Environmental Security and the Vulnerability Risk Index

While threats such as terrorism cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation are a ubiquitous part of the fabric of everyday life, climate change has emerged as a potentially more dangerous threat and is an integral factor in assessing regional vulnerability to violent conflict. Factoring in the connectivity of globalization, the threat posed by climate change could have a much broader reach with grim consequences.

We tend to think of climate change in terms of global warming, pervasive drought, and powerful storms. However, the adverse effects of climate change expose vulnerable societies to environmental trauma that can easily destabilize poorly governed states. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has devoted a great deal of effort to evaluating the vulnerability of human populations resulting from exposure to the adverse effects of climate change. The group’s Fourth Assessment Report examines the issue of impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability and suggests that people and governments, especially in the developing world, will have a great deal of trouble adapting to the strain of climate change.

Globalization has impacted environmental security with the elimination of much of the friction caused by distance and has created expectations in the developing world of economic growth and affluence. It has also accelerated economic demands, leading to unsustainable economic activity and environmental damage which, combined with population pressure and climate change, is now stressing many ecosystems beyond their capacity. This perspective has considerably refocused the lens by which we view the environment as a variable in the national security calculus.

As population and economic demands escalate, and the adverse effects of climate change become more apparent, collectively these problems may disrupt vulnerable populations to the extent that they erode governmental legitimacy, making these states vulnerable to a potential surge in three modes of conflict: internecine conflict driven by resources shortages, environmental stress, and demographic trends; civil war prompted by governmental collapse and economic factors; and limited-scale interstate conflicts.

We must expand the definition of national security to include environmental threats to stability because the global community may be facing the specter of environmentally-triggered warfare. This is more problematic today because the number of failing states is growing, and they are more vulnerable to instability caused by environmental stress because they suffer from four causally related effects: 1) reduced agricultural production; 2) economic decline; 3) population displacement; and 4) civil disruption.

To examine these factors, I’ve developed a Vulnerability and Risk Index (VRI) to identify states at risk to environmentally-triggered conflict. This study does not suggest that environmental stress alone causes warfare, just that it can potentially trigger conflict in unique situations of extreme civil instability.

The VRI is a composite indicator that ranks 173 states – approximately 87% of the world’s population – from the most vulnerable to the least vulnerable. The six variables used to calculate the VRI index are: exposure to climate change, governance, total fertility rate, gross national income, food security and existing vulnerability to armed conflict. VRI results suggest that the problem of risk is is clearly concentrated in the developing world. The data indicate that 23 states are most vulnerable to violent conflict and 81 states are vulnerable to violent conflict, representing 60% of the global population.

The scenario presented by this study indicates that the future is not bright given our profound alteration of the natural environment by climate change and the weakening of government control in the developing world. Humans already consume 40% of the food and energy resources potentially available. While that percentage may be sustainable now, it is unlikely that it can keep pace with increases in the world’s population.

Fortunately, this forbidding prognosis is only a forecast based on current trends, and like all projections it is rooted in the recent past. Human society is not destined to enter a slow and painful decline into environmental chaos, and there are scientific, technical, and economic solutions to reduce the level of environmental stress and diminish potential conflict. I see the VRI as a roadmap indicating where preventative and remedial resources should be deployed to lessen nations’ vulnerability to conflict.

To support a long-term strategy to reduce the threat from environmental instability, the US and the West should begin to focus on “softer” or stability-enhancing strategies that promote regional plans – rather than state-centric solutions – and assist in the development of governance and infrastructure in developing regions.

By Dr. Francis A. Galgano, associate professor, department of geography and the environment, Villanova University, and author of The Environment-Conflict Nexus: Climate Change and the Emergent National Security Landscape

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