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Environmental security as a global policy issue


Abstract The goal of this article is to describe environmental risks and hazards in the scope of national security, to denote applied functions of the environmental science in the sphere of security management, and to identify key areas of international and global environmental cooperation. The scientific article is based on scientific publications, Internet resources, and personal research experience in the field.

Keywords: Environmental science, environmental security, anthropogenic impact, climate change, climate threats, environmental monitoring, international cooperation, international environmental law.


Ecology is the section of biology studying the interactions among animate nature and its physical environment. As a part of biology, ecology is the study of the ties between living beings and their physical and biological environments. A primary area of study for environmentalists is to enhance the understanding of how environmental diversity influences ecosystems. Ecologists try to examine:

- biological processes;

- the continual development of ecosystems;

- the ‘environment-human relations’. Ecology increased its social significance in the 1960–1970s.

Methodology and description

The main thesis in the article states that environmental security is becoming an increasingly integral part of the global political and international legal discourse, which causes a further need to study all areas of environmental security as a science.

The summary will focus on prospects for international environmental cooperation and will consist of a structured opinion about the future advancement of these relations.

Changing scopes in the academic fields

The most considerable change in the scope of how issues of environment and security have been understood since the Rio conference has been the occurrence of the paradigm of human security. Human security evolved in its referent object of study to the state of an anthropocentric field of study, suggesting that real security can only be reached if it advances beyond the long-lasting focus on state-centric threats and national defense to the human security sector.

Human environmental security covers a handful of considerations and issues that were previously beyond the scope of traditional socio-ecological theory and practice. The new mainstream studies in this field allow scientists to discuss in an analytical scope processes that can undermine security, including poverty, gender inequity, disease spread, environmental degradation, as well as limitations in rights, justice, and access to vital resources. Thus, human security becomes largely inseparable from human development.

Critics undermine human-environmental security with the argument for being state-centered and serving as a hegemonic discourse that bolsters powerful interests by transforming political and corporate problems into security ones. What is insufficient, these scientists suggest, is a more extreme critique that understands theory and practice as socially constructed, and can challenge the prevailing state-centric order, ethics, and legal regulations.

To make ecology more ‘social’, scientists need to challenge mainstream discourses of environmental security. This includes challenging the current terminology of environmental security from one based on territories, threats, and defense, to such based on rights, access, and common justice.

The theoretical debate in the international relations theory

Over the last few decades, the scientific study of international environmental relations has changed significantly because of the attempt to understand the circumstances under which efective international cooperation, for example - the ozone regimes, can be put into action.  Environmental regimes remain in the liberal theoretical perspective, focusing on a key driving factor, which consists in joint gains, arising from cooperative decisions for the problems of providing public goods such as clean atmosphere. Whereas traditional regime approaches argue that external behavior is based on the pursuit of power or interest, liberal-scholars of international environmental cooperation defend the idea for the independent role played by changes in knowledge.

The liberal-institutionalist approach in regime formation makes the essential, but often overlooked assumption that the problem to be solved is how to gain international governance in a decentralized system of sovereign states.

For the Marxist (the ‘left’) and Gramscian (the ‘critical’) theorists, the state system is the heart of the problem rather than the solution, and the required object of study is how the international economy reproduces relations that are fundamentally damaging for the environment. In their view, the global spread of neoliberal policies and programs speeds up key features of globalization and consumerism, the relocation of production to the South, and the pointless wastefulness of resources, which deepens the global ecological crisis.

In contrast to liberalism and the left theories, realism is far more capable of theoretically handling the threat of the immediacy and magnitude of climate changes. According to this approach, states and international cooperation remain the only applicable mechanisms for providing the necessary global governance.

Consequentially, we could simply proceed to do the best we can with existing state and international instruments. As the public becomes more severely concerned about the full magnitude of the climate problem, political discourse begins to ‘securitize’ the environment which means to characterize it as a security strategic problem. Because governments usually prioritize security problems, leaders and scientists willing to mobilize political attention and resources, and to encourage potentially mass social engagement, will be forced to broaden traditional definitions of environmental security.

