Geo-Economics and Politics

7 ways Earth system stress is already affecting our security

Desert locusts fly near the town of Rumuruti, Kenya. Earth system stresses are increasingly causing national security concerns — and this trend looks set to continue.

Earth system stresses such as biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution are escalating and increasingly pose challenges to national security. Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Rod Schoonover
Co-Founder, Ecosecurity Council
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Earth system stresses such as biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution are escalating and increasingly pose challenges to national security.
  • These Earth system stresses are already posing national security challenges.
  • We need to adjust our security frameworks to better match the emerging risk landscape — and central in this effort will be multi-stakeholder cooperation.

As we approach the mid-21st century, security issues worldwide are becoming increasingly complex and dire. Active conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have not only overwhelmed international peacemaking efforts but have also exacerbated humanitarian crises and sparked civil protests.

Moreover, regions across Asia and Latin America, as well as other parts of Africa, are grappling with a spectrum of security challenges, from political instability and organized crime to the pervasive scourge of corruption.

While geopolitical upheaval rightly captures global attention, myriad Earth system stresses such as biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution are also escalating. Moreover, we are witnessing likely irreversible damage such as the crossing of ecological tipping points for coral reefs and the Greenland ice sheet.

These stresses almost certainly will intersect dramatically with security issues — and, in many places, they already are.

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Security paradigms are changing

Current security paradigms were developed on an Earth that essentially no longer exists. Without intervention, the confluence of existing geopolitical instability and Earth system stress is likely to precipitate an unprecedented and potentially unmanageable global security crisis. Consequently, integrating these elements into our security frameworks is critically needed.

Human activities have dramatically transformed the planet. While the security narrative often concentrates mainly on climate change — when Earth system stress is discussed at all — this focus obscures the equally critical impacts on the biosphere and from pollution.

Together with other Earth system stresses like soil degradation, freshwater depletion and nutrient overabundance, these issues form a complex tapestry of security-relevant ecological challenges. A security doctrine that prioritizes climate change while neglecting these other stresses is, at best, incomplete and at worst perilous.

The following figure enumerates a broader array of Earth system stresses, illustrating how interconnected and extensive these challenges truly are. Each element contributes uniquely to the global ecological and security landscape, underscoring the need for integrated approaches in reformulating security doctrine.

Earth system stresses often have direct impacts on our security.
Earth system stresses often have direct impacts on our security. Image: Rod Schoonover

7 Earth system stresses undermining security

Understanding the wide-ranging Earth system stresses that threaten global stability is crucial. However, abstract discussions can often obscure their tangible impacts. To illustrate the extent and variety of these challenges, the list below highlights key instances from around the globe where Earth stresses have already exacerbated security concerns:

1. Aquatic and marine stress: Aquaculture devastation from harmful algal blooms in Chile, declining fish populations undermine Pacific livelihoods and sargassum overwhelms Caribbean island nations.

2. Land degradation: Desertification in the Sahel, droughts in the western United States and droughts amplifying the devastating impacts of civil war in Syria.

3. Climatic extremes: Rising sea levels threaten critical infrastructure in eastern United States, heatwaves impact populations in Europe and increased tropical storms in the Arabian Sea.

4. Resource conflicts: Overfishing fuels clashes in the South China Sea, geopolitical disputes over Nile water resources, and over-pumped groundwater sparks interstate tensions in India.

5. Habitat impacts: Deforestation threatens Indigenous communities in the Amazon, invasive species devastate North American forests, and wildfires destroy homes in Australia.

6. Pollution and contamination: Toxic smog in Iran, nuclear contamination in Japan and mucilage outbreaks in the Sea of Marmara, Turkey.

7. Pestilence and disease: Transcontinental locust swarms ravage agricultural crops, armyworm infestations in Africa, and rust disease devastates coffee-producing economies in Central America.

On a global level, the COVID-19 pandemic was a brutal reminder of the links between ecological stress and security. Almost certainly originating from humanity’s troubled relationship with nature, the socio-economic and political disruption arising from the pandemic far exceeded most traditional conflicts viewed as security issues by governments. The crisis underscores the need for a security paradigm that anticipates and incorporates ecological risks.

The security outcomes from Earth system disruption are unlikely to diverge from familiar patterns of political instability, geopolitical tensions, disruptive migration and humanitarian crises. However, decision-makers now face the daunting prospect of an ecologically-embedded polycrisis, characterized by cascades of interlinked catastrophes that overwhelm their capacity to both identify and respond.

These challenges are further intensified by the ongoing rise in militarization, anti-democratic sentiments and disinformation campaigns that erode collaboration and amplify the impacts of Earth system disruption. In this transformed world, security must be reconceptualized not as a zero-sum game but as a function of global interdependence and ecological sustainability, demanding a fundamental shift in how we understand security.

In response to these multifaceted threats, the security community must shift from reactive measures to a proactive stance, emphasizing strategic foresight and comprehensive planning. By carefully analyzing and integrating converging ecological, social and political trends, security strategies can better anticipate and mitigate potential crises.

This holistic approach transcends traditional geopolitical considerations, embedding resilience and adaptability at the core of global security frameworks to effectively address the interconnected challenges of our time.

As we reimagine security on a rapidly changing Earth, it is crucial to understand and incorporate the concept of Nature’s Contributions to People.
As we reimagine security on a rapidly changing Earth, it is crucial to understand and incorporate the concept of Nature’s Contributions to People. Image: Rod Schoonover

Integrating nature into security frameworks

As we reimagine security on a rapidly changing Earth, it is crucial to understand and incorporate the concept of Nature’s Contributions to People (NCPs). Developed by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, NCPs detail the myriad diverse benefits that ecosystems provide, from food and water security to soil and climate regulation.

These are essential underpinnings of global stability and security. Recognizing these contributions helps shift our security strategies from reactive to proactive, anticipating and perhaps mitigating risks before they cascade. For instance, protecting pollinators ensures greater agricultural productivity, directly affecting food security and reducing the potential for political and social instability.

Security is not the sole domain of traditional security institutions; rather it is a multi-stakeholder issue that demands active engagement from all sectors of society, including business, academia and civil society.

These diverse groups must collaboratively develop and support a security framework that comprehensively integrates the broad impacts of ecological change. Integrating core values such as egalitarianism, justice and equity into these frameworks would enhance their sustainability, ensuring that responses not only manage threats but also foster fairer and more just societies.

Earth system disruption will not pause while the world addresses its myriad conflicts. As the planet undergoes rapid change, our security paradigms must evolve just as quickly.

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