Events

Preventing the Next Wave of Conflict: Understanding Non-Traditional Threats to Global Security - Environment

October 17, 2002 // 12:00am
Event Co-sponsors: 
Environmental Change and Security Program

The guest speakers for the working group were Mr. Norbert Henninger, the Deputy Director for the Information Program of the World Resources Institute, and Ms. Sherri Goodman, the former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security from 1993-2001 and currently with the Center for Naval Analyses.

Mr. Henninger began the discussion by pointing out that even one hundred years ago, one could find linkage between resource degradation in one place and economic and social change in another. “Today, in a much more globalized and populated world, the linkages are much stronger and faster,” he said. Now, “we have to handle these cumulative actions of rapidly growing and industrial societies, causing us to face challenges like acid rain, greenhouse gas solutions, ozone depletion, or large-scale industrial problems.”

Summarizing today’s major global threats, Mr. Henninger stated, “The first is population growth and rapid urbanization.” Mr. Henninger reported that the world would need to feed, house, and support another 3 billion people in the next fifty years. “Most of these increases will be in the developing countries, primarily urban areas.”

Poverty and inequality also made his list of major global trends. “Over the past decades, we have seen an increase in inequality. Any future reduction in poverty will require significant growth and productivity in incomes,” he stated.

Mr. Henninger, identifying another trend, pointed out that while hunger and chronic undernourishment have declined, there are still more than 800 million people who are chronically undernourished. “These numbers are always in those countries where we expect these major changes,” he said.

Another important trend is that conflict and wars are destroying past gains or are limiting opportunities in some of the poorest countries, with eighty percent of recent conflicts taking place in counties at the bottom half of the human development index. “This does not suggest that there is necessarily causality, but it really makes it difficult to develop in these countries,” Mr. Henninger noted.

Mr. Henninger also offered that, “growth agriculture production has kept pace over the past decades but we are really undermining its foundations. These gains have come at the cost of degrading our soils.”

Similarly, he said, there is a very large danger in that our food production system is relying on a small pool of species and varieties - and that increases the vulnerability to catastrophic events. An example is the outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in the UK, and “Mad Cow” disease. Both immediately affected markets and trade of livestock products in Europe.

Additionally, freshwater is growing scarce amidst competing human needs. Already one-third of the world’s people face water scarcity and water use is rising twice as fast as population. The problem, Mr. Henninger said, “can be solved technically sometimes – you get stronger pumps and you can dig deeper wells but it has an impact as to who has access to these wells and who can afford these pumps – it is certainly not the poor farmer.”

Biodiversity is also disappearing, said Mr. Henninger. “We are really loosing our genetic library to deal with environmental change.”

The last trend that Mr. Henninger noted is climate change, which will exacerbate the problems in many stressed ecosystems and economies. “One of my colleagues mentioned that the Dutch are building dykes and rich home owners on the Outer Banks would like to get Federal flood insurance for sea-level rise, but in other areas, people just die. That is the big difference in how we handle some of these changes.”

The implications for local and global stability? It can be assumed that these global trends will lead to more conflicts; and that some of these conflicts will involve armed interventions. “These environmental changes will cause political change…and these environmental changes will certainly impact the world economy.” Additionally, Mr. Henninger sees more emergency interventions because of humanitarian crisis; and degraded ecosystems and weak economies creating greater challenges to rebuild societies.

Finally, Mr. Henninger recommended an increase in our commitments to development assistance. “With only a modest increases in aid we could enable vast improvements,” Mr. Henninger said. “Such international collaboration will increase what I would call “Human Security for All.”

Ms. Goodman, who stated that she would approach the topic from the point of view the policy practitioner, followed Mr. Henninger. She stated that in her view, there is greater awareness in the mainstream national security community of environmental threats to security.

The challenge for practitioners, however, “is that environmental threats are not the acute bolt out of the blue that Cold War military planners are accustomed to dealing with,” she said. “The severity of the threat is hard to measure and it is complex,” she continued. “And because often many of these issues do not immediately threaten the lives of Americans, they are not within the 3-4 year planning cycle of many administrations.”

The main issue she identified was how to integrate environmental security into the overall fabric of the national security planning process. She believed this to be critical, as “modest cooperation today can prevent catastrophe tomorrow.”

Additionally, she said that environments can be an instrument of our own national power; a concept that has been integrated into the work of practitioners in this area across many different agencies, from the Department of State, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and others. An example can be found in the Department of Defense Regional Combatant Commander’s Theater Security Cooperation Planning process. Tension still exists, however, between the functional experts in environment and the regional experts.

Ms. Goodman noted that since September 11th, it is clear that humanitarian issues can become strategic issues, which has lead to the convergence of the traditional Pol-Mil proponents and the “development camp – the folks who do aid.” Additionally, she said that homeland security is better understood. “Focusing on vulnerabilities on various parts of our infrastructure are clearly related to the whole concept and fabric of environmental security,” she said. “You see now environmental practitioners becoming much more engaged in the traditional national security realm both here and abroad.”

Ms. Goodman concluded by recommending cross training between people who consider themselves to be environmental experts and national security experts. Lastly she asked whether the U.S. would reengage in a meaningful way on these environmental issues with our major allies. “We have an opportunity to do that, we have the capacity to do that, and we have the ability to do that. But often the issue resides in leadership.”

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