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Environment and Security

Summary and Keywords

The term environment is often used as a short form for the biophysical environment, which refers to the biotic and abiotic surrounding of an organism or population, and consequently includes the factors that have an influence in their survival, development, and evolution. All life that has survived must have adapted to conditions of its environment. On one hand, part of the study of environmental science is the investigation of the effect of human activity on the environment. On the other hand, scholars also examine threats posed by environmental events and trends to individuals, communities, or nations, otherwise known as environmental security. It studies the impact of human conflict and international relations on the environment, or on how environmental problems cross state borders. Environmental security is a significant concept in two fields: international relations and international development. Within international development, projects may aim to improve aspects of environmental security such as food security or water security, along with connected aspects such as energy security. The importance of environmental security lies in the fact that it affects humankind and its institutions anywhere and at anytime. To the extent that humankind neglects to maintain the planet’s life-supporting eco-systems generating water, food, medicine, and clean air, current and future generations will be confronted with increasingly severe instances of environmentally induced changes.

Keywords: environment, environmental security, environmental science, survival, international development, international relations, human activity

Introduction and Historical Overview of the Issue

Environmental security: environmental degradation, resource scarcity, or resource abundance that can directly or indirectly affect the security of a state

The modern nation-state emerged from the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, encompassing the ideas that such nation-states are sovereign, their borders are inviolable, and their internal affairs are their own business. Preserving and defending these ideas required the use of military force, and the pursuit of these ideas came to be thought of as national security. By the mid-nineteenth century, nations began to include their interests overseas in this definition of security. From then all the way through the Cold War, the most direct threat to a nation’s security was another nation’s armed forces. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the bipolar global security structure, however, other threats to national borders and interests began to be recognized, including threats generated by environmental issues.

The topic of environmental security reflects both the growing awareness that there is more to national security than border integrity, and the realization that defending this security requires more than military capabilities. Indeed, anything that transcends borders and makes the nation-state ineffective in any of its roles is already a “national” security threat (Terriff 1997, see also Allenby 2001; for the converse view, see de Wilde 2008). Nations face threats to their security and wellbeing that military forces cannot defeat; nations are vulnerable to resource shortages, such as the 1973 oil crisis, and actions by non-state groups, such as 9/11.

The national security impacts of global environmental phenomena such as climate change, deforestation, and extreme weather events have all been recognized. This means that any nation wishing to preserve or strengthen its national security must be ready not only to deal with environmental issues within its own territory, but also to cooperate with other nations on the world stage to ameliorate environmental problems. Indeed, some academics have even argued that nations should move away from a competitive state-based model of “national security” and toward a global cooperative model of “international security” (Dabelko and Dabelko 1995:4), though this view has gained little traction in political circles.

Environmental security has often been conflated in academic literature with human security (the well-being of humans regardless of nationality or citizenship), ecological health (the robustness of the global ecosystem to shocks and perturbations), and/or sustainable development (the ability of nations to develop without depleting their natural capital). Each of these topics links closely to the natural environment, and each has a valid connection to national security. However, this particular essay will define environmental security as environmental degradation, resource scarcity, or resource abundance that can directly or indirectly affect the security of a state. To do more would risk diluting the focus of the essay.

There are many interconnections between the natural world and security, however broadly or narrowly it is defined (see Frédérick 1999; Sheehan 2005). Nations can come into conflict over natural or physical resources themselves. If a resource is in scarcity, nations can fight over it directly; if a resource is in abundance, nations or subnational groups can use it to finance conflicts. Climate change and environmental degradation can lead directly or indirectly to conflicts, as people who are unable to make a living on degraded land or from degraded fisheries can migrate into areas that may not welcome them. In the converse view, war and the preparation for war can damage the environment itself. Finally, the environment itself can serve as a motivator for internal conflict in the form of eco-terrorism. This essay will examine each of these four relationships. However, it must be noted that national security is an extremely complex condition. Each environmental driver can produce several security outcomes, and each security outcome can be influenced by multiple causal factors, environmental and otherwise. Hence, a strictly linear discussion of such connections is impossible. Nor should security be conflated with a lack of armed conflict: it is perfectly possible for a nation to be at peace (i.e., not currently in a conflict) and yet still be insecure.

