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date: 19 March 2018

Environmental Security and Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Resources have become part of the larger discussion on environmental security, not only because they are sometimes the object of conflict but also because the use of fossil fuels and the deforestation of the planet are key contributors to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, the main cause of climate change. In the last few decades, scholarly literature has integrated the environment into discussions of war, conflict, and specifically security. Initial formulations of conflict research in what became the discourse of environmental security were anchored on the assumption that shortages of renewable resources would likely be aggravated by various kinds of environmental degradation. There are lessons to be learned from the history of the environmental security debate that have a direct bearing on the discussion of climate change and how this might affect security in coming decades. One crucial lesson is disciplinary, and another concerns questions of how the social, economic, and physical locales in which insecurities happen shape both the patterns of violence and the opportunities for peacebuilding. It is important that we think very carefully about the appropriate geopolitical contexts in which the relationship between environmental security and climate change is addressed. The military appears to be the institution most suited to alerting governments and publics about the need to tackle the issue of climate change issue, but diplomacy and development cooperation are also required.

Keywords: environmental security, climate change, war, conflict, security, environmental degradation, violence, peacebuilding, military


While numerous authors, only most famously Thomas Malthus (1798/1970), have long discussed the role of nature and natural phenomena on the human condition, in the last few decades scholars have fairly systematically linked what is now called environment into discussions of war, conflict, and specifically security. Lester Brown’s Worldwatch paper on Redefining National Security (1977) frequently gets the praise, or the blame, for first explicitly linking environment to security, but the discussion really only gathered steam in the late 1980s as environmental issues became prominent once again when the Cold War wound down (Dalbeko 2008). At that time the Brundtland Commission’s report on Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987) warned about resource shortages causing conflict and suggested an overarching framework of sustainable development to tackle these issues.

On the big scale resources have long been a matter of geopolitics and strategy (Le Billon 2004). Warfare is as much about blockades, access to timber, water, food, and fuel, as it is about battles. But now resources are part of the larger discussion of environmental security, both because they are sometimes directly fought over, and because it is precisely the use of fossil fuels and the deforestation of the planet that are key components in causing the rise of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere which is causing climate change.

This recent concern with climate change has reinvigorated the discussion of environmental security as part of the policy making process, but has done so without any clear sense of precisely how the dangerous disruptions that are coming might lead to what kind of conflict and where. If climate change disrupts natural systems and subsistence farmers’ livelihoods are destroyed by drought, flood, and famine then migration and political instability are likely, and political elites may judge that this requires a traditional security response, especially where migrations cross national boundaries (Smith 2007; Busby 2008). Hence shortage of environmental resources is, so the argument frequently goes, a likely possible cause of war in the future. Hence it is a matter for consideration in terms of security.

While climate change is getting much of the attention of late, not least because of the belated realization by many people that we have literally become “the weather makers” (Flannery 2006), it is also the case that humanity is causing mass extinctions of many species, degrading the quality of water supplies, dangerously disrupting ocean ecosystems by both pollution and overfishing, and undertaking numerous other changes to the biosphere with unknown consequences for the long term functioning of key ecological systems needed for human existence (United Nations Environment Programme 2007). The sheer scale of human activities now means that geologists are convinced that we are living in a new geological era, the Anthropocene, where we are actively remaking an environment that can now no longer be considered separate from human actions (Steffen et al. 2004).

We have become an urban species too, and as humanity moves into cities, we become much more dependent on global trade and communications to supply the essentials of life. This too makes people vulnerable in new ways when environmental hazards disrupt this infrastructure (Brauch 2005). Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans are emblematic of these new insecurities. Hence rethinking both security and environment is necessary in addition to connecting these themes with renewed concerns about resource wars and energy if we are to think about security in terms related to sustainability (Rogers 2008). Climate change is only the most pressingly obvious item on the environmental agenda, and how it plays out in the coming decades will affect both human security and environmental changes in many ways.

All of this suggests that both how we ask questions about nature, conflict, and insecurity, and how we make policies to deal with these matters need to be updated and adapted to be appropriate in the new circumstances of living in the Anthropocene. But to do so we need to pay attention to the considerable amount we have already learned, and where the pitfalls to further careful thinking lie. There is, however, very considerable danger that the current urgent concerns with climate change, and related fears of instabilities caused by environmental disruptions, may, in the rush to suggest policy solutions or invoke great danger, lead us either to forget, or simply to ignore, the findings of the earlier scholarly literature on environment, conflict, and security (Floyd 2008).

Lessons Learned

At least implicit in much of the early environmental security discussion is the argument that shortages of renewable resources are a key part of this problem. Beyond that the additional assumption was that such shortages would likely be aggravated by environmental degradation of various sorts (Homer-Dixon 1991). This line of argument fed the initial formulations of conflict research in what became the discourse of environmental security, and has continued to shape many of the discussions since. But empirical work in the social sciences in the 1990s revealed how complicated these matters of environmental change, migration, and potential conflict actually were (Homer-Dixon 1994, 1999; Baechler 1999); more recent work about environmental causes of conflict confirms the initial findings suggesting numerous factors are involved in relationships between environmental change and conflict (Kahl 2006; Salehyan 2008). But how or when any of this might lead to warfare is not clear.

