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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


June 2007

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Editorial - The Environment and National Security

The view that natural resources are a vital component of national security is not revolutionary, and the conflicts involving one or more nations’ demands for resources—particularly, in today’s world, energy resources—are too numerous to list. As Henry Lee and Dan A. Shalmon indicate in their article, “Searching for Oil: China’s Initiatives in the Middle East” (page 8), China’s push to establish a reliable oil supply to fuel its rapidly growing economy is a new chapter in this old story. Demand for oil has entangled the populous nation in tensions around the world—particularly in the Middle East.

The Chinese government—which, like that of the United States, has been reluctant to develop policies to curb greenhouse gases—reported earlier this year that climate change will have severe impacts on China’s food and water supplies and coastal infrastructure. In late February, the government announced a four-year plan to mitigate and adapt to climate change,1 perhaps a sign of hope; although China will undoubtedly continue expanding its search for oil. Lee and Shalmon’s article indicates that China is making significant investments over the next five years in its domestic refineries to process imported oil.

In the United States, the first mention of environmental issues in the National Security Strategy (NSS), the document that periodically updates the strategy to make the nation secure, was made by President George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s. President Clinton highlighted it, and his defense secretary, William Perry, even made the environment a key point in his call for a revolution in security strategy. All of these officials have stated that while the environment may not be the traditional subject of security strategy discussions, environmental degradation and resource scarcity in various forms lie at the root of many of the world’s conflicts.

Although the environment was missing from President George W. Bush’s 2002 NSS, it was back in the next one, in 2006, possibly as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Since the Clinton era, there has been an environmental officer in the National Security Council. Now, the Military Advisory Board, a standing advisory committee composed of some of the most senior retired military personnel, has issued a report stating that global climate change represents a national security threat that could affect Americans at home. The report, commissioned by the Center for Naval Analysis, a government-financed research group, states, “The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.”2 A member of the panel, retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, is quoted as saying, “We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, . . . [o]r, we will pay the price later in military terms.”3

What can environmentalists do? It would be folly to change direction by allowing military strategy considerations to overwhelm the environmental movement. Some may choose to do this, and although it is true that the fundamentals of the environmental movement are in the process of substantive change, it is unlikely that environmental groups are going to take the lead in forging national security strategy.

This inclusion of environmental concerns in security issues should simply serve as one more indicator that the environmental movement and the issues it represents have become mainstream. Once called leftist ideologues (and worse), environmentalists now find themselves in leading positions in government and corporations. The issue has bridged the ideological divide, and we must pay attention to the implications.

There is an expression, paraphrased here as, “There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” We should learn who our new allies are and work with them cooperatively to solve, or at least ameliorate, one of the most serious sets of issues and concerns we face. However, in our enthusiasm to embrace these new environmentalists, we should not forget the idealism with which the movement was started.
There are many reasons to wish for a cleaner world, with clean water, clean air, and productive soil for all, and only one of these reasons is the reduction of military conflict. To achieve what we want, we must be clear about our ultimate objectives and be fueled by our passion to make the world a better place.

—Alan H. McGowan
    1. See J. Wu, “China Prepares to Launch Climate Adaptation Plan,” SciDev.Net, 9 February 2007.
    2. Environment News Service, 16 April 2007,, accessed 8 May 2007.
    3. Ibid.

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