Previous Thinking on Environmental Security

In the 1970s and early 1980s, a few thinkers, such as Lester Brown and Richard Ullman, began to articulate the link between environmental issues and national security. Ullman wrote that,

a threat to national security is an action or sequence of events that (1) threatens drastically and over a relatively brief span of time to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a state, or (2) threatens significantly to narrow the range of policy choices available to the government of a state or to private, nongovernmental entities (persons, groups, corporations) within the state.

(Ullman 1983:130)

Ullman warned that defining security exclusively or even primarily in terms of military threats conveyed a false image of reality because it allowed states to ignore other, more harmful dangers, thereby reducing their overall security (see also Brown 1977; Pirages 1978; Westing 1986). During the Cold War, such admonitions to focus on non-nuclear, and indeed non-state, strategic threats were not well received or widely heeded.

As the Cold War wound down, it became clear that the institutions and assumptions that had governed international relations and national security since the end of World War II were “a poor fit” with the new realities of environmental stresses and demographic changes (Mathews 1989). Famines, diseases, natural disasters, and ethnic and religious conflicts gave rise to the idea that the human, not the nation, could be the referent of security. By the early 1990s, the idea of “purchasing as much security through trees as through tanks,” as one advocate put it (Myers 1989:41) had gained some traction in academic circles.

A big increase in the policy visibility of environmental security came when University of Toronto scholar Thomas Homer-Dixon published a series of reports linking environmental change to violent conflict in places like Pakistan, Rwanda, the Philippines, and Gaza. He argued that environmental degradation can cause conflict, especially in poor countries with less robust adaptive capacity, in one of four ways: through reduced agricultural production, through economic decline, through population displacement, and/or through disruption of legitimate social relations. In turn, degradation-induced conflict would cause scarcity disputes between countries or ethnic groups. Homer-Dixon pointed out that the modern realist perspective in international relations (see Morgenthau 1948; Mearsheimer 2001) was insufficient to deal with issues of environmental security because it viewed states as rational power maximizers in an otherwise anarchic system (Homer-Dixon 1991). By viewing states as territorially distinct and mutually exclusive, realist beliefs provide no incentive to solve transboundary ecological problems cooperatively; rather, there is incentive for one nation to free-ride on the good behavior of its neighbor.

Not all academics agreed with the link between national security and environmental matters. Daniel Deudney argued that, since matters of security have “them and their behavior” as the enemy, while environmental problems are concerned with “us and our behavior,” the two concepts were fundamentally different in nature and could not be linked. In his view those wishing to “securitize” the environment merely wished to add urgency to environmental problems (Deudney 1991). Marc Levy stated more specifically that academics needed to place further focus on security and how regional conflicts begin, not on their environmental drivers (Levy 1995). However, the deeply skeptical arguments had largely dried up by the mid-1990s, as the debate shifted from whether or not the environment could affect security to how the environment could affect security. Discussions of the degree to which environmental drivers played a role in insecurity and conflict became more prevalent, as present-day academics began to consider specific environmental drivers and their likely downstream security effects.

Current work on environmental security has generally taken two forms. On the conflict side, various studies have used large-N statistical models drawing on various conflict databases in order to measure correlation between environmental drivers and levels of conflict at the regional or subnational levels. Some studies have reaffirmed a direct link (e.g., Hauge and Ellingsen 1998), others have de-emphasized the importance of the environment in favor of other, intermediate political and economic variables (e.g., Theisen 2008). On the security side, a slate of policy-relevant white papers have recently been written which attempt to trace the links between changing environmental conditions and national security outcomes (CNA 2006; Busby 2007; Mignone 2007; Campbell 2008). While this transdisciplinary viewpoint has yet to make its way into the policy making circles responsible for national security, the relationship between the natural environment and national security has become more apparent.

The rest of this essay will examine both shortage and abundance of natural resources as an input into security, climate change as an example of insecurities caused by a shifting ecological system, collateral environmental damage from war and preparation for war, and environmentally inspired violence in the form of eco-terrorism.

Natural Resources


Water is the most critical natural resource on earth. While agricultural uses account for approximately 70 percent of the world’s consumption of freshwater, nonagricultural uses like industry and manufacturing, hydropower, domestic consumption, recreation, and transportation are expanding. With many competing users, existing supplies in water-stressed areas are already oversubscribed, and growing populations will exacerbate this trend. In addition, a warmed climate will result in precipitation changes that leave some areas with too much or too little water; other areas will receive water earlier or later in the year than usual. This disparity between expected and actual supply, coupled with increasing demand, virtually assures that water will become a strategic concern for countries all over the world.

