Beyond Climate Change: Ecological Disruption Calls for a National Security Reboot

Ongoing stresses to critical Earth systems, including to water, food, wildlife, forests and fisheries, heightens the risks of future pandemics, conflict, political instability, loss of social cohesion, economic harm, and other security outcomes.

The Converging Risks Lab of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) has released a landmark report, The Security Threat That Binds Us, that identifies ecological disruption as a major and underappreciated security threat and calls on the United States to reboot its national security architecture and doctrine to better respond to this evolving threat landscape. 

Dr. Rod Schoonover, lead author of the report, Advisor at the Council on Strategic Risks, and former Director of Environment and Natural Resources at the National Intelligence Council, noted: “The past decade has seen a lot of deserved attention on the security implications of climate change, but the fraying of the ecological networks on which humanity depends, which is both interconnected with and distinct from climate change, poses a commensurate security threat. The U.S. and international security communities need to treat ecological disruption and climate change as conduits of serious security threats, rather than mere environmental concerns.”

The report focuses on the security ramifications from large-scale destabilization and transformation of the biosphere, and ecosystems shifting to new baseline states. It offers recommendations based on three fundamental precepts: heightened action from both the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch to combat ecological and natural security disruptions; a greater infusion of science and scientific expertise into the national security communities; and a reboot of U.S. national security doctrine and architecture to tackle the modern threats presented by a changing planet and degradation of its embedded socio-ecological systems. 

The report’s authors call for eight pillars of recommended actions by the United States:

  1. Promote International Mechanisms that Aim to Reverse and Reduce the Drivers of Ecological Disruption, which include:

Ratify the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Law of the Sea; infuse ecological and natural security into climate change efforts; integrate sustainable agriculture and food supply into policy and science; and promote actions that combat overexploitation of natural resources.

  1. Promote Methods that Protect and Expand Critical Systems and Services, which include:

Counter harmful state actions towards critical resources; expand protected areas; better manage and protect protected areas; protect critical ecosystem services that span geographies.

  1. Build and Strengthen International Alliances, which include:

Assert global leadership on climate and ecological security; bring together ecological security communities; increase international communication on ecological risks; and develop, share, and collaborate on ecological defense frameworks.

  1. Treat Environmental Crimes as Serious Crimes, which include:

Prioritize anti-corruption efforts; target criminal markets as well as criminal groups; and move beyond seizures and promote effective prosecutions and deterrent penalties.

  1. Reduce Pandemic Risk at Point of Origin, which include:

Enhance monitoring, understanding of pathogen space, and pathogen early warning; increase assistance for One Health efforts; and address pandemic risk in the wildlife trade.

  1. Amplify Ecological and Natural Security Issues in the U.S Government, which include:

Create a Deputy Assistant to the President and an Office of Environmental Security within the National Security Council; infuse ecological and natural security into White House strategic planning; increase capacity for analyzing ecological and natural security issues within the intelligence community; elevate international water security issues (including their climate dimensions) within the foreign policy and national security enterprise, including at the State Department, Department of Defense and National Security Council; add more ecological and natural security issues to military-military and intelligence-intelligence engagements; and augment ecological and natural security in U.S. defense and intelligence academic curricula.

  1. Initiate an Ecological and Natural Security Research Agenda, which include:

Deepen understanding of linkages between ecological disruption and security; develop early warning indicators for dangerous ecological regime shifts; bring ecological forecasting to maturity; and foster more research on insect declines.

  1. Engage the Public on Ecological and Natural Security Issues, which include:

Deploy effective security advocates; convene high-level ecological and natural security conferences, with the participation of security, foreign policy and intelligence leaders; and expand the aperture of natural security to include the broader ecological security framework described in the report.

President Biden has already started to show his hand with regard to climate change and its links to national and international security. But this report goes much further than linking climate change to security concerns, instead warning of a broad range of ecological disruptions and their consequences.

The Honorable John Conger, Director of the Center for Climate and Security, Chair of the Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), Senior US Advisor to the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), and Former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense at the U.S. Department of Defense, said the report is compelling.

“Since the emergence of COVID and the new focus that has been placed on non-nation-state security threats, few reports have made me think so deeply about the complex web of policy issues upon which our own national interests depend. Climate change is a piece of this story, but the authors illustrate the broader ecological narrative in a way that is both compelling and illuminating.”

Population growth, demographic shifts, globalization, urbanization and other socioeconomic forces have all reconfigured the Earth’s natural systems. For more than three decades, scholars and practitioners have studied and debated how these planetary changes affect human, national, and global security. It is now time to fully recognize the role of a destabilizing biosphere in security – and to act. The report notes that without transformative actions on both climate change and ecological disruption, the future portends a dangerous period ahead of ecological, political, and socioeconomic collapse, punctuated with conflict, political instability, loss of social cohesion, infectious disease, migration, and many dimensions of human suffering.

The U.S. national security apparatus is designed to protect Americans against malign actors. Actorless security threats, like infectious disease outbreaks and climate change, present problems that national security agencies are not institutionally, educationally, or doctrinally prepared to address. The report recommends the U.S. rethinks which federal agencies get a seat at the national security table, which could help offset the tendency of the United States to view national security through a narrow defense or military lens. Congress, meanwhile, will be challenged to reframe ecological threats beyond low-priority environmental concerns and to resource them at levels more appropriate for the serious security implications for people and nations, including the United States, that these ecological threats and environmental concerns pose.

Scientists have been warning for some time that the situation is dire. President Biden has pledged to be led and driven by science. His early actions against COVID-19 support this, time will tell if the new administration will also tackle climate and ecological threats with the same commitment.

Read the full report at the Council on Strategic Risks

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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