a role in deadly conflicts in Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria and South Sudan, not to mention non-Sahelian states such as Yemen. As global temperatures continue to rise and the weather becomes more erratic, such conflicts could grow more common.

    Climate-induced war is one more reason for governments to take global warming seriously. However, as Australia showed on May 18th, when it elected a coal-cuddling conservative government, voters are not yet willing to pay much to avert planetary peril. Cheaper ways to reduce emissions are urgently needed, along with incentives to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

    Since climate change will make some areas uninhabitable, people will leave them. Not many will move to rich countries—starving farmers cannot afford such a costly journey. Many more will move to towns or cities in their own country. It makes no sense to try to stop or discourage such migration, as many governments do. Moving is a rational way to adapt to a changing environment. Better for governments to manage the influx, building roads and schools to accommodate the newcomers. If people cannot act globally in a global emergency they will have to make do with acting locally.

  5. Heating up
    How climate change can fuel wars
    Droughts are already making conflict more likely. As the world gets hotter, mayhem could spread

    Mr Ibrahim is not the only one to see a link between climate and war. Globally, the proportion of people who die violently has been falling for decades, as poverty has tumbled and wars between states have become rarer. But many fret that climate change will be so disruptive that it will make future conflicts more likely. Some fear that as the Arctic sea-ice melts, Russia, China and America will scramble for the sea lanes that will open up and the minerals that may lie beneath. Others worry that, as temperatures rise, thirsty countries such as India and Pakistan or Egypt and Ethiopia will fight over rivers they share with their neighbours.

    The headlines were too simplistic, as headlines often are. Climate modelling led by Colin Kelley, then at the University of California in Santa Barbara, estimated that greenhouse-gas emissions made the drought twice as likely. That is significant, but need not mean that in the absence of climate change, there would have been no drought and no war. Syrians had many reasons to revolt against their ruler, Bashar al-Assad, a despot from a religious minority who enforced his rule with mass torture.

    Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University and his collaborators have catalogued 2,606 instances of international conflict and co-operation over water between 1948 and 2008. In 70% of cases, countries co-operate. The biggest risk of conflict comes when an upstream country builds infrastructure, such as a dam, without an agreement on how to soften the downstream impact. Many of these dams are built because climate change is making water scarcer, or because of a move away from fossil fuels towards hydropower—ie, a secondary link to climate change.

  6. “In the last 20 years, it has become conventional wisdom that climate change will have serious national security implications. As a way to marshal resources and public support for action, linking the two makes intuitive sense. But as time has gone by, that strategy has become more and more dubious. Instead of motivating a Great War on Climate Change, the defense establishment’s focus on climate-related security challenges has instead served as little more than justification for enriching the military-industrial complex. And ultimately, this disingenuous alliance between concepts has led to paltry, half-hearted solutions for increasingly urgent planetary problems.”

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