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Figure 1 Freshwater stress

Source: Global environment outlook 2000 (GEO), UNEP, Earthscan, London, 1999

The World Resources Institute (WRI) defines any country that has less than 1000 m3 per person per year available as “water stressed” (WRI 1995). Water withdrawals are predicted to increase by 50% in developing nations and by 18% in developed nations by 2025 (UNEP 2007:121). Estimates of the population currently living in water-stressed basins range from 1.4 billion to 2.1 billion (IPCC 2007b:35–7, 179); between 2 and 7 billion people will be facing water stress or water scarcity by 2050. The map below shows the countries that are facing increased water stress from growing population and increasing demand for consumptive use – note that they are some of the most politically volatile regions in the world.

Areas such as the Middle East, North Africa, and south and central Asia are already facing ethnic, religious, and political unrest, and such situations can only be complicated by water shortages. Some scholars see widespread conflict over water as inevitable, particularly if there are pre-existing tensions in a water-poor area (e.g., Amery 2002; Morrissette and Borer 2004). Others have argued that cooperation over international water resources is the norm rather than conflict, since shortages tend to prompt parties to enter into negotiations rather than wars (e.g., Haddadin 2002; Wolf 2007). However, the possibility of conflict in international river basins cannot be ruled out entirely, as growing populations and environmental change will stress water supplies in new and urgent ways. (For further data on freshwater and conflict, see both the chronology and the bibliography at and the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database at, accessed October 2009.)

Agriculture and Fisheries

Changing levels and timing of precipitation will affect food security by causing agricultural output to fluctuate. Singly or combined, heavy precipitation, flood frequency, soil erosion, and salinization can reduce agricultural output in areas that are dependent upon rain for crops. In addition, growing ranges can shift from one biome to the next, leading to changes in relative power of agricultural regions. When this shift occurs over a national border, this changes the relative power of the two nations.

Food shortages do not necessarily mean unrest. Usually, the market takes care of commodity surpluses or shortages by bidding the price up or down, but if a large proportion of the population lives at or near subsistence level, a steep rise in the price of staple crops can lead to food riots, particularly if staple prices are held artificially low by government subsidies. Such riots have been seen recently in India, Pakistan, and Mexico.

There is little evidence that food insecurity causes more serious security threats like terrorism directly, but a population worn down by hunger or suspicious of a government that cannot guarantee access to food can provide a willing audience for extreme ideologies and shelter for those who espouse them. However, the most compelling link between agricultural poverty and civil unrest is its reverse: improved agriculture leads directly to reduced civil conflict (Falcon and Naylor 2005:1114–6).

Fisheries can threaten security and conflict in a unique way, because straddling stocks cross international maritime boundaries easily and often, and even allied states compete to ensure access. In 1973, NATO nearly lost the use of Keflavik Air Base in Iceland (critical to radar coverage of the North Atlantic) after the Icelandic government threatened to close it if fellow NATO ally Great Britain did not withdraw the Royal Navy vessels it had deployed to protect British trawlers fishing in what Iceland then considered to be internal economic waters (Mitchell 1976). A similar dispute involved Canada and Spain in 1995, though no air base was at stake. Currently, several economically valuable species of northern Pacific fish, including salmon, pollock, and snow crabs, are migrating from Alaskan waters into Russian waters as their habitat changes. As the US and Russia compete for these stocks, resulting tensions between non-allies can escalate more easily to actual conflict.


Energy is probably the most well-known reason why nations or armed groups might fight over natural resources. Global energy use is rising every year (Energy Information Administration 2008), and miraculous new energy technologies do not appear to be on the horizon yet. Consequently, energy resources such as oil and natural gas are looming as a larger part of the security equation.

Oil and conflict have gone hand in hand for decades. Areas of conflict and oil reserves are co-located with regularity, and this is not a coincidence. Petro-states are those countries whose economies rely exclusively or almost exclusively on the export of oil and/or natural gas (e.g., Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, and most of the Middle East; see Karl 1997). Such states usually have poor governance and high levels of corruption. When the global price of oil rises, their governments are awash with cash, and the revenues often pay for an impressive military; when the price falls, their economies can collapse, causing civil unrest and strained relations with neighbors (see Klare 2001; 2004).

