Environmental Security

Environmental security refers to the impact that people and states have on the environment as well as threats posed by the environment, including patterns, events, and shocks, to people, communities, and states. The term also considers how threats posed by the environment can transcend states and affect entire regions and subregions. The term encompasses a wide range of events, activities, and outcomes of human conflict (e.g., destruction to forests and water supplies/sources), communities, and states. This entry discusses the issues and concerns associated with environmental security, the various definitions of the concept, and the coordinated programs to ensure environmental security.

Issues and Concerns

In general, the term environmental security refers to a wide spectrum of issues and concerns that can be placed into the following three categories:

  1. Security and the negative impact that humans and human activity have on the environment
  2. Security and concerns about the direct and indirect effects of changes taking place in the environment (i.e., water scarcity, degradation, and desertification) now and in the future
  3. Security and insecurity that individuals, groups, communities, and humankind experience and will experience as a result of environmental changes (i.e., water scarcity, land degradation, pollution, urbanization, global warming and stratosphere ozone depletion, and multifaceted changes in ecosystems as a result of biodiversity decline)

According to the World Health Organization, the results of escalating human pressure on the global environment affect health in the following ways:

Direct health impacts: floods, heat waves, water shortage, landslides, increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation, and exposure to pollutants

Ecosystem-mediated health impacts: altered infectious diseases risk, reduced food yields (malnutrition and stunting), depletion of natural medicines, mental health (personal and community), impacts of aesthetic/cultural impoverishment

Indirect, deferred, and displaced health impacts: diverse health consequences of livelihood loss, population displacement (including slum dwelling), conflict, inappropriate adaptation, and mitigation


Although international cooperation and attempts to deal with environmental security issues are plagued by a lack of universal acceptance of what actually constitutes environmental danger, threat, and security, there exist a number of very useful working definitions employed by governments, regional organizations or associations, and scholars. However, all definitions that can be found are problematic.

The U.S. Department of Defense Directive Number 4751.1, issued on February 24, 1996, states as follows:

The environmental security program enhances readiness by institutionalizing the Department of Defense’s environmental, safety, and occupational health awareness, making it an integral part of the Department’s daily activities. Environmental Security is comprised of restoration, compliance, conservation, pollution prevention, environmental security technology, and international activities.

The Russian Federation adopted the following definition at a meeting of the interagency commission on environmental security on October 13, 1994. Environmental security is defined as

protectedness of natural environment and vital interests of citizens, society, the state from internal and external impacts, adverse processes and trends in development that threaten human health, biodiversity and sustainable functioning of ecosystems, and survival of humankind. Environmental security is an integral part of Russia’s national security. ( Security Council of the Russian Federation, 1996 , p. 55)

The Commonwealth of Independent States adopted an advisory legislative act “On Environmental Security” in 1996, with the following definition:

James McQuaid (2013) , in Environmental Security in the Arctic Ocean, referred to environment security as

an integrated approach for assessing and responding to the risks as well as opportunities generated by environmental state-change. Broader governance discussions are premature without an holistic vetting of the risks. (p. 120)

W. Chris King, Brigadier General U.S. Army (ret.) and Dean of Academics, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, defines the concept as

a process that effectively responds to changing environmental conditions that have the potential to reduce peace and stability in the world. Accomplishing our environmental security goals mandates planning and execution of defense programs to prevent and mitigate anthropogenically induced adverse changes in the environment, which impact sustainable living conditions for people in a region.

And Jon Barnett (2001 ), author of The Meaning of Environmental Security: Ecological Politics and Policy in the New Security Era, briefly describes environmental security as

the process of peacefully reducing human vulnerability to human-induced environmental degradation by addressing the root causes of environmental degradation and human insecurity. [It is] the process of minimizing environmental insecurity [italics added]. (p. 129)

Coordinated Programs

While natural resources found within the environment have been linked to conflict between states and nonstate actors, not all conflict is the result of this. Moreover, the resources and aspects of the environment are not the sole cause of conflict in the world. Despite the competition that exists between states over resources and environmental security, the common problems have the potential to bring people, communities, and states together to work toward common goals. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe states that “environmental co-operation can act as a tool for conflict prevention and confidence-building” ( United Nations, 2015 ).

The Environment Security Initiative is an interagency initiative comprising the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Environment Program, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Economic Commission for Europe, and the Regional Environment Center. The initiative focuses on four themes:

  1. Natural resources and security risk management
  2. Hazardous substances
  3. Climate change
  4. Information and participation

Because Environment Security Initiative projects operate in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, South East Europe, and the South Caucasus, it is a good example of coordinated program implementation that brings multiple governments together to focus on the issue of environmental security.

Scott Nicholas Romaniuk

See also Politics

Further Readings

Barnett, Jon. The Meaning of Environmental Security: Ecological Politics and Policy in the New Security Era. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Betsill, Michele, et al.Advances in International Environmental Politics. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Dalby, Simon. Environmental Security. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

DeSombre, Elizabeth R. The Global Environment and World Politics. New York, NY: Continuum.

Detraz, Nicole. Environmental Security and Gender. London, England: Routledge, 2014.

Floyd, Rita and Richard Matthew. Environmental Security: Approaches and Issues. London, England: Routledge, 2013.

King, Chris. A Strategic Analytic Approach to the Environmental Security Program of NATO (2008). http://www.nato.int/docu/comm/2008/0803-science/pdf/chris_king.pdf (Accessed October 2017).

McQuaid, James. “Observations on the Evolution of NATO’s Science Programme.” In Paul Berkman and Alexander N. Vylegzhanin (eds.), Environmental Security in the Arctic Ocean. London, England: Taylor & Francis, 2013.

Security Council of the Russian Federation. Environmental Security of Russia (Issue 2). Moscow, Russia: Author, 1996.

United Nations. “Fostering Peace and Sustainable Development.” UN Chronicle, v.52/4 (2015). https://unchronicle.un.org/article/fostering-peace-and-sustainable-development (Accessed October 2017).

U.S. Department of Defense. Directive Number 4715.1 (February 24, 1996). http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/blaw/dodd/corres/html2/d47151x.htm (Accessed October 2017).