Geoffrey Dabelko is director of the Environmental Change and Security Project in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan policy forum on environment, population, and security issues.

Monday, 10 May 2004

THE HAGUE, Netherlands

Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and perhaps failed states top today’s security agenda. But what about the environment? Can environmental security help us make the world a safer place?

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The Hague Conference on Environment, Security, and Sustainable Development comes at an ironic time for those of us working in the field of environmental security. Before Sept. 11, some observers, such as journalist Robert Kaplan, predicted that environmental change would be the security concern of the 21st century. Deforestation and soil erosion leading to widespread migration, climate change swamping low-lying islands and coastal communities, competition for scarce resources erupting into conflict — these and collapses in Liberia, Somalia, and Haiti prompted a number of policy responses. In the U.S., then-Vice President Al Gore formed the U.S. State Failure Task Force to look into what factors caused states to fail in the post-Cold War era. At the United Nations, creation of a “green helmets” force — environmental shock troops that would respond to environmental crises — was debated (and eventually rejected by developing countries based on sovereignty concerns).

However, despite official pronouncements suggesting that poverty and human security concerns are national security concerns, including President Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, U.S. response in the “war on terrorism” has been essentially unidimensional: force. New U.S. initiatives around HIV/AIDS and the Millennium Challenge Corporation are potentially significant but arguably would do little to address failed and failing states. And the Bush administration certainly shows little if any interest in pursuing environmental security, a term closely identified with Bush’s vanquished opponent Gore.

While U.S. policy makers may largely ignore environmental security, interest is rising in Europe. The Hague conference has attracted a diverse group of mostly European policy makers, scholars, and advocates seeking to promote more sustainable relationships between people, their environment, and the natural resources they depend on.

“Whether we came from Mars or from Venus, we are all here now on spaceship earth,” said Pieter van Geel, state secretary for housing, spatial planning, and the environment in the Netherlands. He was referring to Robert Kagan’s characterization of Americans coming from Mars, for their realist faith in power, and Europeans from Venus, with their internationalist commitment to multilateralism.

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Yet Minister van Geel made clear as he opened the conference that the climate change issue will be pushed aggressively during the Dutch turn at the European Presidency starting in July 2004. Holland is a country, after all, where you ride your bike uphill to get to the beach. He called for action on climate change and the sea-level rise that comes with it by saying he would rather avoid having the next meeting at The Hague in life jackets. It would indeed be a shame for Andrew Carnegie’s lovely Peace Palace, the home of the International Court of Justice, where we are meeting for three days, to be submerged.

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Saying that sustainable development is a prerequisite for sustainable security summarizes the general European sentiment, expressed today by Frits Schlingemann, director of the Regional Office for Europe of the U.N. Environment Program. Few disagreed at this broad-brush level.

But the consensus quickly breaks down when choosing which issues to focus on. Climate change dominates this agenda from the European perspective, with calls for engagement and action from the disengaged United States. Rajeb Boulharouf of the public affairs office of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification made the case for focusing attention on the life and death struggles of people in the developing world. He accurately described the shortcoming of many environmental security conferences such as this one, saying we hear climate change mentioned 10 times a day, biodiversity five times, and desertification once if we are lucky. From the perspectives of many Southerners, climate and biodiversity issues are luxury items that gloss over key developing-country environment and security linkages: local struggles for controlling natural resources or Northern subsidies that undercut the development potential of trade.

Tomorrow — thoughts on mending the transatlantic environmental divide.

Tuesday, 11 May 2004

THE HAGUE, Netherlands

Today the conference took on the state of transatlantic environmental relations with a lively debate. In a panel I sat on, we discussed how policies might change under new administrations on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as opportunities for doing good while mending some hurt transatlantic feelings.

The simmering environmental tension between the U.S. and Europe, rather than something to sweep under the rug, can provide a great opportunity for these two old allies to decrease tension across the board.