The second stream of thinking that fed into the discussion was the “rethinking security” debate at the end of the Cold War. Among the many contenders for new threats to the West after Soviet communism’s demise were ethnic nationalism, migration, drugs, loose nukes, diseases, and the global environment (Klare and Chandrani 1998). Concerns about ozone holes and climate change raised questions of global warfare over such issues in the future. In what became one of the most cited papers in this whole discussion, Daniel Deudney (1990) warned against simplistically linking environment to national security and assuming that appropriate policy options would result. He pointed out that the military as an institution is singularly ill equipped to fix environmental problems, however it might be used to deal with some of the symptoms.

His point is now made more complicated by the long debate through the last two decades about the meaning of security and the emergence of both critical scholarship which challenges the taken for granted assumptions in security thinking (Fierke 2007), and the parallel policy discussions of extending security into a broad conceptualization of human security which is now being fairly explicitly linked to globalization and environmental change (Brauch et al. 2008). Both critical scholars and advocates of human security as a policy framework have raised questions about how environment might now be incorporated into security discussions.

These two key questions, first the empirical one concerning if and when environmental changes might cause conflicts where and how, and the second one concerning the appropriate policy responses to these conflicts, which are understood to have security implications in many disparate ways, structured the debate through much of the 1990s.

At the end of the 1990s this whole discussion got effectively turned upside down when a third theme, the “greed not grievance” arguments, which suggested that abundance rather than scarcity was related to violence in the “new wars” of the 1990s, joined the debate (de Soysa 2002). The suggestion is that resources are worth fighting for when few other economic options are available; in these circumstances they become a source of organized violence (Bannon and Collier 2003). One fights to control revenue from natural resources if one has few other options. Thus the discussion of conflict diamonds, the violence surrounding oil resources in many places, and the destruction of tropical forests to support insurgencies suggested a very different set of circumstances relating to conflict, and more directly tied concerns with violence in the peripheries into discussions of consumption in the metropoles of the global economy (Le Billon 2005).

The environmental security and resource wars discussion has also been partly eclipsed by the discussion of global resource issues, and petroleum geopolitics in particular in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Klare 2004). This in turn has fed into a renewed concern with popular discussions of “peak oil” and of the implications of consumption and security of supply for the American polity in particular, and the global economy more generally (Kuntsler 2006). It would appear that the resource war arguments are playing out at a much larger scale in the case of petroleum and American security policy (Bacevich 2005), and most recently in revived competition between China and the US for energy supplies (Klare 2008).

Reviewing this history of the environmental security discussion suggests that at least five crucial lessons so far seem to need emphasis although all five are very difficult to encapsulate concisely. All five have, as the rest of this essay suggests, direct bearing on the discussion of climate change and how this might affect security in coming decades.

One crucial lesson is disciplinary; lessons that are drawn tend to follow from what questions are asked, and these in turn are premised on the disciplinary training of those asking the questions. Economists concerned with global comparisons and national development statistics do not pose similar questions to political scientists interested in war causation. Neither discipline is much concerned with detailed fieldwork in conflict zones; this is the preoccupation of anthropologists and geographers, who trace the connections between the global economy and the specific contexts of violence and disruption. Traditional development studies overlap closely with many of the concerns of human security more recently. The climate change debate runs loosely in parallel with this; vulnerability studies tend to focus on detailed case studies while adaptation studies focus on economic models and calculations of cost.

The second lesson concerns questions of how the social, economic, and physical locales in which insecurities happen shape both the patterns of violence and the opportunities for peacebuilding. The critical literature in security studies is especially relevant here because it focuses attention on who specifies threats, and how identities are mobilized in a crisis in ways that are then “securitized” (Fierke 2007). If the marginal poor are deemed the threat in Malthusian terms, as was frequently the case in the 1990s (Kaplan 1994), policies are very different than if the disruptions caused by urban elites and the consumption patterns of automobile-driving suburbanites are the focus, as they are in contemporary discussions of climate change and globalization (Dauvergne 2008). Focusing on the poor and marginal as a problem may replicate earlier imperial patterns of thinking, but it does not address the causes of environmental change and hence fails to adequately address the issue (Barnett 2000).

This is related to a third lesson, or more precisely to the matter of the institutional context within which policy questions are formulated. Whether environmental difficulties are understood as matters of development, conflict, human security, or part of the war on terror matters greatly in terms of likely policy responses. International regimes supposedly controlling many aspects of environment and resources have not constrained many deleterious developments, nor have they substantially slowed the growth of carbon emissions, all the discussion of the Kyoto Protocol and other initiatives notwithstanding. But as Daniel Deudney (1990) warned at the beginning of the discussion, there are many reasons why military institutions are not appropriate agencies for dealing with environmental matters.

All these discussions are overshadowed now by the fourth lesson concerning the need to feed all the smaller scale conflict discussions, and the debate about resources, scarcity, development, and peacemaking, back into the larger concerns with global environmental change in general (United Nations Environment Programme 2007), and climate change in particular (German Advisory Council on Global Change 2008). This is so because, to put the matter bluntly, the success of the global economy in making some of humanity rich has come at the expense of disruptions of numerous aspects of the biosphere; major economic changes are clearly needed to reverse some of these tendencies, and the sooner policies to do so are implemented the easier climate change will be to deal with (Stern 2007).

