Environment and security: Towards a better understanding of the connections and policies

A fascinating series of seminars, aimed at bringing together the academic community on security and the environment, held its third session at the University of Geneva on 9 and 10 February. The literature on environment and security has been growing over the years, but a consolidated debate is still required to fully understand the connections between the two fields.

These seminars – launched in partnership between Sciences Po Paris and Université Libre of Brussels (ULB) and with participation from the University of Geneva, University of Economics in Bratislava and the Fletcher School at Tufts University – aim to change that.

Three panel discussions covered different aspects of the key problem with a specific focus on the process of securitization. Indeed, this workshop aimed at discussing the social construction of the environment as a security issue and how and why different actors would include the environment on their security agenda. Green Cross has long advocated, within the political, economic and civil society spheres, for the need to make that connection. Progress in the academic world is an essential complement to those efforts, because it can provide the rigorous and systematic thinking necessary to help guide decision-makers in the future.

“Academic research, studies and discussions like these are invaluable for civil society – this is where an organization like ours finds evidence that can help guide our activities and policy recommendations,” said Adam Koniuszewski, Green Cross International Chief Operating Officer. “Civil society organizations in Geneva have much to gain from cooperation with prestigious academic institutions like the University of Geneva and the other participating institutions, and vice-versa.”

Philippe Bourbeau, Cambridge University, discussed the implications of research on resilience – including such findings as the difficult translation from natural science where the concept comes from to politics and the neoliberal implication of such an approach – for decisions taken by policy makers. Maria Julia Trombetta, University of Nottingham at Ningbo, China, spoke about the perception of “threats” and “risks”, how people’s understanding of the first leads to their consideration of the second, and how communities respond to both.

A session focused on the empirical evidence available on environmental securitization included Angela Oels, University of Hagen, who compared perspectives from three different theoretical schools on environmental securitization and how these different points of view apply to the field of climate change and its political implications.

The existing climate security discourse, such as it is, is not succeeding in facilitating climate change mitigation and adaptation policy and action. Oels emphasized different types of security considered by governments and institutions (human, national, international and ecological security) and explained why some are considered more dominant than others.

A usual entry point for talking about climate security is the protection of natural resources and water. Philippe le Billon, University of British Columbia, proposed ways to understand how broadly defined natural resources are included on the security agenda, taking into account the material, spatial and temporal dimensions of each resource.

Alexis Carles, ULB, introduced an example of a water management dispute: the Okavango River Basin. It is shared by Angola, Namibia and Botswana, and Botswana has used many strategies to hamper the other two countries’ rights to access these waters. This shows that securitization can have its disadvantages, such as when it deals with shared resources and complicated interstate relations where one country is more powerful than the others sharing the same resource.

It was agreed that there is a significant challenge in making sure securitization of environmental issues does not lead to them being connected with the imposition of power. Lucile Maertens, University of Geneva, focused on how the environment and securitization debate challenges traditional definitions of security and presents a considerable challenge for the UN. Her panel addressed the intentions and the practices of different actors in the securitization process, and the ambiguous relationship between experts and policy makers was noted by Krystel Wanneau, ULB.