Environmental security

Global environmental changes are, above all, still driven by the spread and intensification of the unsustainable use of fossil fuels. Today, however, the formerly more subordinate processes of globalization and its consequences have become equally important for sustained environmental change. What has not changed is the fact that people influence the properties of environmental systems much more than the natural fluctuations intrinsic to those systems do.

Environmental security is a security term which arose from the expansion of the classical, narrowly defined concept of security, and the discussion on environmental change which was initiated in the 1980s. In discussions surrounding human security since the 1990s, the concept of environmental security has stabilized. It attempts to describe possible links between environmental change caused by human activity and the threats to security which can be inferred from that.

This process was initiated and advanced by, among other things, the environmental disasters of the 1980s and 1990s such as, for example, the catastrophic droughts and the expanding desertification in the Sahel, the phenomenon of acid rain and dying forests in Central Europe or the Chernobyl reactor disaster. These events sensitized populations, policymakers and economies to the phenomenon of environmental degradation. The knowledge that environmental change has negative implications for people’s well-being and could, therefore, pose a threat to society subsequently led to the assumption that it might also play a role in (violent) conflicts or could do so in the future.

As a result, in the 1990s, several comprehensive research projects were devoted to the topic of “Environmental Destruction as a Cause of War” (the title of one project’s final report).
Since then there has been a firmly-established field of research on environmental conflicts and environmental security, which deals with and investigates the significance of environmental change and environmental degradation from different angles.

Yet, a distinct and accepted definition of environmental security barely exists. On the contrary, attempts were, and still are being made, even today, to define environmental conflict. One of the few attempts to explain environmental security comes from Görrissen (1990/91). He understood environmental security to mean the absence of and protection from extreme pollution and environmentally damaging impacts: “A condition of ecological insecurity exists therefore, if environmentally damaging impacts and/or environmental burdens, which have their roots within a political system, have effects beyond the borders of that system and trigger ecological (…) effects on or in another political system” (Görrissen, 1990/91, p. 397).

This attempt at a definition was later extended and was used in subsequent diverse attempts to define environmental conflicts.

In the course of the multi-year Swiss study “Environment and Conflicts Project” (ENCOP), definitions and characteristics of environmental conflicts were discussed, and an analytical framework for subsequent debates was developed. First, it was important to separate resource conflicts from environmental conflicts. While resource conflicts are concerned with access to or the distribution of non-renewable resources such as minerals or crude oil, environmental conflicts concern the degradation of renewable, natural resources in the sense of ecosystem services (water, land, forest, vegetation). In this respect, the concept of environmental degradation—environmental change caused by human activity with negative results for society—is critical.

While natural, non-renewable resources can be consumed and depleted, renewable resources are tied in to the ecological cycle of materials and can be degraded but not used up. Building on this, Libiszewski (1992) defined environmental conflicts as conflicts which are triggered by the environmental scarcity of a renewable resource. Environmental scarcity means, in this respect, disturbance or interference, which arises as a result of overuse, overexploitation or pollution of a renewable resource by people. A further ecological factor is called environmental destruction in the literature. Due to the close relationship between environmental scarcity and environmental destruction, these two concepts are often combined into the term environmental stress (Carius & Imbusch, 1998).

To answer the undoubtedly complex question of the causal relationship between environmental degradation and violent conflicts, Libiszewski (1992) draws on the deliberations of the Canadian peace researcher, Homer-Dixon, who was involved in the international research project “Environmental Change and Acute Conflict”. As conflicts are social and not natural phenomena, ecological degradation does not automatically lead to conflict. In this context, Homer-Dixon (1992) developed an analytical framework on the interactions between people, the environment and conflicts. In this regard, the social effects of environmental degradation, which are the product of the entire population and their economic activities per capita as well as the vulnerability of an ecosystem, are crucial. It is important to note in this respect that the analysis of these effects must always take the socio-economic and political context into consideration.

