The Environment as a Potential Threat to National Security

By Andrea Kellum

The environment as a potential threat to national security is a recent issue in the political science debates. Nevertheless, there is no unanimity about the core of the argument. It is not clear what precisely the environmental issue is, when it is a national security issue, or how we can manage the threat.  

There are three broad schools of thought on the issue. First of all are those academics who are concerned that environmental degradation is such a serious threat for national security that it may lead to interstate wars caused by the scarcity of resources. A second group try to distinguish between empirical proof and theoretical analysis, in order to demonstrate that a just vision of the environment can drive us to pay attention to ecological terms (i.e. limiting pollution) not to political ones. The third group is scarcely worried about the possible perception of the environment as a threat for governments: this approach considered it as a merely catastrophic discussion, without any foundation.

Author Norman Myers in his book Ultimate Security defines environmental security as “access to water, food, shelter, health, employment, and other basic requisites that are the due of every person … the collectivity of these citizen needs – overall safety and quality of life – that should figure prominently in the nation’s view of security”.  According to this classification, it will be argued that it is a mistake to elevate the environment as a main cause of future instability. Nonetheless it is unlikely that conceptualising the environment in terms of threat will cause a destabilised world dominated by uncertainty.

When an issue is elevated to the level of national priority, it usually means that a particular object is considered indispensable for the values it represents (moral, political, economic, social). With the exclusion of 43 states members of the Alliance of Small Islands States (AOSIS) that consider the environment to be an issue of the most importance, nations still are not ready to classify the safeguarding of the environment as a recognised and vital value in their societies. For these reasons we cannot consider it as a national issue. On the other hand, environmental degradation is becoming a threat or, at least, it could become one.

Environmental security roots are traceable from the 1960s, with incredibly different views. At the beginning, during the 1970s, thanks to several NGOs, attention was put on the degrading ecology status; later in the 1980s the commencement of international summits and agreements on environmental issues were aimed at avoiding any kind of natural disaster caused by human hands. During the 1990s the US committed to go beyond compliance by embracing innovation, process redesign, and pollution prevention strategies, but today, environmental security is occupying a secondary position in the security agenda.

The link between environment and a direct threat to national security has received attention from experts, mainly because it refers to national power. Although this approach seems strictly connected to the classical state-centric consideration of national security, especially weak states, usually poor or developing countries suffer new challenges: environmental change, population growth and irregular distribution of resources. Environmental degradation will cause their economic strife and subsequently their political ruin. Rapidly, this local insecurity will turn into a global one.

Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Nigeria and Ghana are a few examples furnished by Robert D. Kaplan in his book The Coming Anarchy: “disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated”. Moreover, there are continued struggles between the Turkish state and the Kurdish population in eastern Turkey because of the presence in this region of major Turkish hydroelectric projects that control crucial water flows into Syria and Iraq. Possible other conflicts will take place in the name of water in the Nile Delta region (between Egypt and Ethiopia) and in the European Danube area (between Hungary and Slovakia). Furthermore, there are other interesting cases of environmental changes on the international equilibrium highlighted by Chatham House in the 2007 report titled How climate change is pushing the boundaries of security and foreign policy: redefinition of international maritime boundaries (US-Cuba), erosion of shore-line in coastal States (Bangladesh), small islands states suffering for sea-level (Tuvalu in South Pacific), access to natural resources (Himalaya) and damage of infrastructures (South China Sea, Hurricane Katrina). 

There is no doubt that considering greenhouse gasses as a threat for the national security will constitute an unstable world dominated by wars in the name of ecology causing a militarisation of environmental policy, it is not possible to empirically measure the effect of the environmental threat to the national security. In any case for the moment there are no empirical examples that environmental scarcities are already contributing to violent conflicts in developing countries: according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data “evidence suggests that the environment plays a relatively minor role as a directcause of violent conflict”.

On the one hand, for what concerns natural activities (natural phenomena that cause consequences to human life), the implications of the environment in terms of international security are not creating a security dilemma for now. On the other hand, for what concerns human activities the environment suffers an intrinsic dichotomy: it can be an opportunity or become a threat. In the short-term it is advantageous for our progress because of the utilisation of natural resources. In the long-term the way in which we are managing it without any ratio or attention to the future generations is dangerous. Nonetheless, what is requested from nations and people is to change their development model in order to not make a choice in the future between environment and economic prosperity; that is, to avoid a possible future problem.

For these reasons it is recommended to think in terms of what we can do to address environmental security without reflecting its ambivalences.


Andrea Kellum holds a BA in International Studies, an MSc in International Security at University of Bristol and an MA in Diplomatic and Strategic Studies. He is currently working in the Department of Research and Development at Link Campus University in Rome.


30 November 2012