Realistically, the world’s ever-growing appetite for oil will ensure that the ethnic and religious conflicts of the Middle East will continue to play a significant role in international security. The states of the Middle East have 56 percent of global proven oil reserves (EIA 2008), and most of these reserves are easily recoverable. In addition to continuing to drive climate change, this easy source of oil constitutes a security issue for oil-importing nations: how much of their foreign aid and military might will they have to provide to the Middle East in order to guarantee this flow?

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power, often touted as a possible replacement for coal and gas plants for electricity generation, carries its own security concerns. If the global electricity supply is to be decarbonized so as not to continue adding CO2 to the atmosphere, nations of the world would have to build not hundreds but thousands of new nuclear plants to keep up with projected electricity demand. This presents several significant security risks (MIT 2003; for further discussion of nuclear security, see the Project for Managing the Atom at http:/, accessed October 2009). First, the greater the percentage of the electricity grid that is nuclear-dependent, the more attractive each generation facility becomes as a target. Keeping nuclear plants safe from terror attacks could add a significant additional cost to the price of energy. Second, the theft of nuclear materials or technologies by armed groups is a very real possibility. A one-gigawatt light water reactor produces 200 kg of plutonium per year. An increase in the number of nuclear plants and their attendant fuel fabrication and waste processing facilities means that fissile material will be available in many more locations, not all of which will have adequate security. Finally, increased nuclear capacity worldwide will almost certainly require proliferation of nuclear capability to nations such as India, which has nuclear weapons but very little nuclear power, and Iran, which has neither. Currently, Iran has stated that it is pursuing uranium enrichment capability in order to expand its nuclear energy capability, but the technology used to enrich material for reactors is the same as that used to create nuclear weapons. This is why the IAEA and the UN Security Council have required Iran to undergo inspections, which it has resisted, citing sovereignty concerns.

Renewable Energy

It is for the above reasons that renewable energy technologies (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal, biofuel) are seen as the most secure as well as the most environmentally friendly. Renewables mean that energy supply is independent of foreign affairs, since nations do not have to buy or capture sunlight and wind from other nations. In addition, distributed power infrastructure such as localized solar panels or wind turbines is more efficient, since micropower can reduce transmission losses considerably. Power failures affect fewer users. Finally, because renewable energy flows are much less concentrated than fossil fuel or nuclear power, it is much less vulnerable. Concentrated energy plants and transmission infrastructure such as refineries, pipelines, and LNG tankers both invite and reward devastating attack.

Diamonds, Minerals, Timber

Resources can play another critical role in security, that of enabling conflict (e.g., de Soysa 2002; Ross 2006). National governments, rebel forces, or local militias that have access to valuable natural resources such as timber, minerals, or diamonds can use the revenue from their extraction to finance conflicts. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in central Africa, is one of the richest nations in the world in strategic minerals like tin and copper. Rather than going for development, however, Congo’s resources have been drained into a near-constant civil war between the government and various tribal and ethnic militias, in which it is estimated that 5 million people have died since the mid-1990s (Polgreen 2008). Similar situations have occurred in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, and most notably Liberia, where Charles Taylor used sales from illegal diamonds to finance his brutal 14-year regime.

In conflict-riven areas, it is relatively easy to use resources in this way because there is no effective administrative agency to police proper extraction methods. Warring sides extract resources in a hurry before they lose control of territory, with no thought to environmental protection or proper maintenance of the resource or the workers’ lives or health. Similarly, poaching of local wildlife, including endangered species, can be used either for sustenance for troops or for cash.

Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) that “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [>90%] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (IPCC 2007a). Given that this trend shows every sign of continuing, it is relevant to consider the relationship between climate change and security.

Arctic Changes

Ecological shifts in the Arctic, previously a frozen realm, are presenting new security questions to circumpolar nations, though this area has not yet experienced environmentally related conflict (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment 2004; see also Griffiths 1988). As global warming progresses, it will create a positive feedback loop: increasing ambient air temperature causes sea ice to melt, changing the reflective property (albedo) of the Arctic surface: white ice reflects UV radiation, but dark open water absorbs it and re-radiates heat. This in turn increases the ambient air temperature and the cycle continues. The Arctic is experiencing unprecedented loss of sea ice (Stroeve et al. 2007). By 2040, the Arctic Ocean could be substantially ice-free, as shown in Figure 2.

