Environment as a political issue is a relatively new concept. In fact, it was only during the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment that the problem surrounding our environment was represented as such. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, which officially ended on November 9, 1989, the increased knowledge of the negative effects of environmental degradation led to an intensified search for new methods to maintain environmental security.
Environmental security has been defined in many different ways over the past years. Historically, it’s been linked to conflicts caused by environmental degradation due to overuse of non-renewable resources or pollution. When you have limited access to natural resources, the risk of conflicts grows exponentially. One definition of environmental security is, “the relative public safety from environmental dangers caused by natural or human processes due to ignorance, accident, mismanagement, or design and originating within or across national borders.” An example of conflict arisen due to a limited number of natural resources is from Assam, India: immigrants from Bangladesh were forced to move and occupy new lands in India due to environmental degradation.
However, conflicts may also arise when people don’t have enough food, water, or shelter. In fact, another definition of environmental security is based on the aforementioned problems.
Environmental security is the combination of two sciences: security and environmental.
This field of study focuses on practices related to the concept of security, such as peace research, security studies, or conflict studies. The concept of security science changed after each major war that happened after the Great War, due to the inaccuracy of the theories before each conflict.
However, the concept of security still remains unclear. It can include valued things — such as jobs, health, and territory — and refers to different related risks like unemployment and hunger.
In recent years, studies have been focused on broadening this theory in order to include a variety of topics; to accomplish this, the key is to not only include military problems but also environmental policies and other nonmilitary ways of conflict prevention.
Environmental science and sustainability
One of the core concepts of this discipline is sustainability. As defined by Opschoor in the late 1990s, sustainability means using the environment in a way that doesn’t prevent future generations from fully using it, too.
Since its conceptualization in the 1970s, environmental security has shifted from focusing on local problems to focusing on global problems. Nowadays, environmental issues are at the center of other political problems due to the improper use of natural resources that is leading our Earth towards the point of no return. The main problems caused by the deterioration of the environment are deforestation, biodiversity loss, water pollution and scarcity, climate change, and sea-level rise.
Environmental security and human-driven changes
As you can probably imagine, the concept of environmental security is wide. However, the main interpretations of what environmental security is are as follows:
- Environmental security is about the impact of human and/or military activities on the environment.
- A security problem requiring collective action.
- A threat to national security.
- A cause of violent conflicts.
- A risk to human security.
There are many reasons why human-induced changes in the environment and environmental security are connected with each other.
First of all, environmental degradation is a threat to human life. In fact, many definitions of environmental security center around the concept of sustainability and protection of the environment. Furthermore, environmental degradation can also cause conflicts between and within countries, which require military action. Those actions are also responsible for environmental pollution, dispersion of radioactive materials into the ocean, and use of nuclear bombs — a risk to both humans and the environment.
Since the security of countries is strictly related to the environment, it’s difficult to say whether environmental security is a local or a global issue. We can say that some environmental problems are global and, therefore, require a multilevel, comprehensive approach. However, many environmental problems can be seen as an aggregate of local environmental problems. Therefore, waiting for global intervention can be costly and less efficient than dealing with the problem regionally.
Environmental security and natural resources exploitation
The concept of environmental security is often associated with the exploitation of natural resources, a problem that affects the entire world.
Deforestation and land deterioration
Using the environment in a non-friendly way may lead to increased land pressure, overutilization, and deforestation. Due to the continuous decrease in natural resource availability, many countries are suffering internal conflicts between underprivileged people and the government.
Although this is not an environmental problem in itself, excessive population growth becomes a problem when it exceeds the carrying capacity of the land or agricultural production. This might lead to overexploitation of natural resources or the migration of the entire population because of food insecurity and famines.
Use and production of energy are extremely important factors to assure correct and sustainable use of natural resources because they can have incredibly negative effects on the environment. However, factors like economic growth, population growth, and rapid urbanization are contributing to the increase in energy consumption.
Resilience plays an important role in the concept of environmental security. It’s defined as the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences, such as problems connected to family, relationships, health, or personal finances. As stated by Sheri Goodman, senior vice president and general counsel at CNA, resilience plays a vital role when it comes to dealing with particular events or disasters. For example, the difference in the impact of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile lies not only in the better construction of the buildings in Chile but also in its much more resilient society.
How can we improve things?
As mentioned earlier, environmental problems are the result of smaller local problems. To tackle these problems, we have to establish collaborative mechanisms that focus on early warning, identifying vulnerable groups, determining the level of risk and uncertainty for a person, and creating efficient strategies. We can create objectives to develop environmental security based on the assessment of vulnerabilities and risks related to environmental threats.
Governments often conduct environmental awareness campaigns, which are fundamental for a more conscious use of natural resources.
Knowing what we’re doing to the environment is the first step to change our behavior and live a more sustainable life.