In 2007 the environment forcefully reentered the security discussion at the largest of scales. A number of reports by security think tanks and NGOs coincided that year with a high profile United Nations Security Council debate on climate change (Campbell et al. 2007; CNA Corporation 2007; Smith and Vivekananda 2007). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report on climate change science (2007), and the recognition of the importance of all this in 2007 when the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for his documentary movie on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, highlighted the issue. While neither the IPCC nor Al Gore’s movie explicitly discussed security, it is important to note that this was a peace prize, not one for science. The Nobel Committee clearly suggested that the potential conflicts that might occur, if climate was not tackled, were serious enough to deserve the peace prize in recognition of these scientific and popular efforts to deal with the issue.

Dealing with the issue requires paying attention to the fifth lesson from the environmental security debate. This suggests that there are very considerable possibilities for cooperation on environmental themes, and cross-border initiatives frequently enhance cooperation on other matters (Conca and Dabelko 2002). These may offer important opportunities for peacebuilding, but will only do so if the analytical and policy focus is shifted from potential conflicts to the possibilities of innovative institutions facilitating coexistence (Bencala and Dabelko 2008). Responding to climate change will need these institutions; rethinking security so that the appropriate policies to deal with the impacts of climate change are ready is a key part of the contemporary debate. But acting to reduce emissions, something that cannot be done by military action or traditional security preparation, is now absolutely essential.

Thus we now have to think very carefully about the appropriate geopolitical contexts in which we should consider environment and conflict (Dalby 2009). The geopolitical issue facing security scholars and policy makers now is nothing less than the question as to whether we continue to understand ourselves as citizens of territorial states in potential conflict with each other over access to resources, or whether we reimagine ourselves as part of an ecological system which we are collectively disrupting and in which we have no choice but to cooperate so as to live together in the future.

Disciplines and Policy Discourse

The discussions over the last couple of decades about conflict and environment have at times been rancorous, sometimes humorous, but have rarely come to widely agreed consensus on core themes. Not least this is because academic research in different disciplines frequently focuses on different issues and uses different methods at a variety of scales. Policy formulations, in turn, frequently reproduce the administrative logics of states regardless of the scholarly findings.

What is notable about Thomas Homer-Dixon’s (1991) intervention in the early 1990s is that he did not unquestioningly accept the basic premise of environment causing conflict, and turned from a wide ranging policy discussion to try some detailed empirical work that would establish the parameters of how environmental change might be a problem, and specifically how it might lead to what he called acute conflict. The complaints by Nils Petter Gleditsch (1998) in general about the discussion of environment and conflict focused on the lack of clear evidence that environmental change caused war, something that Homer-Dixon (1994) had already suggested was unlikely.

Geographers who work in the field of what has become known as political ecology were annoyed that Homer-Dixon’s analysis apparently ignored their contribution and the sheer complexity of the relationships between environment and violence in many places (Peluso and Watts 2001). But the failure to speak across disciplines has not gone away in the intervening years. A recent case in point is the appearance of a comprehensive paper in the prestigious Annals of the Association of American Geographers on land wars and Brazil which does not cite the peace research literature on resource wars, much of which at least appears to be relevant to the conflict in the south of Para (Simmons et al. 2007). These difficulties of cross-disciplinary dialogue remain; they certainly do not help in generating appropriate policy discussion.

Economists and political scientists concerned with national datasets as the empirical source for discussions of war and conflict focused on resources and exports rather than environments and not surprisingly ended up suggesting the importance of these factors in causing conflict (O’Lear and Diehl 2007). All these debates continue to this day, suggesting both the complexity of matters under investigation, and clearly that different disciplines explain things in different ways, which may not be compatible (Korf 2006). The difficulty is not solved by the simple addition of multiple disciplines because what is deemed an appropriate method is not clear. Neither is there agreement on what counts for evidence given different notions of both conflict and environment, not to mention resources and scarcity, used in the discussion. The timing of the initiation of violent conflicts is also important, and the duration once they start too (Korf 2005). Where migration of animals is involved, as it is in places in Africa, conflicts between herders and pastoralists may be a seasonal matter as different modes of extracting a living collide at particular times (Baechler 1999). These matters are not likely to be caught in national scale economic statistics that are grist for the economist’s mill. But in turn the micro-level analysis of rural sociology and geography may not integrate the local well with larger global economic changes that determine matters of price and market access for local production (de Soysa 2002).

It was precisely such complexities that led scholars involved in the NATO investigations of these matters in the late 1990s to pose a whole series of syndromes of change to try to encapsulate the multiple variations of environmental change that might cause conflict (Lietzmann and Vest 1999). It is likewise crucial to recognize that different circumstances produce different modes of conflict, and the social organizations and cultural logics of particular peoples are key to understanding where conflict might arise, the circumstances in which it persists, and the possibilities for conflict resolution (Suliman 1999). Whether conflict turns violent or not is a matter related to institutions and the possibility of adaptation, negotiation, and mitigation in a crisis. Lessons from one case may be transferable but the specific contexts may preclude this (Bohle 2007); empirical investigation of particular cases is needed.