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Figure 2 Rapid melt

Source: National Center for Atmospheric Research


An ice-free Arctic translates into open water on a regular or semi-regular basis, and any sea ice that does form will be thinner and more vulnerable to icebreakers. This means that the Arctic Ocean will likely experience increased shipping and military traffic. Consequently, circumpolar nations such as Russia, Canada, and the US will need to increase their military presence in the Arctic in order to monitor this traffic through their territorial waters (Chalecki 2007; see also Carman 2002). Increased Arctic transit also means that the Bering Strait could become a new oceanic chokepoint.

No legal regime has been developed specifically to govern the Arctic because its frozen state made free access impossible for most of the year. It has been treated as a regional sea, with the eight circumpolar nations (the US, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden) each governing its slice of ocean and now eyeing the land underneath. Many of the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea such as the rules to calculate the extent of the continental shelf will hold in the Arctic, but the US is not currently a party to UNCLOS, so it is not yet uniformly accepted as the de jure law of the north. There are other legal disputes brewing in the Arctic: Canada has stated that it considers the Northwest Passage to be internal waters, and any ship wishing to transit it will require permission from the Government of Canada. The US and other nations, however, view it as an international strait for which no permission to transit is needed (Barber et al. 2006:70). Because it has been largely frozen over, the dispute has been moot, but a transitable Arctic will require settlement of this issue.

Natural Resources

Passage is not the only valuable resource in the far north. Currently, the Arctic is estimated to hold approximately 90 billion barrels of oil and 1669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (USGS 2008). In addition to petroleum, the Arctic contains strategic minerals necessary for key industrial and defense applications such as manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt. Norway, Canada, Russia, and the US are all currently expanding their offshore operations for petroleum and mineral exploration in the Arctic, operations which were previously slowed due to the extent of sea ice.

The Arctic is a perfect example of an area not facing violent conflict, yet not secure. Should nations begin sending capital north of the Arctic Circle in any quantity, the national armed forces of those countries will naturally have an interest in ensuring that it is protected. This could result in the increased militarization of the Arctic. Past military operations have generally been limited to radar coverage, submarine operations, search and rescue, and the occasional icebreaker escort, because this area has never been an active security frontier before (see Borgerson 2008). Canada, however, currently has undertaken unilateral military operations in the north, including an Arctic refueling station and training facilities. In addition, Russia currently has 17 Arctic-capable icebreakers to the US’s two (National Research Council 2007:59).

Extreme Events and Refugees

Climate change is predicted to increase the number and/or severity of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, and storms (IPCC 2007b:324, 439). If these events are extreme enough, they can result in thousands or even millions of environmental refugees fleeing disasters or a degraded ecosystem. Although the official UN definition of “refugees” only includes those fleeing from political, cultural, or religious persecution and not those escaping from natural disasters, environmental refugees can present a significant security problem. Because climate change is expected to produce lasting environmental changes in the future, the corresponding migration flows may be too large for a host country to handle (Reuveny 2007:660; see also Loescher 1992; Choucri 2002; Gleditsch et al. 2007). In some cases, large numbers of refugees can precipitate ethnic or religious conflicts, like the ones that occurred between India and Bangladesh in the early 1980s. Local police forces and even armies are often ill-prepared to handle humanitarian emergencies (Smith 2007). The recent cyclone in Myanmar killed at least 22,000 people, left large areas devastated, and little food and medical aid available, yet the ruling military junta refused all offers of foreign help.

Disease and Public Health

Changes in the natural environment can give rise to expanded disease vectors. (A vector is a method of transferring disease: water, air, insects, and rodents are all vectors.) Environmental change can expand the vector’s geographic range and behavior, and lengthen transmission season. Public health infrastructure and capabilities in many areas of conflict are subpar, worsening the effects of disease.