Environmental cooperation and international environmental law

International environmental law is a comparatively new section in International Law. Its comprehensive development dates back to the 1970-s when there was a growing concern for the internationalization of the global environmental risks. The first anti-pollution treaties were signed in the 1930-s. Nowadays, the most important international documents in this area are The Convention for the Protection of Wild Fauna (1979), The Agreement on Forecasting and Providing Assistance in the Event of Natural Disasters (1987), The Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents (1992), The Declaration from Stockholm (1972) and The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution (1954). 

According to the International Law Theory, despite its territorial supremacy the single state is not allowed to alter the natural conditions of its territory to the disadvantage of those of a neighboring state – for example, to divert rivers flowing into a neighboring state. As a whole, the International Environmental Law has developed on the foundations of classical International Law. This specific branch emerged as a new one only recently, as a reaction to the rising number of treaties resulting from the perceived need for a legal response to international environmental degradation processes.

International institutions such as the UN bodies, the OECD, the EU, and the OAU made an important contribution to the area of global environmental regulation, by accepting standards, guides, and codes of conduct. International non-governmental and corporate structures signed documents with a high significance for the International Law – The Business Charter for Sustainable Development (1990) and The Declaration of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (1992). Although such non-governmental agreements do not possess formal legal power, they provide guidance for the further development of the International Environmental Law.

The key principles of this branch of law are as follows:

- care for precautionary action between states;

- intergovernmental equity;

- good neighborliness;

- early warning mechanisms;

- reparation for unlawful activities.

For the International Environmental Law to be effective international legal regimes should be more gradually developed in order not to be rapidly outstripped by the pace and scale of the globalizing environmental problems.

Climate change processes in the scope of ecological climatology

Ecological climatology is an interdisciplinary subject aimed at understanding the functioning of plants and terrestrial ecosystems and the physical, chemical, and biological phenomena by which the environment interacts with atmospheric processes.

Alterations in terrestrial ecosystems through natural vegetation dynamics, anthropogenic factors, and climate change itself seriously have an impact on the trajectory of climate change. The long-term functioning of ecosystems affects the dependencies between climate and net primary production and soil carbon turnover.   Short-term functioning concerns the fluxes of photosynthesis and respiration.

Climate change is the process of altering the biogeography and functioning of Earth's vegetation.  In a historical sense, over the last several thousand years, summer solar radiation in the Northern Hemisphere increased, atmospheric CO2 concentration increased, climate heated, and melted. This warming was observed in the geographic and historical distribution of vegetation which fitted into cold climates, shifted northwards to be replaced by warm vegetation types.

A key trait of determining the response of vegetation to climate changes is whether it is in balance with climate. If so, changes in climate coherent with changes in plant distribution. Changes in atmospheric CO2 density can alter plant diversity by altering the competitive balance between C3 and C4 plants.

Anthropogenic impact on climate and environment

Today the word ‘environment’ is often used by almost all people around us, in the media, and the papers. Global summits are being held annually to consider environmental issues. During the last few decades, the mutual relationship between environment, social organization, and culture has been thoroughly argued in sociology, anthropology, and geography. Social studies have acquired the concept of ecology from biology. They examine the ties between man and the environment through ecology, or this is the so-called ‘anthropogenic impact’.

The environmental impact of economic activity has several levels of action:

- microenvironment -  relates to the immediate local and regional scope of the being;

- macroenvironment which consists of the physical and biotic conditions that encircle the organism outwardly;

- physical environment - refers to every abiotic factor or condition such as temperature, light, rainfall, soil, minerals, climate, and solar radiation;

- biotic environment – which encompasses all biotic factors or forms of life on microbiological and macro biological levels.

The increasing global population and the scientific advancement have made it rather difficult to find areas untouched by human economic activity (for example virgin forests, meadows, or steppes). The development of transport and other means of communication promoted the dissemination of both useful and injurious species.