The burgeoning field of political ecology in particular made it clear in the 1990s that blaming rural ignorance and bad management practices for environmental problems was at least misleading in most cases (Peluso and Watts 2001). The case of the failure of either the Chinese or Indian states to incorporate new approaches into thinking about the Himalayan region in the aftermath of the realization that earlier arguments about the causes of erosion in the mountains were seriously misleading, illustrates that scholarly research is not enough to get policy agendas to change (Blaikie and Muldavin 2004). Political discourses drive policy; sometimes much more so than does the academic research.

Overarching this is the question of political power, and the ability of elites to use it to further their ends, not all of which are necessarily peaceful. Civil wars are often tied into the political economy of resource extraction (Ross 2004). At the heart of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s (1999) analysis is an important point related to structural scarcity; in a crisis elites often act to enhance their control over contested resources and are frequently willing to use violence to accomplish change. In short the whole Malthusian assumption of scarcity causing violence is not a tenable premise for serious scholarship, nor for much policy advice (Urdal 2005); the actions of state elites are frequently much more important than rural shortages (Kahl 2006). While much more remains to be researched it is worth emphasizing that the frequent neo-Malthusian claims in the popular literature do not have any clear empirical support in the scholarly research (Nordas and Gleditsch 2008).

This might not necessarily seem to be a particularly helpful insight, but in fact, given the propensity for policy institutions to reinvent Malthusian arguments every few years, and to portray the poor and dispossessed as a security threat to modernity, the point is actually of very considerable importance. This is doubly so when anxieties about population are coupled to larger cultural fears of disease and other environmental anxieties in the context of the war on terror and the widespread use of fear as a political strategy (Hartmann et al. 2005). It is especially important in thinking carefully about scenarios for the immediate future which might induce conflict, and when using such thinking to speculate about appropriate security policies in the face of climate change.

Contexts and Scale

The global resource conflicts premised on arguments about scarcity that are frequently invoked these days are mostly about oil. They are about old patterns of geopolitical rivalry, about the persistent attempt on the part of the American elites to use military force to control the trade in oil in the Middle East (Klare 2004; Bacevich 2005). The efforts to find new sources of oil, and the persistent rivalries over controlling supplies and the huge profits to be had from oil when the price is high, have focused attention once again on Africa as a source of raw materials for the global economy, and suggest one more “scramble for Africa” is currently under way (Carmody and Owusu 2007). But none of that suggests that a global war for resources is being fought as such, at least not yet. The ability to control the flow of petroleum to Asia is undoubtedly a key component in strategic thinking in Washington, where China is understood to be an emerging geopolitical competitor (Klare 2008).

Petroleum is not about scarcity at the margins; it is not about violence caused by shortages but about control over an abundant resource that is the key to so much in the global economy. The global economy spreads such conflicts across national boundaries so impacts of consumption in one place are frequently displaced into other states and regions in a global economy of resource supplies (Simpson 2007). It may be about control over the global trade and about who controls access to the particular sources of supply, but this is not a resource over which marginalized Third World peasantry are directly fighting. As recent scholarship has emphasized, peasants are frequently displaced by the expansion of commercial agriculture and the extraction of resources from remote places to feed the consumption patterns in the metropoles (Tucker 2007).

It has long been the rural poor in many places that find themselves in the way when large energy, forestry, and agricultural projects are set in motion to feed the global economy (Baviscar 2008). In so far as they resist they too can be considered part of the relationship between environment and conflict, but once again it is not about scarcity or environmental resources; rather, it is about their being in the wrong place as far as development is concerned (Gedicks 2001). Where violence occurs in struggles over the impacts of “development projects” it is also worth noting that the conflicts in many cases may be about arguments over compensation for the disruptions of traditional livelihoods at least as much as direct opposition to the “development” (Walton and Barnett 2008), an important point that might be most useful for at least some policy initiatives. This point might become especially important in the coming years if, as seemed to be the case in 2007, agricultural biofuels are promoted as the solution to both oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, and this in turn further accelerates the spread of large scale industrial agriculture that displaces subsistence farmers and small scale producers.

How such conflicts play out, and the crucial matter of how they might turn violent, is usually context dependent, and related to the institutional structures that facilitate or prevent adaptation. Despite widespread Malthusian fears, the empirical record repeatedly shows that the link between environmental degradation and civil conflict is weak, and related to institutions and civil capacities more than to environmental factors (Baechler 1999; Homer-Dixon 1999; Kahl 2006). Given the rural transformations as commercial agriculture in particular has spread and displaced subsistence modes in many places, this is perhaps better understood in terms of development. The 2007 United Nations Human Development Report explicitly recognizes this in specifying matters in the subtitle as “Climate for Development” (United Nations Development Program 2007).