To make progress on climate, clearly a top priority for the Europeans attending this conference, we should not talk about climate. Sounds silly, but perhaps an example debated today will make the logic clear. Whereas the Chinese government may have little interest in aggressive action on climate change, it shows great interest in energy-efficiency gains for its inefficient boilers, gains which can cut the horrible haze caused in large measure by the burning of dirty coal. Investment in the economic efficiency and respiratory health of the Chinese population is an issue that can gain traction in China. It just so happens, of course, that energy-efficiency gains in China have the potential to make real progress in lowering emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

In the U.S., playing state politics might be a more effective tactic than railing against Washington’s climate inaction. The history of U.S. environmental progress is commonly a story of state-led innovation and regulation. Americans here suggested that Europeans pass over Washington and go directly to Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mitt Romney, and George Pataki, three Republican state leaders from California, Massachusetts, and New York, who appear to be taking climate change seriously.

Also, Europe and the U.S. should stop focusing almost exclusively on differences over climate change and rally around development problems faced by residents of the global South. Dirty water, for example, is responsible for approximately 2 million deaths per year. Both the U.S. and particularly the European Union, with its Water for Life initiative, have made commitments in this area, but they have not been enough. Compared to the complexity and expense of coping with climate change, ramping up investment in providing safe water should be politically doable. Talk in the hallways here suggested that the G-8 meeting in the U.K. next year may provide an important political forum for such a ramping up of human-security support. Climate promises to be a priority at the G-8 meeting, but so does Africa and HIV/AIDS, the latter two leaving room for what is, from a Southern perspective, a more immediate human-security agenda.

The war in Iraq did predictably rear its head during conference proceedings today. As an addendum to an otherwise practical plea for energy efficiency and green behavior, one director of a European environmental NGO suggested the Europeans should strike a bargain with the Americans. They should help bail the U.S. out of its quagmire in the Middle East, and in return the U.S. would have to ratify a raft of treaties that remain unsigned and/or unratified: the Biosafety Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, among others. The Europeans, in this view, have the U.S. over a barrel at the moment and now is the time to strike a hard bargain. Reactions ranged from enthusiasm for the sentiments to derisive dismissal. The suggestion produced some shaking of heads at the idea that the Europeans could rectify the mess in the Middle East even if they tried as well as the idea that the U.S. Senate would suddenly go on a treaty-ratification spree.

Wednesday, 12 May 2004

THE HAGUE, Netherlands

Recent research suggests that environmental degradation can catalyze violent conflict. But is the opposite also true? Can environmental cooperation foster peace?

The answer is yes, according to a number of participants at the Hague Conference on Environment, Security, and Sustainable Development. Many regions suffering from tensions or simmering conflicts could potentially benefit from peace-building efforts that focus on environmental issues. Environmental cooperation can enhance trust, establish habits of cooperation, forge cooperative bonds between different groups, and create shared benefits, norms, and identities. In such a strategy, environmental cooperation is a tool for building confidence, not the goal itself.

The Peace Palace.

Discussions here at the Peace Palace provided some tangible examples. “Peace parks” in former conflict zones can not only conserve biodiversity, but can help former combatants cohabit contested space, provide new jobs for demobilized soldiers, and create a shared sense of responsibility and identity for nearby residents — if they are set up correctly and involve the local community in their design.

Saleem Ali from the University of Vermont highlighted an ongoing effort to establish a peace park in the Karakoram Range between antagonists India and Pakistan. Nicknamed the K2 peace park because it would contain K2, the second-highest peak in the world, this initiative has gained added momentum with the coming 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of the mountain.

Two or more countries share rivers in 263 basins around the world. This interdependence, coupled with increasing water scarcity and population growth, leads many politicians and journalists to hail “coming water wars.” The Nile River is often flagged as a prime candidate for armed conflict over water, harkening back to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s threats to bomb upstream Ethiopian hydro-development projects that would decrease flows into downstream Egypt.

Yet cooperation, not conflict, is the real story of transboundary waters. Efforts to move from arguing over water rights to debating water needs, to exploring “shared benefits” among countries and communities, is a transition starting to happen along river basins.