A new environment called ‘the noosphere’ is created alongside economic development – it includes all human activities reshaping the natural landscape of the Earth. Its key features are:

- temporality;

- dependence on economic life cycles;

- convergence with the civilizational lifespan of the current human culture;

- dependence on local resource potential;

- highly dynamic environment;

- risky and hardily predictable development.

The environmental influence of agriculture differs in a broad range of agricultural activities, which are applied all over the world. Consequentially, the environmental impact is based on production works in the concrete agricultural system. The relation between discharges into the environment and the agricultural culture is mediated, because it also may be considered as a result of other climate factors like rainfall and temperature.

The environmental influence of irrigation consists of modifications of quantity and quality of natural resources as a result of irrigation and the following effects on environmental and economic conditions at the last stages of the irrigation system.

Farming irrigation facilities (high-powered water pumps, dams, and pipelines) may be taken as the reason for the large-scale exhaustion of fresh water (lakes and rivers). As a consequence, massive deflection of freshwater significantly alters or disturbs the adjacent ecosystems, and leads to the disappearance of many aquatic species.

Environmental security threats in the society of risk

In previous ages, social scientists did not pay enough attention to the risky wastes based on the course of economic production in the global economy during the Industrial Era.

Anthropogenic disasters, including significant contamination of territories by previously unregulated risky sites and industrial disasters, increased during the 1970-80s. Consequently, the media coverage becomes more powerful which raised public opinion concerning healthcare risks because of the exposure of urban, agricultural, and industrial areas to toxic wastes.

Environmental disasters may be described as events characterized by a combination of probabilistic destructive factors for the natural, technological, infrastructural human environment, affecting the territory at risk by generating socially and physically produced conditions for vulnerability.

Disasters are generated by the interplay between three overarching systems - the socio-economic systems, the environment systems, and the physical sphere in which the society lives. The study of environmental health concerns was one of the focal points of environmental sociology, which was raised as a relatively young subject in the 1970-s.

The society of risk is characterized by automatically self-produced hazards generated by society, which undermines established safety systems. In contrast to traditional Industrial-age risks, the new nuclear, chemical,environmental, and medical risks could be summarized as follows:

- they are durable in terms of time and space;

- they aren't liable to the established rules of causality and blame;

- they are hard to be fully remunerated or insured against.

Monitoring, managing and evaluating threats and risks

Environmental assessment requires the skills of many different subjects because it is a discipline that combines these different skills to give us an understanding of the meaning of hazardous materials when discharged to the environment. 

Key elements of every environmental risk are:

  • - the epidemiological uncertainties (evaluating pathogenic factors of the hazardous waste);
  • - the dosimetric uncertainties (arising from dose errors in the estimation process);
  • - the transfer between populations and territories;
  • - the risk projection - uncertainties associated with foreseeing beyond the time period or the area of risk covered by the observation;
  • - the dose rate extrapolation.
  • The process of environmental risk management involves four key stages: 1) risk identification;
  • - risk analysis;
  • - risk monitoring;
  • - risk prevention.

Risk identification includes forming expert groups, finding sources and affected objects, filling survey cards by each expert individually, and compilation of a summary survey by the whole group of experts.

Risk analysis and risk monitoring involve projecting the necessary measures, projecting the impact of the risk over the observed object, probabilistic estimation of the size and significance of the threat, combined risk rate evaluation, and result control.

Risk prevention consists of mitigating the risk, adequate choice of counteraction, explicit definition of roles, risk-sharing, risk tolerating, and risk avoidance measures. The basic aim of risk counteraction lies in decreasing the probability rate and minimizing the intensity of the risk.


To summarize all of the above, it is useful to mention the significant role of environmental security as a scientific branch for ensuring a stable relationship between society and nature. It remains the basic characteristic of human existence and anthropogenic activity because men create the anthroposphere solely based on the existing physical environment. Therefore, environmental science is the main link in maintaining the entire system of economic and social security of the state, the community, and the firm. Without recognizing this significant dependency, it is impossible to foresee the external factors for organizational development and adaptation to the volatile conditions of the global physical and resource environment.



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* Student at "Rakovski" National Defense College