Working out how rural change happens in specific places, and where it might cause conflict, is a matter for anthropologists, geographers, and other social scientists sensitive to context, fieldwork, and the small scale (Bohle 2007). But this does not provide for easy to generalize data that lends itself to quantitative analyses of the sort that economists interested in cross-national comparisons might consider to be appropriate scholarly methods (Korf 2006). Neither does a focus on small scale field studies necessarily resolve matters; as some researchers have discovered, even small rural communities that might reasonably be assumed to be largely dependent on local resources are frequently more tied into the larger operation of the commercial economy than they expect (Haag and Hajdu 2005).

This review of the literature suggests the sheer complexity of matters related to resources and the great difficulty scholars have in formulating appropriate notions of scale in all this (Dalby 2007; O’Lear and Diehl 2007). How to contextualize is made especially difficult when it is clear that the global economy ties so many places together in commodity chains that span the globe (Dauvergne 2008). Boycotts and “fair trade” certifications, policy instruments related to “blood” diamonds, and international campaigns on such matters as working conditions and child labor make it clear that many resources that are in conflict in one way or another are in some senses unavoidably “global” (Le Billon 2007).

Borders and nation-states also become difficult concepts in the attempts by many policy makers to “sink” carbon emissions from fossil fuel use in the global “North” by using such things as forestry plantations in the “South.” Part of the discussion about clean development mechanisms and the Kyoto Protocol designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions involved precisely these ideas (Lecocq and Ambrosi 2007). This might fairly directly link global consumption to very local conflict where land uses are disrupted and traditional ways relocated to make way for the plantations. Once again the causes of such violence are about the expansion of the larger global political economy rather than obviously indigenous causes of conflict (Roberts and Parks 2007); getting the geographies of this clear is important if metropolitan policies are to be considered in terms of their likely peripheral impact, a key point in understanding environmental insecurities (Dalby 2002).

Such reflections also make questions of international environmental action complicated – nowhere more so than in Robyn Eckersley’s (2007) ambitious attempt to extend the humanitarian intervention debate into matters of ecological defense and the right to intervention in the face of a major disaster or the extirpation of an important habitat or species. But quite why the international community might intervene in a case such as the threatened eradication of the great apes in Rwanda, as she suggests, when it failed to intervene to save thousands of Rwandans in 1994, is not so clear. Taking the argument seriously suggests that many of those in the “South” whose lives – and in the case of low lying island states, even the existence of their states – are in jeopardy as a result of climate change caused mostly by Northern consumption have a much better justification for intervening in the North to stop the profligate consumption of fossil fuels that threaten them, than those Northerners have for intervening in the South on whatever “environmental” grounds (Dalby 2009).

Anthropocene Security?

Numerous recent reports (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007; United Nations Environment Programme 2007; German Advisory Council on Global Change 2008) make clear that a substantial disruption of the climate system is already under way. Where this causes droughts or floods people relying directly on subsistence agriculture will be especially vulnerable (Smith and Vivekananda 2007), and in so far as these people move, or their societies are destabilized by these events, the international repercussions clearly have security dimensions that have finally caught the attention of policy makers and think tanks in the metropoles (CNA Corporation 2007) as well as that of security analysts concerned to examine future likely trends (Pumphrey 2008). Africa is high on numerous lists, given that climate models suggest further drying of the continent that may aggravate food shortages and induce further migration and conflict (Brown et al. 2007). Attempts to reconstruct the historical record and project these in to the future, however, suggest that short term rainfall fluctuations rather than long term gradual changes seem more likely to be triggers for conflict (Hendrix and Glaser 2007). The simple fact that rising sea levels threaten a number of members of the United Nations with inundation and effectively with termination as a state with a geographical territory adds impetus to the discussion of these matters in terms of security (Barnett 2005).

Thinking about security as requiring both adaptation and mitigation simultaneously is now necessary if ecology and the changing biosphere are the taken for granted context for research and policy formulation. The Anthropocene marks the new human condition in that we are actively remaking the ecological context of our times, and doing so at an accelerating pace (Steffen et al. 2007). The environment is no longer out there, separate from human activities, but rather we are living in a biosphere that we are actively remaking. This is not only a matter of atmospheric change and climate modifications as a result of the emissions from “carboniferous capitalism” but also in terms of land use changes which continue to change the vegetation and animal life of the planet dramatically, pollution and fishing in the oceans, the introduction of new chemicals into all parts of the biosphere, and such things as the re-plumbing of most of the major rivers of the planet (United Nations Environmental Programme 2007).

Insecurity is now a matter both at the largest scale in which we are changing the atmosphere and probably making extreme weather events more frequent, and also now of the vulnerabilities manufactured by the artificial and urban landscapes we increasingly live within. It directly relates to matters of development and how this might now be rethought to anticipate the difficulties in store for poor and vulnerable people in many places (United Nations Development Programme 2007). This suggests that both adaptation and mitigation are needed, but implementation requires an approach that combines both so that adaptation is planned while using technologies that mitigate emissions. The solar panel is emblematic of what is needed: energy with no inputs and no emissions that can run anywhere there is sunlight no matter what disasters and disruptions may occur elsewhere.

