n spite of twenty years of experimentation with sustainability, the human forcing of global environmental change (GEC) is taking place at an unprecedented pace and scale.
Recent analyses of GRACE satellite data by James Famiglietti and his team at UCI, for example, have identified alarming rates of groundwater depletion worldwide. These rates suggest the demise of vast reservoirs of water, upon which agricultural economies from Pakistan to California depend, within decades. The National Research Council is poised to release a report, to which CUSA contributed, on the security implications of hydrological change in the Hindu Kush/Himalaya region—a region that provides freshwater to over a billion people. The fifth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will likely conclude that adverse climate change effects are widespread and worsening, and that the next decade will be a crucial period for the security and welfare of many regions of the planet.
The key elements of GEC are highly interactive. They include climate change, disruptions to the planet’s hydrological cycle, and biodiversity loss. The social and environmental impacts of changes in these complex, coupled systems can be non-linear—making them hard to predict and manage. This poses a significant challenge for the world’s large natural resource based economies, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Russia and the United States. They are at once the perpetrators of GEC, and its victims.
Throughout history, analysts have recognized that every society’s security and welfare is linked to its geography, climate and resource endowment. This line of inquiry accelerated after the publication of Our Common Future in 1987, a report documenting the extent of GEC and laying the foundations for a planetary commitment to sustainable development. The first wave of post-1987 analysis, led by scholars such as Thomas Homer-Dixon, was largely informed by a traditional understanding of national security as a domain focused on war and peace. The end of the Cold War, however, challenged this traditional understanding and opened the door to rethinking security, an opening that many analysts of GEC welcomed.
The outcome of all of this has been a growing body of evidence that suggests that GEC has an impact on both conventional issues of war, state failure and national elements of power, and also on new formulations of security including human, global and ecological security. GEC displaces people; it threatens public health; it undermines livelihoods and economic development; it raises the costs of disasters; and it introduces uncertainty, misperception and fear into a society. Trust in government declines, resources are diverted to disaster response, social stability weakens, and affected populations resort to unsustainable survival behavior and express their grievances through riots and crime. Although academic debates continue, considerable statistical research by analysts such as Solomon Hsiang have shown very compelling correlations between GEC and various security issues, including violent conflict. Competing research, by scholars such as Aaron Wolf, that finds GEC triggering innovation and cooperation, remains compelling, but it is informed entirely by a past world of few states, a much smaller population and mainly very local forms of environmental change—it is informed by a world that no longer exists.
While over time we may innovate solutions to even the most daunting and complicated aspects of GEC, in the next decade we should be prepared to address significant human and national security threats.
The implications of GEC for militaries, humanitarian assistance groups and businesses are enormous. They may have to operate in highly challenging environments—droughts, floods, storms and fires—that will require new equipment and procedures. They may have to confront violence and unrest fuelled not by ideological differences, crazed leaders or geopolitics, but by high food prices, water shortages, disease outbreaks and other types of human misery and despair, which will require new understanding. They may be accused of causing the problem, or asked to provide support in costly, messy situations where there are few prospects for a happy or decisive resolution.
These situations will occur at home and abroad. At home, we will face severe droughts and wildfires, new disease outbreaks, pressure on food and energy prices, complex disasters and breakdowns in urban infrastructure. Abroad we will witness a ramping up of the global scramble to secure resources through massive investments in land, especially in Africa, and recurring famines, disease epidemics, disasters, economic crises, civil wars and state failures.
Understanding these challenges is critical to the technological innovations, collaborative processes, behavioral changes and new institutional designs that will determine human welfare and security in years and decades ahead.
As demonstrated in this year’s annual report, CUSA plays, and will continue to play, an important role in understanding these challenges and in communicating our findings to those who can and must act to address them.
Richard A. Matthew, Ph.D.