Outline of Some Issues To Be Considered by the Working Group on Environmental Change and Security

The general theme ‘environmental change and security’ encompasses many issues. This is partly because the terms ‘environmental change’ and ‘security’ are imprecise.

Regarding ‘security’, should the Working Group adhere to the rather narrow traditional meaning of the term within political science that emphasizes military activities and safety from overt conflict? Or should we expand the term’s meaning to include such matters as domestic socio-economic well-being, health and intergenerational equity? We might be tempted to broaden the definition, because the possible links between environmental change and security are thereby greatly multiplied, which makes the problem seem more interesting. But such a broadening could make ‘security’ almost synonymous with ‘well-being’ and this could bring too many issues within the Working Group’s ambit

As for the phrase ‘environmental change’, security specialists have usually narrowly interpreted this to mean ‘climate change’. Undoubtedly the Working Group should additionally consider such problems as deforestation and the degradation of agricultural land, as well as problems associated with water resources such as the pollution and overuse of rivers and the depletion of fish stocks.

If we use the standard, somewhat restrictive definition of ‘security’ and a fairly encompassing definition of ‘environmental change’, I see four quite distinct issues the Working Group might address:

  1. The Possible Effects of Environmental Change on Security. This is the most obvious and, I believe, the most important issue for researchers. There are many scenarios: environmental change may shift the balance of power between nations either regionally or globally, producing instabilities that could lead to war. Or, as global environmental damage becomes more obvious, nations of North and South may quarrel over who is responsible for the damage and who should pay for mitigating it. And poor nations may fight over dwindling and uncertain supplies of water, agriculturally productive land, and fish. In general, environmental change will probably ‘ratchet up’ the level of stress in the international system, increasing the likelihood of conflict and impeding the search for cooperative solutions.
    Researchers need to identify here both the mechanisms by which environmental change might affect security and the regions where these mechanisms might operate. In other words, researchers must answer two questions: How will environmental change lead to threats to security? And where will such threats appear?
  2. The Possible Effects of Security Activities on the Environment. If the first issue above concerns the causal arrow going from environmental change to security, here we are interested in the reverse arrow from security to environmental change. It is increasingly clear that military activities have had a striking impact on the national and global environment. Again researchers need to address the two questions of ‘how?’ and ‘where?’.
  3. The Opportunity Cost (with Respect to Environmental Protection) of Investing Resources in Security Activities. A number of commentators have juxtaposed current investments in military activities with current investments in environmental protection. This juxtaposition is particularly common now, because people are speculating about the possible uses of the ‘peace dividend’ arising from reduced military spending.
  4. The Possible Effects of Environmental Change on Our Contemporary Understanding of the International System. Global change could seriously challenge the theory (or ‘discourse’) of international reality that currently constitutes and legitimizes international actors and guides international actions, including states’ security behavior. It may force humankind to revise the whole interlinked network of concepts such as ‘state’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘national interest’, and ‘balance of power’. Global environmental problems may not be adequately explained or solved within this current framework. Researchers could therefore explore the literature on conceptual schemes — both cooperative and conflictual — that humankind might develop as alternatives to our present understanding of international affairs.

As noted, I believe the first issue above — concerning the effects of environmental change on security — is the most important. A number of scholars in North America have begun to address this question. In the United States, Jessica Mathews at the World Resources Institute has written an important article in Foreign Affairs. Janet Brown, also at WRI, and Gareth Porter at American University have prepared a book of four regional case studies.

At Worldwatch, Michael Renner and Jodi Jacobson have been working on environmental security and environmental refugee issues. The Pacific Institute in Berkeley, under the direction of Peter Gleick and Ronnie Lipschultz, is undertaking a number of studies on sustainable resource development and contentious river basins. They are focusing in particular on how states might develop cooperative regimes to resolve environmental disputes. In November, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in collaboration with the Centre for Global Change at the University of Maryland, convened a large workshop to conduct an introductory and wide-ranging survey of climate change and international security.

In Canada, the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security recently held a conference (under the direction of Fen Hampson) on climate change, global security, and international institutions. Maurice Strong, in association with IIASA and the World Federation of United Nations Associations, has proposed a World Commission on Global Security. At the Department of Defence, Colonel Ian Cowan and Dr. Chris Tucker have been considering the implications of climate change for Canadian defence policy. And the Peace and Conflict Program at the University of Toronto is planning a multi-year joint research project with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on environmental change and conflict.

