Friday, March 28, 2008

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Is the environment an international security issue

In 1962 an American biologist Rachel Carson published a hugely influential novel called Silent Spring. The book highlighted the harmful effects of insecticides on all life on Earth and described a future without the songs of birds. It caused such great interest that Carson was widely acknowledged as the mother of environmentalism as a political ideology.

Despite the fact that politics of global environmentalism is a fairly new aspect of International Relations, environmental problems are not new. People began to understand their role in environmental degradation and various policies and pressure groups have been emerging during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, it was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that worries about accelerating damage to the environment started to articulate. Concern was much greater than before and the first United Nations Conference on Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972. Numerous conferences were held since then and the idea of linking environment and both national and international security began to emerge. Environment was referred to as a security issue by several scholars but, as it was argued such literature could only be equated to environmental protection and not much more (Levy, 1995).

Almost everybody understood that the protection of environment is a major task of all states, but is it a matter of international security? Scholars are divided on this topic: `Arguments on whether environment should be seen as a security issue range from those who believe that the securitization of the environment is the most important step to securing the survival of humanity, to those who believe that its advocates are simply environmentalists cynically attempting to grab part of the governmental attention and spending that traditionally attaches to security issues.` (Sheehan, 2005: 99) The purpose of this essay is to identify the existence of a link between environmental issues and security issues and to conclude whether it is useful to see environment as an international security threat instead of leaving it on the low politics shelf. To perform this task the essay will analyze both proponents and critics of environmental security.

Supporters of environmental security.

It has been generally recognized that, in International Relations, social and environmental issues are considered to be the matter of `low politics`, while security issues are generally regarded as `high politics`. Some scholars have argued that it is worth incorporating the environment into the `high politics` realm thus making it a security issue. It is the view of such scholars that environmental protection should be linked to international security. Matthews wrote in 1989 that such global phenomena as climate change, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and population growth all affect the interest of the international community. Also such issues are regional or even global in scale and cannot be restricted to the sovereign territorial boundaries of states. She acknowledges that `the value and absolute necessity for human life of functioning ecosystems is finally becoming apparent.`(Mathews, 1989: 162) Mathews stresses that not only should environment be an international security issue but it should be the highest priority of all nations since not only does it threat the existence of states but the survival of all people on the planet. Myers is another scholar who emphasized early the importance of environmental security. For him, rapid environmental change and growing ecological interdependence are major international threats. Myers asserts that the environmental aspect should be included in every security strategy and he has designated environmental security as the `ultimate security`. (Myers, 1989: 41) However his proposals to deal with the environmental issues, such as increasing foreign aid and reducing Third World debt are seen as highly utopian and too unrealistic.(Levy, 1995: 42) In addition, Dyer argues that global changes in environment represent the greatest challenge to the security of the entire world `because it is seen as an externality to the international system, rather than an internal variable which can be addressed in terms of familiar political structures and their supporting social values.` (Dyer in Hough, 2004: 145) Environmental threats such as the hole in the ozone layer and global warming potentially threat the whole life on earth and require the co-operation of all states in the international community and no one state can confront these threats in spite of its economic and military might.

It has been argued that the environmental issues in the form of resource shortages constitute a major international security threat and will cause much more wars in the future as the `world population is pushing against the earth’s resources, straining its ability to meet the needs of this generation and the next` (Kegley and Wittkopf, 2004: 366) Such relatively minor environmental issues such as scarcities of water, forest, fish stocks and cropland have been the cause of some major intrastate and interstate conflicts. This kind of environmental security approach is associated with the `Toronto school` and especially Thomas Homer-Dixon who during the 1990s explored the possibility of a link between resource exhaustion and military conflict. For him environmental scarcities contribute significantly to wars between developing states: `Turkey has used its control over the headwaters of Euphrates to put pressure on the Syrian government to withdraw its support for Kurdish separatists in the East Turkey … when Ethiopia proposed building dams on the upper Nile in 1978, Egyptian officials said that their country was so dependant on the Nile that they were prepared to go to war to prevent the dams from being built.` (Sheehan, 2005: 109-111) He states, therefore, that the environmental issues form an integral part of international and regional conflicts, and because of that they can be considered as security issues. Environmental scarcity does not lead to conflict directly but it does cause social unrest that may later turn into a violent turmoil. However there have been several critics of this approach, Levy even called it `anecdotal`. He states that its not environment that caused the wars, but poverty. Developing states fight over the resources because `that’s where the money is.` (Levy, 1995: 45)

Critics of the idea of securitizing the environment.

The argument for securitizing the environment has not been universally accepted and remains controversial to many scholars. Critics remind that usually security policies consist of urgent and crisis issues that require an urgent solution and action. Clearly this is not the case with the environment issues. Not only are they relatively slow in development, furthermore, their continued protection requires a long-term commitment. Because the environmental issues are developing so slowly, it is argued that there is no immediate sense of threat: `The potential threats posed by issues like global warming and ozone depletion may be profound but they are still long-term creeping emergencies when set against imminent disasters and attacks.` (Hough, 2004: 134) This is contrary to the usual security issues where there are immediate threats that require immediate actions. Also, responding to the environmental threats is very costly and calls for significant compromises in economic interests. Not only do environmentalists propose to limit the state’s ability to produce goods and services because of factory emissions and implement costly anti-pollution measures, states also have to contribute substantial finances to solving the environmental problems in other countries. `In an era of declining growth rates and rising budget deficits, surely we want resources devoted to the most pressing problems.`(Levy, 1995: 45) Even the Algerian President Boumediene said during the 1970s that he is against improving the environment if it means less bread for the Algerians. (In Hough, 2004: 140)