To conclude this first attempt at a definition, it must be noted that environmental degradation is merely one single factor in a complex network of causes, which Libiszewski (1992) expressed with the use of the term “induced”. (“Ecological conflicts are conflicts induced by environmental degradation”.)

Environmental conflicts, environment-related or environmentally induced conflicts hence reflect critical societal situations. Environmental changes are the causes of socio-economic challenges and are simultaneously provoked and compounded by these challenges. Adverse environmental changes such as, for example, the destruction of ground cover or even the shortage of freshwater resources are due to anthropogenic processes and are the result of unsustainable, resource-intensive patterns of consumption and economic methods (Carius & Imbusch, 1998).

On the question of which regions of the earth are particularly vulnerable to environmentally induced conflicts, the two studies already mentioned above provided the first empirical data. Among other things, it was suggested in this respect that this type of conflict would primarily occur in the countries of the global south as well as in societies undergoing transformation, as these countries only have limited capacities for solving problems. As an example, the so-called socio-economic crisis areas in arid and semi-arid ecoregions, in regions with shared water resources, or in regions degraded due to mining or dams were included.

The studies from the early 1990s showed first and foremost the high level of complexity of the causes of conflicts. Sound statements on the role of environmental degradation as a cause of conflict could not be made as a result of this complexity, and also due to the lack of empirical data.

The German Council of Environmental Advisors’ (WBGU) flagship report, “World in Transition: Climate Change as a Security Risk” from 2007 constitutes the most comprehensive and far-reaching study on the topic described to date. While research into environmental conflicts up to now has been dominated by political science, the WBGU report followed a strongly interdisciplinary approach to investigate 73 environmental conflicts and thereby identify geographical patterns. The report’s central message is that without decisive countermeasures, climate change will overwhelm the adaptability of many societies and as a result violence and destabilization could intensify. To counteract these developments, the WBGU advocates for stronger climate protection efforts and the expansion of development cooperation to strengthen the resilience of states and regions that are significantly affected. In this respect, an expansion of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), among other things, was called for (WBGU, 2007).

Against the backdrop of the debate that flared up on the consequences of climate change, the question of the connection between environment and security gained new importance in the mid-2000s. By construing the topic of climate change as a security dilemma, it experienced a rapid gain in attention and importance. Away from academia, these debates have now, to some extent, become populist; films like The Day After Tomorrow show apocalyptic future scenarios. A no less alarming tune could be heard from the political arena—at the first UN Security Council session on the security risks of climate change in April 2007, the then British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, compared climate change to the “gathering storm” before World War II and furthermore warned of the consequences of climate change that incite conflicts. Meanwhile, the Chinese representatives expressed their doubts that the UN Security Council possessed “the professional competence” to deal with the climate issue. The proposal for a Security Council mandate on climate change failed (Scheffran, 2015, p. 181).

As a result, the subject gained much international attention on the political stage—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main interstate panel of experts on the reasons for and effects of climate change, along with the environmentalist and long-standing Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their efforts to raise awareness of the consequences of climate change. In the report published for the 2015 meeting of the G7 Foreign Ministers (“Group of 7”, informal association of the once most important industrial nations), “A New Climate for Peace” (Rüttinger et al., 2015), climate change is described as a “serious threat to global security”. Among other things, the authors of the report recommend the assembly of a “G7 Taskforce” to identify risks due to climate change early on.

Recently, military actors have also increasingly participated in the debate, which many scientists are extremely critical of. In this regard, Dalby (2009) feared that the newly inflamed, “alarming” discussions on climate change and conflicts had forgotten the findings already gained up to then through environmental conflict research, as the earlier studies always referred to military institutions and instruments as disproportionate for these challenges. On the contrary, studies tended to show that environmental problems are more likely to lead to cooperation than to hostilities.

In this context, peace and conflict researchers warn of a securitization of the debate, i.e. of a purely military–political treatment of the topic. Military tools would by no means help to prevent or sustainably defend against climate risks and conflicts but would rather make the issue worse (Scheffran 2015, p. 185).

Sources and further information:

BICC 12/2015

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