Infectious disease can affect a nation’s security by reducing the military readiness of troops and the fitness of their respective recruitment pools. Troops have long been exposed to diseases such as smallpox, pneumonia, cholera, tuberculosis, malaria, and most recently AIDS. Sometimes drugs can control these outbreaks, but lately a number of these diseases have come back in drug-resistant form. Increased disease exposure means that military doctors and hospitals will have to be vigilant about how to treat infected soldiers. It may also restrict the number and type of places to which soldiers can be sent, thereby limiting a nation’s security policy options.

Increases in disease rates can exacerbate instability in already unstable countries. Disease outbreaks contribute to humanitarian emergencies and civil conflicts, and can even slow down transitions to democracy and free market economies (Price-Smith 2002; Peterson 2006). Infectious disease-related embargoes and restrictions on travel and immigration can cause foreign policy friction between countries (Brower and Chalk 2003). Migration of infected individuals across borders can present a significant security threat for most nations. The US National Intelligence Council predicts that the burden of infectious disease, climate-vectored or otherwise, will weaken the militaries of sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union particularly, as well as rogue states with advanced weapons capability. What such a rogue state might do in the face of a growing disease threat is uncertain. Climate-vectored disease will also limit the effectiveness of international peacekeeping missions (National Intelligence Council 2000:10, 52).

Security-Related Collateral Damage

Collateral environmental damage occurs when the natural environment is damaged during the conduct of war or preparation for war (Terriff 1997; see also Westing 1976; Lanier-Graham 1993; Austin and Bruch 2000). This damage is usually unanticipated and unintentional, but it can range from negligible to catastrophic. Use of WMDs can alter global weather, cause nuclear winter, poison ecosystems, etc. Environmental warfare such as scorched earth policies can destroy crops/resources and leave land uninhabitable.

War and military activities can have devastating effects on the natural environment, damaging land and soil, waterways, flora and fauna, and human health. Collateral damage from war compromises ecosystem services such as agriculture and freshwater that are needed for reconstruction of the economy and survival of the civilian population (e.g., Hulme 1997). In this way, significant collateral damage can extend the aggressive intent of the war by preventing the resurgence of the nation whose environment has been attacked. Depending on the type of weapons used, recovery could take years or decades, or the ecosystem may never recover. Different regional ecosystems are more robust or less, and each has its ecological weakness. Weapons used in one area may cause little damage, while the same weapons used in another area may be more deadly.

The environment has always suffered during war, but two factors now make environmental damage caused by armed conflict of particular concern. First, developments in military technology such as the increase in destructiveness of contemporary weaponry can make armed conflict more environmentally devastating than ever before (Parsons 1998). Second, in the wake of peacetime environmental degradation such as pollution and deforestation, the public has become increasingly aware of environmental issues and will likely find extreme environmental damage during war unacceptable, even if collaterally incurred.

Any discussion of collateral damages to the environment raises particular ethical questions. How should the environment be treated in wartime? Is the benefit of the military objective gained worth the cost of the ecological damage done while gaining it? And should we protect the environment for our sake or for its own sake?

Warring parties can and have used environmental damage as a tool of war. One of the most significant instances is the US use of defoliants during the Vietnam War, as part of Operation Ranch Hand. Approximately 12 million gallons of dioxin-based herbicide were sprayed on the jungles in Vietnam in order to deprive the enemy forces of forest cover. These defoliants were successful in denuding the trees, but this massive defoliation caused erosion, flooding, and other ecological damage across the country. The chemicals themselves have been suspected in contributing to cancer and other health problems that both US veterans and Vietnamese civilians began experiencing after the war (Hay 2000).

The environment can also suffer during war as part of a scorched earth policy, also known as “ecocide” (killing of the earth), which is intended to render the area uninhabitable. Probably the most well-known and egregious example of ecocide in recent armed conflict occurred during the 1991 Gulf War, when the retreating Iraqi Army opened oil taps at coastal loading stations and let approximately 250 million gallons of crude oil flow freely into the Persian Gulf. In February 1991, they also set fire to 611 Kuwaiti oil wells, which burned until November 1991 and consumed approximately 1.25 million tons of oil (Trade and Environmental Database 2005; see also Omar et al. 2000; for a more in-depth description of the event, see Hawley 1997). The smoke plume from these fires could be seen from space, as shown in the satellite photo in Figure 3. Decades later, significant ecosystem damage remains in the Kuwaiti desert (Low and Hodgkinson 1995).

