What is Environmental Security?

Earlier today I attended the first iteration of the Stimson Center’s 2013 Discussion Series on the Environment and Security. These discussions are intended to bring together professionals from the security and environmental fields in order to identify and examine the links between the two fields. Today’s discussion focused on the evolution of military thinking about the environment and environmentalism since the early 1990s and highlighted some of the major transboundary security issues that are susceptible to environmental threats.

                One of the most interesting points that was made during the conversation was that, within the U.S. military, environmental security was initially understood as a “way to secure the environment.” That is, DoD officials concerned about environmental security essentially focused on ways in which the military could lessen its impact on the environment through reducing waste, becoming more efficient, protecting habitats, etc. Since then, we were told, environmental security has come to take on a much broader meaning.

                Yet, when one audience member asked “what is environmental security?” no one seemed to have a clear answer.

                The question highlights a tension that exists within environmental security. On the one hand, a too narrow understanding of the term limits environmental security to those things that the military can do to protect the environment. This understanding ignores the interlinkages between the environment and the wide array of non-military aspects of national security. On the other hand, a too broad interpretation of environmental security risks subsuming all non-traditional security threats under the environmental umbrella and thereby making the term meaningless.

                I thought this was a good question and so I decided to go looking for answers. Lucky for me, the Millennium Project published a report on this issue way back in 1998. In it, the author examined a wide array of different definitions and proposed a synthesized version. It essentially states that Environmental Security is environmental viability for life support, with three elements, preventing or repairing military damage to the environment, preventing or responding to environmentally caused conflicts, and protecting the environment due to its inherent value.

                Clearly this definition doesn’t satisfy everyone, but I think it does a good job of covering the major bases of Environmental Security: that it is pro-active (i.e. preventative or involves pre-planned responses to events), that it deals with both naturally occurring and human-caused threats, and that at-some level environmental preservation is considered a good in its own right.

                There is a lot more work to be done on this, but I think that this could be a good jumping off point for further discussion.

Please note that the views expressed in this post do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or United States Government.

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