All of these considerations apply in relation to disaster when preparations before, and reactions in the early days afterwards, matter greatly to affected people. While disasters might not apparently be understood as being part of environmental change, and hence not appropriate matters for consideration in a discussion of environmental security, the old joke about disasters simply being fast environmental change, and environmental change being slow disasters, suggests a direct relevance precisely because the vector of change is usually some form of “natural” phenomenon. As international research and policy initiatives on disasters make clear, numbers of victims of disasters are increasing, and many people are killed in small disasters, the ones that do not make many international headlines (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction 2007). Such routine hazards are a widespread source of human insecurity, and in some cases where political institutions fail to respond they lead to conflict and political insecurity (Nel and Righarts 2008).

Wars and political instabilities are also forms of disaster, but the disruptions of the biosphere, of which climate change is only the most high profile, increasingly suggest that storms and vulnerabilities due to people living in places subject to the ravages of “natural” events are increasingly a matter of artificial environments in which vulnerability due to social and political phenomena plays itself out. In a world of lengthy food chains and possibly more severe hurricanes (Shepherd and Knutson 2007), the context for change is increasingly artificial; this is the point about the Anthropocene as a new geological era; it might also be understood as the physical manifestations of globalization, a phenomenon that is about moving materials quite as much as moving money or changing identities (Dalby 2009).

Globalization is a matter of constructing new urban spaces, ones where the majority of humanity now lives. It is a physical process of environmental change which unavoidably challenges the conventional thinking about security (Brauch et al. 2008). Vulnerabilities and the possibilities of either cooperation or peacebuilding, or conflict and violence play out in these increasingly artificial landscapes (Renner and Chafe 2007). While environmental matters related to conflict are usually understood in terms of rural matters and usually among the marginal populations of the global South, the Anthropocene suggests that as we become an urban species the disruptions we have set in motion on the large scale will play out in the artificial landscapes of our “planet of slums,” to borrow Mike Davis’s (2006) provocative formulation. But whether these slums are portrayed as the source of threats to the neoliberal economic progress of the future which require security policies to contain, or are seen as thriving human communities whose lot in life can be aided, and for whom timely infrastructure provision will be needed to help them survive climate disruptions, matters greatly in terms of how security might now be understood.

Adaptations to deal with disaster, like the Cuban model where neighborhood planning and basic shelter provision have saved numerous lives (Sims and Vogelmann 2002), suggest all sorts of possibilities for human security. These innovations are ones where survival networks and a mobilized citizenry are key, rather than the operation of commercial contractors and external military interventions where that citizenry is seen as the problem to be controlled, rather than the active agents of resilient response to disaster. In so far as militaries understand their primary responsibilities as population protection then they can assist greatly (Foster 2005), but if security in the face of climate change gets reinterpreted as suppressing migration and protecting the property of the affluent, then using military force will be counterproductive to human security.

Climate Change Scenarios

The greatest difficulty in all the discussion about environmental security and climate change is the simple but important point that, as in so much security planning, future threats are the focus of analysis. Inevitably speculation is involved in terms of likely threats from where and to what. When it comes to thinking through environmental matters, this is even more complicated given the multiplicity of factors to be considered. Nils Petter Gleditsch’s (1998) pointed reminder that the future is not evidence – scenarios are only suggestive and subject to all sorts of untestable assumptions – has to be kept in mind. Nonetheless, given that projections into the future are part of the discussion, and inevitably provide the context within which plans are made, a brief discussion is warranted here.

In tackling this task the writers of The Age of Consequences (Campbell et al. 2007; see also Campbell 2008) make clear that scenarios that focus only on what is considered most likely are less useful than those that sketch out plausible possibilities. Not least this is because science is frequently conservative and consequently underestimates change. The IPCC review process, which summarizes the scientific literature for policy makers, is also slow, and hence at least somewhat out of date by the time the review process produces each major assessment report. The Age of Consequences analysis suggests that things may be changing faster than the climate models suggest, and hence prudence requires that three scenarios be considered: the expected future; the severe case; and the worst plausible situation, aptly simply called the catastrophic case.

Looking forward to 2040, they argue that in the case of the expected future, with average global temperature increase of 1.3°C, the least that needs to be planned for is “heightened internal and cross-border tensions caused by large-scale migrations; conflict sparked by resource scarcity, particularly in the weak and failing states of Africa; increased disease proliferation, which will have economic consequences; and some geopolitical reordering as nations adjust to shifts in resources and prevalence of disease” (Campbell et al. 2007:6). More serious is the severe case of a 2.6°C increase, where nonlinear responses by the climate system kick in, so that “The internal cohesion of nations will be under great stress, including in the United States, both as a result of a dramatic rise in migration and changes in agricultural patterns and water availability. The flooding of coastal communities around the world, especially in the Netherlands, the United States, South Asia, and China, has the potential to challenge regional and even national identities. Armed conflict between nations over resources, such as the Nile and its tributaries, is likely and nuclear war is possible. The social consequences range from increased religious fervor to outright chaos” (Campbell et al. 2007:7). The catastrophic scenario based on 5.6°C increase by 2100 is worse still; any scenario this extreme and so far into the future stretches credulity, but in the executive summary to the report the authors suggest provocatively that: “The scenario notes that understanding climate change in light of the other great threat of our age, terrorism, can be illuminating. Although distinct in nature, both threats are linked to energy use in the industrialized world, and, indeed, the solutions to both depend on transforming the world’s energy economy – America’s energy economy in particular. The security community must come to grips with these linkages, because dealing with only one of these threats in isolation is likely to exacerbate the other, while dealing with them together can provide important synergies” (Campbell et al. 2007:7).