Even if the destruction of the ecosystem or any of its services is not the goal of the conflict, waging war itself causes significant environmental externalities. During the NATO bombing campaign in Bosnia and Kosovo in the late 1990s, the oil refinery at Novi Sad and the petrochemical refinery and plastics manufacturing complex at Pancevo were both hit numerous times. This damage resulted in the release of oil into the Danube river and toxic clouds which contained dioxins and other carcinogenic poisons, PCBs, and heavy metals like mercury into the air (Austin and Bruch 2000:652–3). Recent environmental assessments from the United Nations Environment Program have found extensive evidence of environmental degradation in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq as a result of armed conflict in these areas (see, accessed October 2009). This includes water pollution, dumping of wastes, loss of natural vegetation, and pollution of coastal waters.

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Figure 3 Persian Gulf oil fires, March 11, 1991; NOAA-11 1 km AVHRR, multi-spectral false color image

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce

Though military experts argue that it is critically necessary for readiness (Amerault 2001), training and preparation for war can also cause collateral environmental damage, including local safety concerns, impacts on wildlife, and the creation of reservoirs of pollution. For example, in 2001, the US Navy ceased its use of Vieques, PR, as a live-fire training range and withdrew from the territory. Local citizens claim that the island is contaminated with lead and other heavy metals, chemical explosives, and unexploded ordnance, though the Navy disputes this. Farallon de Medinilla, an uninhabited island in the Northern Marianas, provides sufficient room for live-fire training, but is also a major nesting ground for several endangered species of birds on the Pacific Flyway. Environmental groups have sought a court injunction to prevent the Navy from using the island, arguing that its use violates the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918. In 2008, however, the US Navy scored a Supreme Court victory over environmental groups in the matter of its midfrequency active sonar training in the Pacific. The NRDC had sued repeatedly to stop the training, citing the possibility of damage to cetaceans, but the Supreme Court threw out restrictions from lower courts, arguing that national security took precedence over the environment (Liptak 2008). This raises an interesting question for environmental security scholars to consider: should the military be exempt from national environmental laws and statutes? Does a nation have to give up part of its environmental health to ensure national security, and, when there is a trade-off, which is more valuable?

The US Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons development site at Hanford, WA, has long been a matter of environmental concern. The site was established in 1943 to fabricate plutonium for American atomic bombs, and, according to the Washington State Department of Health, releases of radioactive isotopes such as Iodine-131, Strontium-90, and Plutonium-238 have contaminated the Columbia River, as well as the air, soil, and groundwater surrounding the town of Hanford. Since 1989, the US Environmental Protection Agency has listed Hanford as a Superfund site. However, the corporate taxes that put money into Superfund were allowed to lapse by Congress in 1995, thus rendering questionable whether such sites will ever be remediated.

Legal Protection of the Environment During War

The environment is not completely unprotected in time of war. Currently, two international agreements specifically address the legal status of the environment during war. The 1977 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) was prompted by the use of defoliants and weather modification techniques during the Vietnam War. ENMOD prohibits “military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting [lasting a number of months], or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage, or injury to any other State Party.” ENMOD goes on to define “environmental modification techniques” as “any technique for changing – through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition, or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.” While, on its face, ENMOD seems to be a comprehensive prohibition against collateral environmental damage, it has some significant loopholes. First, it only applies to the use of the environment as a weapon, that is, natural forces directed against the enemy. It does not address the environmental damage arising from the use of conventional weapons. Second, its provisions are only applicable between signatories; a nation can use these techniques against a nonsignatory or against its own people. Finally, it only prohibits “hostile” use of these techniques. Presumably “non-hostile” environmental modification is permitted (for further discussion of the limits of ENMOD, see Bruch 2000).

The 1977 Protocol I to the Geneva Convention also addresses the protection of the environment during war, and employs similar language to ENMOD. Protocol I prohibits “methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause widespread, long-term [unlike ENMOD, this means decades], and severe damage to the natural environment.” Protocol I likewise warns belligerents not to damage the environment so as to jeopardize the population, prohibits attacks on works and installations that contain “dangerous forces” that could be unleashed upon a civilian population (nuclear reactors, dikes, and dams), and prohibits attacks against the environment for reprisal purposes, as occurred in the 1991 Gulf War. The US is a party to ENMOD, but not to Protocol I.

