July 20, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: The Environmental Factor

“Do the world’s environmental problems threaten American national security?” wonders Geoffrey Dabelko in this autumn 1999 Wilson Quarterly piece, “The Environment Factor.” In this article, Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a longtime scholar on the frontline of the environmental security debate (and, full disclosure, my former boss) explores the evolution of environmental issues within the national security community.

For Dabelko, it was journalist – now CNAS senior fellow – Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Coming Anarchy,” which explored the nexus of environmental challenges and state failure in West Africa, that jumpstarted the debate in Washington in the 1990s. Kaplan’s article praised scholar Thomas Homer-Dixon’s work on the complexity of resource scarcity and the potential for civil strife and violence, and “sketched a dark view of the global future.” As Dabelko writes, “The environment will be the national security issue of the 21st century, Kaplan declared, and Homer-Dixon held the keys to understanding it.”

According to Dabelko, Kaplan’s article resonated in Washington, especially among members in the executive branch, including then Vice President Al Gore, who, in response to the article, “asked the Central Intelligence Agency to oversee a systematic investigation of the causes of ‘state failure’ it described.” And unlike earlier abstract attempts to highlight environmental consequences for U.S. nation security, the events of the early 1990s grounded these concerns, as the government dealt with a mass migration of Haitian refugees fleeing overpopulation and endemic environmental degradation. 

“But inevitably the ‘coming anarchy’ bubble burst,” Dabelko writes:

Kaplan’s thesis was beset by critics on all sides – by defense planners and intellectuals concerned about diverting money and attention from the Pentagon’s core war-fighting mission…as well as by environmentalists who objected to the idea of defining the environment as a security issue.

And so the environmental security debate was thrown back into the academic community.

What Dabelko’s article does well is explore the three waves of scholarship that sculpted the environmental security debate. “Many of the first systematic thinkers took a sweeping view, speaking not only of new environmental challenges but of entirely new definitions of national security,” Dabelko writes, noting earlier works by Worldwatch Institute’s Lester Brown and Jessica Tuchman Mathew’s seminal 1989 piece in Foreign Affairs.

But these attempts to “securitize” the environment experienced a “frosty reception” from those in the international and environmental communities. As Dabelko recalls, attempts to securitize the environment left some in the international community fearing that such an enterprise would compromise state sovereignty as states used environmental assistance as a pretext for other interventions. Meanwhile, members of the environmental community found that “The nationalists and militarist mindsets closely associated with ‘national security’ thinking directly conflict with the core of the environmentalist world view.”

But Dabelko’s article seems to miss an important point that differentiates the criticisms from those in the security community and those in the environmental community. For those in the environmental community, they conflate the issues of securitizing and militarizing solutions to environmental challenges. Environmentalist critics are largely concerned with the latter. But securitizing the environment does not necessarily mean militarizing it. Policy makers have a wide variety of prescriptions within the national security apparatus other than the military that can address environmental security issues – the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the UN Environment Program are just some non-military institutions capable of attacking environmental issues.

As the debate progressed, the second wave of scholars “narrowed the scope of focus on environmental stress that causes or triggers violence.” And according to their findings, Dabelko writes, most environmental issues “contribute to conflicts within nations,” and are rarely the cause of conflict between states.

But Dabelko explores an interesting flaw with this second wave of scholarship; there are cases “where severe environmental stress does not lead to conflict.” While second wave scholars attempted to identify how environmental issues contribute to conflict, they did not ask a more important question: “why it might do in some cases and not in other.” And for Dabelko, this is where the third wave of scholarship takes off and where much of his work continues today.

The third wave of scholarship focuses on governance and the ability of states to adapt to changes in their environment. The evidence is telling of the role that governance plays in the nexus of environment and conflict. For instance, as the evidence suggests, severe environmental stresses in countries with strong institutional capacity are less likely to contribute to conflict because these countries are able to adapt. “The ability to adapt has always been paramount in the survival of peoples, nations, and civilizations,” Dabelko explains.

Given the importance of adaptation and governance in helping to prevent environmental issues from contributing to conflict, Dabelko is left wondering:

Will the more industrialized countries use this knowledge to anticipate conflicts and attempt to seal them off from the rest of the world, or will they try to fashion cooperative remedies for environmental and demographic problems and strengthen the ability of less developed countries to meet challenges?

As Dabelko writes, “Some encouraging signs suggest that the industrialized powers will take the wiser way,” offering environmental and developmental aid to those countries that are or will have to face environmental challenges in the future.

And though evidence suggests that good governance can help to mitigate or adapt to the impacts of environmental issues, this author is left wondering if that will always be the case. Will there be a point when environmental stresses become so severe that even the strongest government institutions are incapable of mitigating or adapting to those stresses? The environmental security movement’s explanation of history might suggest that all things being equal, good governance stands a chance of prevailing in the wake of even the most severe environmental stresses. But at the time, this movement seems to miss a crucial point about our future: that we are fast entering a world where things are not equal.

Climate change is exacerbating the worst environmental trends, and no one knows for sure how bad it is going to get. Climate change is already causing some of history’s worst scenarios to become regular occurrences in some parts of the world; once in a century droughts, storms and floods are becoming decadal occurrences in some places. So there is one question that this article leaves the reader asking: as climate change multiplies the severity of environmental issues, when will environmental stresses become so severe that they will serve as breaking points for even the strongest government institutions? And for Dabelko, this is the open field that he is continuing to explore today. But for those in the national security community, the challenge now is how to plan for a future in which we cannot answer that question.

Based on Geoffrey Dabelko, “The Environmental Factor,” The Wilson Quarterly (Autumn 1999), available at www.wilsoncenter.org/wilsonquarterly.