Q & A

What is environmental security?

A country runs out of drinkable water. What's its next move? And how will its actions affect neighboring countries? The national security community has developed data, expertise, and plans for responding to threats caused by environmental problems.


Sheri Goodman is senior vice president and general counsel at CNA, a nonprofit national security research and analysis organization, and serves as executive director of its Military Advisory Board. She was deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security from 1993 to 2001.

Q: What is environmental security?

When people don't have enough food, water, shelter, or the natural resources needed to live, that creates unstable situations. It has always been implicitly recognized. In the last 25 years, it's become more explicitly understood, both in defense strategy as well as in the environmental community. Because of that, we've seen a convergence between traditional national security thinking and environmental protection and policy development. They have come together to form, arguably, a new field of environmental security.

Q: Could you give examples of how environmental issues manifest as security challenges?

We are accustomed to thinking of national security threats as being event-driven—the attack. In the Cold War, that was the threat of an out-of-the-blue nuclear strike. More recently it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Event threats drive a lot of the preparations in the national security community.

We recognize that there are slow-onset threats as well. And climate change is one of those. CNA prepared a report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, that described how climate change is a threat multiplier for instability. As an example, Pakistan is already a political tinderbox, a base for terrorists, and a strategically important location for the United States. It's also a place where climate change may lead to flooding in the short term and water shortage and other natural resource challenges in the longer term.

We're trying to understand how the changing environment might augment other threat conditions. That's the idea of the threat multiplier—how do environmental impacts interact with the political dynamic in any particular location? And then how do you do appropriate planning in a national security context?

You just have to look at the maps of growing water scarcity and shortage to realize that because we're rapidly depleting aquifers globally and because glaciers in key regions of the world, like the Himalayas, are melting at a very rapid rate, while at the same time populations are increasing, that will mean increased stresses. A global picture of where and how that's occurring is important to the national security community.

This is where the field, I think, is now emerging. We haven't, until recently, had enough data to really be able to understand and measure exposure of populations and severity of threats in any meaningful way. As we come into an era of big data, we increasingly have the ability to gather, manipulate, and understand data, to see severity and exposure at local and regional levels. That lets us make judgments about how those environmental factors might combine with other political, economic, and social forces to affect national security.

Q: How do you think about energy?

In energy, overdependence on fossil fuels has made us vulnerable to nations who would do us harm. As various presidents have said, we're addicted to oil. We have now been, for a decade, sending troops to the front in Afghanistan and Iraq, putting soldiers', sailors', and marines' lives at risk.

Reducing our dependence on any one source of energy is in our interest, just as it would be to diversify your investment portfolio. I think we are in a global transition towards that. The question is whether we can do it fast enough and what kind of shocks we will incur along the way, since the progress will, of course, be incremental.

Q: How does the dependence on fossil fuels impact the military in practical ways?

Any time the price of oil goes up, it's a tax on the defense budget. You're buying less military effectiveness every time you have to pay more for oil. Getting more out of the military that Americans are paying for is a good part of the impetus for being more efficient.

That efficiency can be achieved in a variety of ways. Some of it is about new technologies; some of it is about operational considerations. It might mean spending less to power buildings and facilities or looking at how we do our training missions—not unnecessarily flying long distances to training areas, for example.

For our own troops, water has been a factor in combat operations in Afghanistan, in terms of what it takes to supply the troops deployed at the forward operating bases. Particularly among the Marines, they want to be more efficient in how they provide water to the troops because just to convoy the water puts the troops at risk. So that's a practical combat condition that the military is trying to address. Along a similar line, they've had solar powered combat units, which reduce the demand for the diesel and batteries that have to be convoyed in.

The Navy and Air Force have flown fighter jets off biofuels. And the Navy is developing the Great Green Fleet, which will power a number of ships on alternative fuels and incorporate such innovations as hybrid electric drives and other fuel-efficient measures.

The Army has been particularly focused on developing sustainable facilities. It has launched initiatives to make a number of its installations net zero for energy, water, and waste. By 2030 they aim to have 25 net zero installations.

The bases will not require any more energy than they can actually produce, they will return as much clean water as they draw from the watershed, and they will eliminate waste destined for landfills.

The military is probably the most sophisticated planning organization around. Generally we think of it planning for military operations, but incorporating environmental and energy considerations into planning around base sustainability has beneficial effects both for national security strategy and for communities across the country. Working with communities on better local land-use planning will extend that expertise. In the future, it might be part of climate adaptation planning. As we try to build a smarter society and a smarter planet, with a lighter footprint, the planning is really essential.

Q: What expertise is needed to do this work?

I think the military's approach has become very highly multi-disciplinary. They draw on expertise from hydrology, biology, chemistry, various fields of engineering, and new fields developing in behavioral sciences, as well as traditional national security analyses. It is producing very interesting scholarship.

I think the national security community has actually become a place where you can make advances in these disciplines, because there is an interest in getting beyond the politics and polemics and asking what the data shows. The Defense Department has historically been a source of innovation, from jet engines to the Internet to the GPS. And that's true here, too. It's also been at the forefront of social innovation—integrating African Americans into the military, as an example. And I've no doubt that these fields are going to require social as well as technological innovation.

Q: Does whether you label something a security issue or an environment issue or a political issue matter?

The label could matter in the realm of politics. What words you use and how they resonate in society at a particular time is worth considering deliberately. In some ways, when you put these issues in a national security context, we're all Americans, which enables us to have a commonality of purpose.

When I was in the Defense Department, I commissioned a study on reducing the fuel burden to the military. Nowhere in there did it ever mention the word climate change. But part of the impetus to do the study was awareness that someday there might be limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Since so many of those emissions are determined by energy usage, we needed to get a handle on energy usage in military operations as a way to make us more resilient and less vulnerable.

Q: Resilience seems to be an important concept in environmental security.

Yes, and resilience at different levels, from a particular piece of equipment to an organization to the resilience of a whole community and a society There's a growing appreciation that you need resilience of both infrastructure and social capital for a community to be able to withstand a particular event or disaster. Advances in the quantification of the behavioral and social sciences that integrate with the physical sciences allow for a more sophisticated understanding of those dynamics.

If you take the difference between the impact of the earthquakes in Haiti and in Chile, it's not simply that Chile had better building standards or that less of the infrastructure crumbled. In many ways, the whole society was much more resilient. Part of that is the social capital—how the human networks come together.

Q: How do extreme events play in?

We seem to be living in a time of more extreme events. So whether you're an insurance company and you've got to protect your portfolio or you're an at-risk population of people in the low-lying areas of Bangladesh threatened by tsunamis and sea-level rise, better understanding, planning, and preparation is required.

Hurricanes, cyclones, wildfires, earthquakes, and every other sort of natural disaster have a range of human and natural resource consequences. It is something we have to be prepared for. Homeland security developed around protecting against a terrorist threat, but it is evolving to include responses to natural disasters as well. The preparedness aspect has some similar components. I think that there'll be much more integration of the planning and preparedness for different types of extreme events. That may also include things like cyber attacks and other infrastructure events that could have significant consequences.

Q: How should environmental security issues fit into our national strategic planning?

Well, I think they're the most important issues of our time. They merit attention at the highest levels and should be mainstreamed into national security planning. We're in the process of understanding the various impacts of climate change. We're also in the transition to a new energy future. The U.S. leads the world in energy innovation today. We need to keep that up, because it's important to our future. We don't know exactly what that future's going to look like, but it will be different than where we are today.

Interview conducted and edited by Ted O'Callahan

Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary, CNA