Environmental change1 is increasingly recognised as one of the major factors that will shape the global security environment. According to most experts, rising global temperatures will lead to rising sea levels and cause more extreme weather events, such as storms, flooding, droughts and wildfires.2 The firestorms that engulfed parts of Australia in late 2019 and early 2020, burning an area the size of Belgium and Denmark combined, and severely decimating that continent’s wildlife, were a stark reminder of the force of these changes.
This graphic plots the change in the perceived likelihood and impact of various societal, technological, geopolitical and environmental risks between 2012 and 2018. For more on resilience and the evolution of deterrence, see Tim Prior’s chapter for Strategic Trends 2018 here. For more CSS charts, maps and graphics on risk and resilience, click here.
In recent years, the idea that issues such as climate change might pose a threat to security has become prominent, and environmental issues more broadly have featured significantly in debates about redefining security since the 1980s (Mathews 1989; Myers 1989).
Traditionally, approaches to the relationship between security and environmental change have asked whether and how environmental issues constitute a security threat. This is a bad place to start, for two reasons. First, it suggests that we as analysts can establish criteria for defining security, ignoring the social construction of security: the fact that different political communities understand security in different ways, and that the same political communities change the way they understand security over time. A fixed and abstract definition of security is therefore inconsistent with the need to come to terms with how security is approached in practice (see McDonald 2012).
At least that’s how it seems to many. The signs are troubling: Egypt and Ethiopia have recently increased their aggressive posture and rhetoric over the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, Egypt’s major artery since antiquity. India continues to build new dams that are seen by its rival Pakistan as a threat to its “water interests” and thus its national security. Turkey, from its dominant position upstream, has been diverting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and increasing water stress in the already-volatile states of Iraq and Syria.
It has been claimed for decades that a confluence of factors, including water scarcity, societal unrest, and strategic maneuvering, will inevitably push states and other actors to act aggressively, perhaps even violently, to secure precious water resources. So are we finally witnessing the first flashes of the coming age of water wars?
What are we to believe about the relationship between environmental degradation and security? Does environmental change open the door to conflict, or is it a force for cooperation? Is it best to manage environmental change by focusing on its role in security narratives; or, to the contrary, by keeping security out of it?
The relevance of these questions coincides with the “World Water Week 2011” conference in Stockholm, which the ISN has covered in its two previous Special Features. To round off our coverage, I will raise a caveat: questions like the ones posed above should always be kept in mind when discussing the political implications of environmental degradation.