Another important factor that identifies the critics from supporters is that the critics tend to study the environmental security issues through the state level analysis lens. Despite the fact that the damage to the environment is, for the most part, described as a universal problem, often scholars tend to see it as state threat only. To most critics of environmental security, the issue is mostly of national character. The nature of threats is very different for every state. `Tunisia’s concern (with deforestation) is being driven by direct environmental impact … while U.S. interest may be more a result of the progress of a developing needs hierarchy.` (Sheehan, 2005: 100) For the critics, the problems of deforestation in Tunisia or analogous problems in other parts of the world, are not that important to states like the U.S., and cannot be considered an environmental security concern. Critics do not look at the issue from the global perspective but tend to concentrate on state level only. That’s why Levy sees two main concerns that have a chance of linking environment and security. Only the problems of stratospheric ozone depletion and climate change are considered a national security threat. This is important as the critics only briefly mention the global effects of the environmental issues and mostly give attention to national security. For such opponents of an environmental security concept as Deudney and Levy, security threats are defined as `situation(s) in which some of the nation’s most important values are drastically degraded by external action.` (Levy, 1995: 40) It is clear that this definition only covers the actual states and not the whole mankind.

In his essay on environment and US security Levy agrees that the arguments of the proponents of a link between environment and security are worth considering, however, he argues `that this position has no basis except as a rhetorical devise aimed at drumming up greater support for measures to protect the environment.` (Levy, 1995: 36) He is well supported by Deudney who presents sound arguments against the inclusion of environment within the realm of security politics. Considered to be the foremost challenger to the idea of environmental securitization, Deudney sites four key differences between the environmental degradation and established security concerns. First, they are different kinds of threats. He points out that accidents, ageing and illness also kill human beings but they are not coming close to being identified as security threats. When environmental disasters strike, many people lose their lives but it is still considered a natural disaster. For Deudney the term `security` would lose its meaning if everything that causes death is to be identified as a security threat. `Both violence and environmental degradation may kill people and may reduce human well-being, but not all threats to life and property are threats to security.` (Deudney, 1990: 463) Second, there is no intention in environmental threats. Security threats of violence are planned, organized and are clearly intentional, while, in contrast, natural threats are largely unintentional. They are only an unfortunate and unintended result of human development and progress. Third, the organizations that protect the societies against violence differ significantly from those that are responsible for environmental protection. Finally, and most importantly, environmental threats are not usually purely national. In conventional military security realm states are threatened by other actors of international arena, while here disasters don’t recognize the boundaries between states and threaten any given area. (Deudney in Sheehan, 2005: 105) And since `environmental degradation is not very likely to cause interstate wars`, it should not be incorporated into the security studies realm. (Deudney, 1990: 461) Proponents of environmental security believe that a link to `high politics` would make threats to the environment seem more pressing and important, however Deudney believes that securitizing the environment will not increase the possibility of finding suitable political solutions to environmental problems. There are several weaknesses in Deudney’s arguments. He sees security as something that requires a military response by the state rather than `seeing it as a condition that relates to people’s lives and which can be achieved at various political levels. This means that to the critics security can only mean military defense against other states. Real security needs of people and of the whole planet are excluded by such blinkered logic.` (Hough, 2004: 149)

Supporters of the environmental security define this concept as concerning `the maintenance of the local and planetary biosphere as the essential support system all other human enterprises depend.` (Buzan, 1991: 19) This definition is dramatically different from the one of the critics mentioned earlier and it clearly falls within the scope of a security issue as it brings attention to events that could trigger the collapse of the human civilization.. It seems that the issue of linking environment and security should be looked at from the point of different levels of analysis. For the supporters, the global level is the most appropriate one. They see it from the whole mankind’s perspective. Buzan argues that the environmental debate is really about preserving the existence of human civilization: `The real concern is whether or not the ecosystems needed to preserve and further develop human civilization are sustainable.` (in Sheehan, 2005: 101) Environmental security is about threats to humanity and as such should be considered an international security issue.

The fact that the issue of environmental security had emerged in recent years is not surprising. Many people face such obvious environmental threats as desertification and deforestation. Such threats seem to be much more alarming than conventional military threats. There is, nevertheless, a case for not securitizing environment at all. Critics argue that environmental threats are too different from traditional security issues and should be addressed as public safety or health issues. (Levy, 1995: 49) However their arguments are mostly based on the state level. Of course the scope of environmental threats is different for all states but the danger for the whole of mankind is the same. `The reality of the situation is that the debate over securitization was won by the proponents during the 1990s. The environment is now seen as a security issue by governments, international organizations, and general publics.` (Sheehan, 2005: 114)


· Buzan, Barry, (1991) People, States and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era, (2nd Edition), New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

· Carson, Rachel, (1962) Silent Spring, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

· Deudney, Daniel, (1991) `The Case Against Linking Environmental Degradation and Security`, Millenium Journal of International Studies Vol. 19, No. 3, pp 460-476.

· Hough, Peter, (2004) Understanding Global Security, London: Routledge.

· Kegley, Charles W., Jr., and Wittkopf, Eugene R., (2004) World Politics Trend and Transformation, (9th Edition), United States: Wadsworth.

· Levy, Mark A., (1995) `Is the Environment a National Security Issue?`, International Security, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 35-62.

· Mathews, Jessica Tuchman, (1989) `Redefining Security.`, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 162-177.

· Myers, Norman, (1989) `Environment and Security`, Foreign Policy, No. 74, pp. 23-41.

· Sheehan, Michael, (2005) International Security: An Analytical Survey, Boulder: Lynne Rienner.



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