The Nile Basin Initiative is an ongoing high-level government-to-government effort to share benefits up and down the Nile. Facilitated by the World Bank and the U.N. Development Program, this process includes ongoing ministerial negotiations among all 10 “riparians,” or countries in the basin.

There is still considerable work to do, however, said Patricia Kameri-Mbote of the International Environmental Law Center in Nairobi, Kenya. While supportive of the objectives of the Nile Basin Initiative, Kameri-Mbote pointed out the need for better integration of civil-society actors into the process, which has largely been dominated by governments. This stakeholder participation and transparency are necessary for the ultimate sustainability and effectiveness of the NBI enterprise, according to Kameri-Mbote, who also serves as chair of Kenya’s Discourse-Civil Society Engagement on the Nile.

If we flip the environmental security coin, the other side reveals the impact of the military itself on security. How does war damage the environment and how can post-conflict efforts restore or improve the environment?

Pekka Haavisto, chair of the U.N. Environment Program’s new Post-Conflict Assessment Unit, said he is often asked whether people in immediate post-conflict situations can afford to care about the environment. He responds with a definitive yes. Returning refugees have immediate questions about whether they can drink the water and whether the area is contaminated by remnants from munitions. Disseminating this kind of information, and helping establish means to assess and improve conditions, are critical functions this UNEP unit has now provided in Liberia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, among others.

Wednesday, 19 May 2004


The coming-out party for the Institute for Environmental Security in The Hague assembled a heavily North American and European group of people with a few notable participants from Africa and Latin America. We all held a diverse set of visions of environmental security, a diversity that can alternatively be a blessing and a curse.

Environmental security as a concept is commonly criticized as meaning all things to all people and therefore being of little analytical value. On balance, however, I would maintain that scholars and politicians alike are wise not to try for a universal and narrow definition. Environmental security needs to be an umbrella term to capture real differences often grounded in site-specific sets of environment and security links. If we pretend we can achieve a consensus definition, we’re bound to ignore, willfully or carelessly, key development challenges in both the global North and South.

Where you sit typically informs where you focus your environmental security lens. Sitting in low-lying Holland, climate change was repeatedly the center of attention at this Hague conference. Meeting in the Peace Palace, some participants had visions of solving environmental conflicts through formal legal procedures in which everyone has a lawyer and access to developed judicial or arbitration courts. Others worried about minimizing biodiversity loss in wartime.

But at U.N. Environment Program headquarters in Nairobi just days after the conference in The Hague, a decidedly more Southern set of participants wanted to know about a different set of resource-conflict issues. Analysis of developing-country conflicts with natural-resource components often fails to take account of the Northern consumption footprint that helps fuel those “local” conflicts.

Kenyan police officer near Masai Mara.

Where are most of the diamonds from Liberia, trees from Indonesia, or fish of the South Pacific going, after all? These “lootable” resources often end up on the fingers of women in New York, in the walls of houses in Beijing, and in restaurants in Paris. African NGO representatives and U.N. staff alike asked why environmental-security researchers and policy makers commonly viewed the causes of the conflicts associated with these natural resources as local without addressing the more remote contributions. Those of us brought to Nairobi as the environmental-security “experts” had to acknowledge that historically environmental security efforts have been weak on integrating international economic dynamics.

The need to have a fuller view of what fuels conflicts does not obscure the on-the-ground challenges I witnessed in both the crowded slums of Nairobi and the Masai’s cow-dung houses on the fringes of the Serengeti. Environmental degradation and resource competition are part of the complex poverty mix that forces many Kenyans to struggle daily for “human security” on a very personal level. The objective of environmental security should be to find ways to better understand the environment’s contributions to these “livelihood” challenges as a means to more effectively address them.

In their own ways, participants in The Hague conference and the U.N. officials in Nairobi are working toward this end. Environmental security provides a banner under which a diverse group of scholars, policy makers, and practitioners can pursue environmental links commonly neglected in today’s discourses on security and even development.