Much of this current research in North America is important and constructive, but most is still very preliminary. Even skilled analysts have not penetrated the problem in a creative and insightful way. There seem to be numerous reasons for this, which may be worth considering in our discussions:

  • Researchers have emphasized climate change to the neglect of severe terrestrial and aquatic environmental problems.
  • Researchers have not clearly recognized the need to separate their analysis of the mechanisms by which environmental change could lead to conflict from their analysis of the regions that will be most susceptible to particular kinds of environmentally-derived conflict. In other words, they have not adequately separated the ‘how’ question from the ‘where’ question.
  • Causation is very indirect; that is, there are many causal steps between a specific environmental stress and a specific threat to security. However, the underlying influence of environmental factors may be great.
  • It is difficult for researchers to estimate the complex interactions and multiple social effects of diverse and simultaneous environmental problems.
  • Environmental degradation and its social effects (including conflict) cannot be clearly separated from other variables, including population growth, culture, and the prevailing institutional arrangements and social relations in a society. There are complex feedback relationships between all these variables.
  • When investigating causal paths from environmental change to conflict, it becomes clear that physical and social variables are linked in ways that cannot be readily understood given current natural and social science epistemologies and ontologies. In particular, it seems difficult to develop defensible causal generalizations conjoining types of physical event with types of intentional action.
  • Moreover, understanding the mechanisms linking environmental change and conflict involves specifying causal links across levels of analysis usually regarded as quite independent.
  • To avoid platitudes, analysts must acquire considerable knowledge of a wide range of disciplines, from atmospheric science, to agricultural hydrology, to international relations. Specifically, they must make use of the numerous relevant conflict theories available to social scientists.
  • Unfortunately, the ‘realist’ theory that is often used to understand security problems is largely inadequate for identifying and explaining the links between environmental change and conflict.

Realism permeates most current thinking about international relations (including regime theory); it focuses on states as rational maximizers of power in an anarchic system (that is, in a system without common government). According to this view, behavior within the system is principally a function of the structure of power relations between the constituent states. This perspective has a number of consequences when realist theorists consider environmental issues.

First the emphasis on states means that theorists think of the world as divided into territorially distinct, mutually exclusive countries, not broader environmental regions or systems. Transboundary environmental problems tend to be selectively deemphasized, because they often cannot be associated with or linked to a particular country, and they do not have any easily conceptualized impact on the structure of economic and military power relations between states. These problems are often just not seen, and when seen, there is pressure to regard them as not of overriding importance.

Furthermore, because realism assumes states are unitary actors, events internal to states, which may be produced by environmental change, are also deemphasized. For example, the internal social dislocation — the fracturing of societies — that may be caused by environmental degradation in the developing world is not clearly recognized as a potential threat to security.

Finally, realism’s use of a simple rational choice model to explain the behavior of actors hinders analysts’ use of non-rational-choice theories derived from psychology and social-psychology that may help us understand the potential conflict implications of environmental change.

In light of the above comments, it appears that researchers should begin their work by carefully specifying the mechanisms by which environmental change may lead to conflict. This will require an unprecedented meshing of knowledge from the natural and social sciences.

I am directing my own research along these lines by identifying the most important and probable causal paths from environmental change to national and international conflict. I am tracing, in other words, the causal steps from an environmental problem (such as the degradation of agricultural land) to certain types of social effect (for example, large migrations of people across borders) to certain kinds of conflict (such as ethnic conflicts when migratory groups clash with indigenous populations).

Such a ‘causal-path analysis’ shows that some important issues have been neglected. For example, while researchers have often suggested that environmental change may lead to interstate conflict by producing scarcities of essential resources (such as water), a more insidious and more powerful cause of conflict — at least for developing societies without the capital to adapt to environmental degradation — may be the slow impoverishment that such degradation will produce. This impoverishment will lead to an ever-widening gulf between the standard of living people expect and the standard they have actually attained. Such ‘relative deprivation’ is considered by many theorists to be a prime cause of civil strife. And in our tightly interdependent world, civil strife rarely has only local consequences; it often spills over into wider regional and international conflict.

After undertaking a preliminary causal-path analysis, researchers will be better equipped to begin a case-by-case regional analysis; that is, they will be better able to ask the ‘where’ question. Taken together, these causal-path and regional analyses will provide an excellent foundation for constructive and far-sighted thought about policy recommendations to governments in both the North and South.

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