The key concept behind these rules is that of proportionality. This means that the damage to the environment from an attack must not outweigh the military benefit gained by the attack. Interestingly, Protocol I differs from the other Geneva Conventions and from ENMOD by implying an absolute ceiling to permissible levels of environmental destruction, even if concomitant military benefit can be gained (Judge Advocate General’s School 1997, as quoted in Roberts 2000:61). While current US military doctrine and rules of engagement call for explicit compliance with the laws of war, it is difficult for the military to develop operational guidelines that balance military necessity with environmental protection. In addition, confusion on the ground at the time of the attack (the “fog of war”) and differing opinions of what constitutes military necessity mean that the determination of proportionality relies on the judgment of the military commander in the field.


The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines eco-terrorism as “the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature” (FBI 2004). Acts of eco-terrorism are usually committed by individuals who believe that exploitation of natural resources and despoliation of the environment are becoming severe enough to require action outside conventional legal and environmental channels (Scarce 2005; eco-terrorism is not to be confused with environmental terrorism, or the targeting of environmental resources by terror groups; see Chalecki 2002). Eco-terrorism has ranged from minor acts of vandalism such as graffiti to the arson destruction of a condominium complex in San Diego which caused $50 million in damage, though it remains to be seen if eco-terrorism can be a security threat at the national level.

While vandalism and property destruction are clearly illegal, the issue of whether it is morally defensible to use such tactics is complicated. Polls in the US have shown that a majority of Americans favor strong environmental protections over unfettered economic growth. This contributes to a romantic view of eco-terrorists, imbuing their actions with a Robin Hood-like quality of the weak fighting back against the strong, as evidenced in Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. This gives rise to ethical questions such as whether or not violence can be used for a good cause.

Key Players

Modern eco-terrorism occurred as early as 1977, when disaffected members of Greenpeace formed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and began a campaign of ramming whaling boats and cutting fishing vessels’s drift nets. However, the most well-known radical environmentalists to use monkey-wrenching tactics as a key part of their strategy was Earth First!, formed in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s. The American wing of Earth First! gained notoriety for their tactic of tree-spiking – driving a large metal spike into the trunk of a tree destined to be logged. When the loggers’s saws hit the spike, the saw blade would be damaged beyond repair, forcing the workers to stop, thus slowing the rate of logging, and costing the timber companies time and money. Although Earth First! avowed that they meant no harm to the loggers themselves, several were injured with spikes, law enforcement penalties for tree spiking became more severe, and some of the popular support for Earth First! waned. Eventually Earth First! abandoned the tactic of tree-spiking (Zakin 1993:379–80).

As a reaction to this seeming weakening of resolve, a more radical offshoot of Earth First! re-named itself the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) in 1992. ELF sees its actions as a matter of self-defense: protecting themselves and everyone against the greedy individuals and corporations that they feel are destroying the environment’s ability to sustain life. Since they see the perpetrators as committing violence, they feel justified to use violence in the form of economic sabotage in response, so as to “remove the profit motive” from environmental destruction (for further discussion of eco-terror motives, see Manes 1990; Rosebraugh 2004). Law enforcement officers and some law makers, however, see ELF (and their sister organizations ALF, the Animal Liberation Front, and SHAC, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) as nothing more than garden-variety terrorists.

Effectiveness of Eco-Terrorism

By financial standards eco-terrorists have been very effective. ELF’s campaign of property destruction has cost some $110 million since 1976 (FBI 2004). They have also generated considerable media attention for their grievances. However, ELF has been less successful at stopping or slowing the development they seek to prevent. In fact, those who have had property destroyed often feel a renewed resolve to continue with their projects so as “not to give in to terrorists.”

Very few ELF activists have been caught so far, due in large part to its anonymous and decentralized structure. Each cell operates individually and anonymously, a strategy which has continually frustrated law enforcement agencies. While ELF claims that one of its primary rules of engagement is to cause no harm to any human or animal, the US FBI Counterterrorism Division has argued that the frequency and intensity of its actions are increasing, and it is only a matter of time before someone is killed. Already scientists and heads of corporations have been harassed, and some ELF members have stated that they no longer would hesitate to pick up a gun in defense of the environment.


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