Torrential rains and deadly floods swept through towns in western Europe over a two-day period in mid-July, causing unprecedented damage to streets, roads, utilities and farmland. Some areas received up to two months’ worth of rain in 48 hours.
Mass evacuations continue as mudslides, one of the aftereffects of the deluge, plague the affected areas. In addition, police have warned of a potential risk from downed power lines and urged curious visitors to stay away.
According to the Associated Press, more than 150 people have been killed and hundreds more remain missing. Rescue workers labored to deal with damage laid bare by receding water and thoughts turned to the lengthy job of rebuilding communities.
Many residents are pondering whether the cause of the torrential rains can be linked to climate change, antiquated infrastructure, poor emergency management, or some combination of the three. The missing puzzle piece may be what steps are needed to prevent future such devastation.
Having a keen understanding of the hazards in your area is the first step to preparing for environmental emergencies. This is the core of a relatively new concept called “environmental security.”
Environmental security should be seen as just one dimension of the wider problem of how ecosystem and environmental changes are straining public health, public policy and our welfare.
What Is Environmental Security?
Environmental security affects biological, physical and chemical components and systems necessary for life. Unfortunately, catastrophic events, such as the massive flooding in Europe, highlight both material and ecological interdependencies and how environmental change may increase the risk of violent conflict, undermine the territorial integrity and economic growth of nation-states, and create human insecurity.
Environmental Security Is a New Way of Thinking
As populations increase, one-third of the current global land cover will be transformed. Humans will have an increasing need to address consumption, ecosystem services, restoration, preservation and degradation.
Environmental security is the convergence of traditional national security thinking, environmental protection and policy development.
In addition, environmental security is a transnational issue that involves aspects of national security, natural resources, and human rights. It represents a new way of thinking about the interactions among many previously siloed activities.
Environmental Security Is a Global Concern
There are global environmental concerns as well, including:
- Focusing on the interactions between ecosystems and mankind
- The effects of global environmental change on environmental degradation
- The effects of increasing social requests for resources, ecosystem services and environmental goods.
Environmental security and human security, while similar, have subtle differences. They address different security aspects like social or political security. In this context, values at risk are the survival of human beings and their quality of life.
Blake D. Ratner is the Executive Director of Collaborating for Resilience, a cross-regional initiative working to address environmental resource competition. Ratner provides an interesting perspective when he states, “Environmental security has been described as a bundle of issues which involves the role that the environment and natural resources can play in peace and security, including environmental causes and drivers of conflict, environmental impacts of conflict, environmental recovery, and post-conflict peacebuilding.”
Ratner goes on to note that environmental security “underpins the rationale for investment in global environmental benefits, and is essential to maintain the earth’s life-supporting ecosystems generating water, food, and clean air. Reducing environmental security risks also depends fundamentally on improving resource governance and social resilience to natural resource shocks and stresses.”
Ratner suggests the following topics to start a discussion regarding environmental security:
- Stakeholder analysis focused on entry points for change – Who are relevant stakeholders? What are the potential barriers and opportunities for engagement (including gender power dynamics)? How should each be engaged?
- Project governance arrangements linked to the broader governance context – This topic recognizes that “the greater the level of change to the social-ecological system, the more attention must be paid to issues of power, decision-making and accountability.”
- Attention to adaptive learning and ethics – How has the project team made the process transparent and conducive to learning? What mechanisms enable flexibility to deal with uncertainty and alternative ideas? What measures ensure ethical engagement?
- Consideration of the requirements for dialogue – This includes the role and skill level of the facilitator and the potential need for specialized skills in conflict management, particularly when transformational change entails disrupting existing relationships.
- Focus on capacity for learning – This integrates monitoring, assessment and knowledge management into processes of stakeholder engagement, with the intention of fostering self-assessment, awareness, and the capacity for implementation, including the capacity to mobilize collective action in support of project goals.
Environmental Security Solutions
There are many potential solutions when considering environmental and human security, including preserving the natural environment. One solution is to implement the 17 UN Sustainable Development goals at local, regional, municipal or community levels. These goals offer an interesting framework to consider environmental security issues.
Environmental security can be enhanced through the use of green space, for example, in sustainable drainage systems and green roofs. Dirk Jansen of the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth told NBC News, “The best bet the global community has in combating the effects of climate change is reducing greenhouse gas emissions as fast and effectively as possible because the more we emit into the atmosphere, the more these extremes will increase in the future.”
Environmental security requires a holistic, global approach to solve tomorrow’s problems today. This approach involves enhanced sharing of environmental security data and identifying gaps in existing monitoring and foresight assessment systems. Identifying hot spots for environmental security could lead to early detection and prevention.
One thing we know for sure is that environmental hazards, like those torrential rains in Europe, are likely to occur again even if we don’t know when or where they will happen. Therefore, the best solution is to develop a global awareness and response to these hazards to prevent them from snowballing into an environmental security crisis of epic proportions.