The complexity of the interconnections is key to understanding possible outcomes, and the German Advisory Council’s (2008) report on these things presents a much more comprehensive evaluation of multiple conflict constellations concerning degradation of freshwater resources, decline in food production, storm and flood disasters, and environmentally induced migration. These constellations are most likely to have security implications in a series of regional hotspots which span the globe: polar ice cap melting leads to sea level increases globally; North African migration to Europe is already happening; droughts in the Sahel may increase food shortages, likewise in Southern Africa; Central Asia is vulnerable to water shortages due to glaciers disappearing, so too are Pakistan and India, which depend on meltwater flowing into their major rivers to feed hundreds of millions; China too depends on glacial meltwater and it is vulnerable to sea level rise on its long coast too; the Caribbean is especially vulnerable if hurricane frequency increases, as may happen; glaciers melt in the Andes too; the deforestation of the Amazon may accelerate climate change there, with droughts replacing tropical rainfall. As the literature discussed above makes clear, precise predictions over which of these constellations might turn violent depend more on political institutions and elite actions than they do on solely environmental factors.

While neither the Age of Consequences nor the German Advisory Council’s warnings focus on the extreme violence of a nuclear war, Gwynne Dyer’s (2008) eloquent popular exposition of the possibilities of climate wars does suggest that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan over water shortages after the glaciers have gone in a couple of decades time is in fact a plausible outcome. Plausible, that is, in the absence of peacebuilding efforts in the meantime, and appropriate cooperative planning for how to deal with the entirely predictable end of the Himalayan glaciers in coming decades.

Security Policy and Peacebuilding

In all the discussion of environmental security over the last few decades perhaps the most remarkable historical finding is the absence of wars that are obviously caused by environmental factors. The fact that this is the case is key to both the literature on peace parks and the broader discussions of environmental diplomacy and peacemaking (Conca and Dabelko 2002). Precisely because environmental matters are important to many but not a direct cause of warfare suggests the possibility of conflict mitigation and peacebuilding (Bencala and Dabelko 2008). Hence international cooperation on peace parks acts as a confidence building measure and establishes patterns of cooperation that reduce the likelihood of disputes escalating to warfare (Ali 2007). Even disasters provide opportunities for aid, diplomacy, and cooperation across borders and within societies that can facilitate development and peacemaking (Renner and Chafe 2007). Military agencies are frequently called to provide assistance, logistics, and transport in the aftermath of disasters, and the possibilities for confidence building and peaceful cooperation in the face of common difficulties are considerable (Foster 2005).

Asking the right question in the first place is key to good policy making, and assuming that the question is clear in advance seems to be one of the key problems with much of the scholarly and policy literature on environmental conflict for the last two decades. Kahl’s (2006) summary of the environmental conflict literature struggles bravely to encapsulate the whole debate, but at the end the lack of a common understanding is not surprising given the multiplicity of scholarly approaches involved. Precisely what question is posed is of course crucial, and here, where policy agendas drive research, as they so frequently do, the question of who poses the question and how it fits larger institutional mandates cannot be avoided. Thinking through the connections in commodity chains and the violence that might be averted by international political strategies to manage the commodities is part of the puzzle (Le Billon 2007). But likewise an explicit focus on peacebuilding here is also relevant, not least because of the fairly robust empirical finding, especially in the investigations of water wars, that environmental matters frequently lead to cooperation, because of the geographical and physical attributes that make violent conflict counterproductive for all concerned (Giordano et al. 2005).

The overall context for all this is now increasingly understood as a matter of globalization (Brauch et al. 2008). Globalization is about more than economics; it increasingly is about the changing physical circumstances of humanity, and the fact that we have recently become an urban species. In the process we have displaced other species, re-plumbed many of the terrestrial water systems, cleared forests, exploited animal and fish food sources, and extended the supply chains to feed, fuel, and build our cities all over the planet. Now our multiple vulnerabilities are in part a matter of these long commodity chains, in part a matter of the artificial habitats we have constructed for ourselves, and now too a matter of increased vulnerability to hazards that are no longer so obviously “natural.” Globalization has changed the ecological context of our existence both directly and indirectly; we face a double exposure to artificial vulnerabilities within the global economy and to the increasing hazards as a result of ecological disruptions caused by that urban existence (O’Brien and Leichenko 2008). In so far as human security is to be understood in terms of environment then some notion of a freedom from natural hazard also needs to be incorporated into the agenda (Brauch 2005).

