Environmental security has taken on new meaning in the twenty-first century as sustainability and natural resource protection have become essential elements of national security and foreign policy.

In the early post–Cold War era, the national security community viewed environmental security as related to contamination caused by former Soviet military activities, or as the threats to human and economic health posed by improperly maintained nuclear weapons and industrial pollution. Throughout much of the 1990s, the focus was on how to phase out the use of ozone-depleting substances and how to address cross-border contamination issues ranging from air pollution to wastewater.

When first included in the U.S. National Security Strategy, environmental issues centered on conflicts over access to, or control of, natural resources—conflicts that compromised U.S. national security interests. The focus then was on regional cooperation between countries to prevent transnational environmental crime (such as overfishing and illegal logging), to promote communication among stakeholders, and to better understand and address the consequences of environmental catastrophe (recognizing, for example, that a flood that disrupts agricultural production, spreads disease, destroys infrastructure, and forces mass human migrations across national borders is more than a short-term localized event and may spawn serious long-term threats to U.S. national security).

In 1991, in an effort to initiate a peace process between Palestinians and certain Arab countries, the United States and the Soviet Union cosponsored the Madrid Conference, which called for multilateral meetings with the Israelis and Palestinians. Three of the five issues discussed in these meetings related to the environment, and the agreements reached still govern the sharing of water resources between Israel and its neighbors. The positive implications for U.S. national security in creating and supporting initiatives like the Madrid Conference revealed the value of multilateral participation in efforts to address environmental issues that affect state legitimacy and regional stability.

The 1994 UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report was a watershed in elevating the human condition as a matter of national and international security.1,2 In the early 1990s, human security (as opposed to state power alone)—and the instability caused by environmental crises, and by the failure of governments to meet citizen demands for political, social, and economic freedoms—was increasingly affecting U.S. security interests by making governments more vulnerable to extremist ideologies and destabilizing conflicts over scarce resources.

In the mid-1990s, as part of its preventive defense strategy, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) integrated environmental concepts into its planning.3 The DOD also saw opportunities to promote stability, defuse regional tensions, and reduce the need for large-scale U.S. military involvement through environmental security cooperation between nations, an effort that continues today.

Other federal agencies also developed initiatives addressing environmental issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drew up an environmental security strategy entitled Strengthening National Security through Environmental Protection,4 which focused on environmental issues that could have threatened U.S. interests abroad: Chernobyl; the destruction of Haiti’s forests; Indonesian forest fires that caused more than 20 million cases of smoke-related respiratory illness and 1,000 deaths; and the Kuwait oil fires of 1991. The Central Intelligence Agency created the Director of Central Intelligence Environmental Center to track environmental matters and provide data to the international community. And the U.S. Department of Energy established environmental security research centers.

In the following decade, the Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007 introduced mandates, standards, and incentives for investment and research in greater energy efficiency. Linking the environment and energy as issues of national security, the George W. Bush administration launched a series of “practical international partnerships to cut emissions, improve energy security, and foster sustainable development.”5

In November 2009, concerns about the effects of climate change in the Arctic were also raised as a matter of national security, by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:

The melting of the polar ice cap in the Arctic, plus the frequency and intensity of weather events in this hemisphere—with the corresponding need for military humanitarian assistance missions—calls for a greater attention to the security implications of climate change. For the first time, our Quadrennial Defense Review—at the direction of the U.S. Congress—will examine the U.S. armed forces’ ability to respond to the impact of global warming.6

His concerns echoed a 2007 report by the CNA Military Advisory Board, which recommended that the military incorporate the national security implications of climate change in national security planning and strategy.7

This work continues today as U.S. military departments improve the energy efficiency and sustainability of their operating forces and reduce their dependence on oil. The U.S. Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, for example, has produced a Climate Change Roadmap,8 listing actions to assess, predict, and adapt to global climate change. Among these actions is a recognition that the Arctic Ocean may have ice-free summers by the 2030s, and the military will need to be able to operate in an Arctic where permafrost is melting and access to mineral and energy resources and navigation is growing.

In early 2009, the incoming administration of Barack Obama noted that it would require the cooperation of many to overcome the effects of climate change.

Environmental issues were also to be considered in regional diplomacy. The U.S. State Department established a formal Environmental Diplomacy Program, requiring U.S. embassies and bureaus to develop regional environmental policies and to work closely with the DOD Regional Combatant Commands to promote multilateral cooperation on environmental security issues.

Ensuring future environmental security will require a continued cooperative, comprehensive approach based on the collective efforts of U.S. agencies, international institutions, and the private sector.

As we enter a world where extreme events, from natural disasters to deliberate attacks, become ever more common, sustainability and resilience become essential elements of our national security strategy. We ignore these values at our peril.


Kent Hughes Butts

Kent Hughes Butts is the director of the National Security Issues Group at the Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College. His research focuses on destabilizing natural resource issues. He...


Sherri Goodman

Sherri Goodman is senior vice president and general counsel of CNA and serves as executive director of the CNA Military Advisory Board. Goodman has served as deputy undersecretary of defense (environmental...


Nancy Nugent

For the last 12 years, Nancy Nugent has been a research analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses located in Alexandria, Virginia. Her focus has been on projects for the Department of Defense, including...

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