Where in the larger ecological flows that are increasingly being modified and redirected by human activities a particular issue lies seems to be the key consideration for discussing specific security policy initiatives and peacebuilding; in the words of Wolfgang Sachs and Tilman Santarius (2007), a “fair future” requires tracing these connections and simultaneously reducing overconsumption while ensuring sustainable commodity provision in the global economy. Hence empowering sustainable agriculture while reducing the disruptions by huge mining projects simultaneously tackles poverty in the case of agricultural development, while avoiding the potential for disruptions causing conflict over environmental damage and compensation. Thinking in terms of these kinds of ecological flows changes the context for peacebuilding by focusing not just on local institutions but on the larger economic and ecological connections to conflict and the possibilities of sustainable development directly linked to ecological considerations. This is all key to the notion of sustainable security (Rogers 2008).

On the largest scale this argument connects up with concerns about warfare in the Middle East and the case for renewable energy reducing American dependence in particular on imports of petroleum (Klare 2008). The green economy argument suggests that decarbonizing the global economy has the double benefit of reducing the violence over resource extraction and simultaneously reducing the disruptions caused by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (Paterson and Dalby 2009). Likewise in the case of disruptions, not being dependent on lengthy supply chains improves resilience. Disconnecting metropolitan reliance on essential petroleum supplies from the periphery is a sustainable security strategy from both ends (Bacevich 2008)! But this is a strategy that requires tackling matters of climate justice and thinking intelligently about the long term consequences of contemporary modes of economy (Vanderheiden 2008); carbon released today may still be in the atmosphere or in the oceans generations from now, causing climate disruptions long after this generation and its technologies are gone. In so far as the contemporary doctrine of the responsibility to protect applies to global security, the imperative of sustainable development, spelled out in the Brundtland Commission, whereby present generations use what they need in a manner designed to leave necessities intact for the future, applies also to the responsibility to future generations to protect their ecological context.

This suggests that in one important sense peace is about building, about institutions, but also about structures and transportation systems that minimize energy consumption while paying attention to the links between rural and urban places in an interconnected world (Sachs and Santarius 2007). Peacebuilding is literally about building things that are ecologically sustainable without having violent repercussions either locally or at a distance. Thinking about buildings, and the possibilities of structures that draw on local materials rather than distant concrete factories, solar energy rather than fossil fuels, and local social survival mechanisms rather than the instant solutions of foreign expert contractors suggests a much more ecologically sustainable mode of providing security.

In short, taking environmental change seriously requires a very different notion of security from that inherited from the Cold War era. Climate change has now made this point indisputable; the increasingly artificial contexts of human vulnerability only emphasize the point.


All of this suggests the importance of an ecological interpretation of events and human populations, rather than a top–down state centric view of things where the government runs things from the capital city. In James Scott’s (1998) terms, “seeing like a state” is in many ways still a problem where urban elites manipulate rural matters for their own enrichment. Ecological metaphors of social organization suggest that adaptability and innovation without control from central government may offer many possibilities. Traditional social networks and marketing arrangements have much to offer in a crisis. But these may be foreclosed so long as poor urban and rural populations are understood as a security problem that needs to be managed as either a state building project or as peoples in need of modernization by contemporary neoliberalism. If adaptation is a matter of movement, then if states view migration as a threat and invoke military action to deal with this “security” problem, the fate of the poor and marginal becomes even more difficult (Smith 2007). Simply invoking traditional notions of security as external threats to a single state fails to grapple with the interconnectedness of ecology and economy.

In so far as states and municipal governments provide basic infrastructure, sanitation, and public health systems, and make plans for emergency assistance where disaster strikes, the human security of the population is enhanced (Brauch 2005). But where the poor in their slums are understood as a threat to a political order that emphasizes international markets, and development as the promotion of enclaves of modernity, foreign based tourism, and commodity exports, then the militarization of development is likely to remain a temptation for state elites (Davis 2006). The militarization of many conflicts in the global periphery, as has been done in the “war on terror,” is more likely to make matters more difficult rather than facilitate peacebuilding or sustainable development (Rogers 2008).

By now it is clear that the causes of many of the disruptions are not indigenous factors in the South, but rather the global economy and the strategies of the rich and powerful to sustain their current modes of urban consumption. We are increasingly changing those contexts and making artificial connections between people across the globe as we transform the biosphere so much that we now live in the new geological era of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al. 2004). Cold War vintage security is simply inappropriate to grapple with the new threats; any policy that once again tries to specify the poor and marginal as threats to the affluent is now obviously counterproductive given that the poor and marginal are not the perpetrators of the significant environmental disruptions causing climate change. The earth system science explains that we have to understand the global economy as a new ecological forcing mechanism in the biosphere, not something separate, in some senses an external “environment” that can somehow be controlled by the application of force.

All this requires a very different understanding of security and a recognition of the changed geopolitical circumstances of the Anthropocene. Given the failure of many state governments to grapple with the scale and complexity of the issue so far, Nick Mabey (2007) has suggested that in fact the military, with their institutional mandate to think about threats to state existence, and their focus on the long term and grand strategy, may be the human institutions most suited to alerting governments and publics about the need to tackle the climate change issue. Given that rapid onset climate change threatens political stability, and indeed the survival of some states, and the military is powerless to do much about these dangers, then in terms of national security this has to be understood as an existential threat worthy of top priority from political elites. But if these issues are to be addressed, they have to be tackled by diplomacy and development cooperation; traditional military analysts can raise the alarm but they cannot address the dangers to which they alert policy makers.


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