October 20, 2021 — To fill an urgent gap in understanding and addressing the security implications of global ecological disruption, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) has significantly expanded its Ecological Security Program over the past months, with the help of a grant of close to $1 million from the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation. The program, housed within CSR’s Converging Risks Lab, addresses all elements of global ecological disruption, including biodiversity loss and beyond, caused by drivers such as habitat change, direct (and often illegal) exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and the spread of damaging invasive or otherwise destructive organisms.
Ecological disruption–from the loss of biodiversity and their ecological benefits that support life or through the emergence of new ecological harms–remains largely absent from the agendas of the U.S. and international security communities. This absence persists despite its profound implications for political instability, geopolitical clashes, food and water stress, mass displacements of people, and other adverse security outcomes.
The warnings on biodiversity loss are increasingly dire. In 2020, a World Wildlife Fund report declared that losses were occurring at a rate unprecedented in history, with an average 68 percent decline in mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish since 1970. These global statistics underplay the extreme destruction in some regions, such as the tropics, while failing to capture declines in insects and other invertebrates that underpin ecological networks in soil, marine, and freshwater systems. UN Secretary General António Guterres echoed these sentiments last week during a major international conference devoted to combating biodiversity loss, warning of humanity’s “suicidal war against nature” and looming ecological collapse.
At the same time, new ecological harms are emerging from conditions created by the rapid reconfiguration of Earth’s terrestrial, marine, and freshwater systems. Intensifying human-wildlife interactions, especially in newly-disrupted habitats, catalyze zoonotic spillovers that can lead to pandemics and their associated political, social, and economic disruptions. Freshwater pollution spurs increasingly harmful algal blooms–and their powerful neurotoxins– that pose risks to human health, economic livelihoods, and critical infrastructure. Irruptions of insects and other pests, such as the desert locust swarms afflicting large regions in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East beginning in 2019, can devastate food security and economic stability. The emergence of antimicrobial resistance, already viewed by many nations as a critical security concern, is amplified by human-altered environments.
Security risks also accompany many forms of environmental crimes, such as illegal fishing, illegal logging, and wildlife trafficking. In addition to driving large losses of biodiversity, these risks include benefits to the transnational organized criminal organizations that perpetrate these crimes, the corrupt entities that facilitate them, and the proceeds of such crimes to malign actors.
In an effort to bring long overdue attention to and additional research on this issue, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) has initiated a major effort to: conduct research and analysis on the inextricable connections between threats to national and international security and the disruption of the biosphere; to develop measures to deepen the capabilities of national security agencies to analyze and assess these connections; and to inform policies that, if adopted and funded in the near term, can mitigate these threats.
The program deepens and expands upon the analytical framework that underpins CSR’s landmark ecological security report The Security Threat That Binds Us and the programmatic and policy responses recommended in that report.
“Accelerating losses of biodiversity and their associated ecological functions undermine the foundation on which humanity depends, a harrowing predicament whose importance cannot be understated. At the same time, we have created conditions that benefit many harmful ecological agents, such as pathogens, pests, and other organisms evolutionarily predisposed to take advantage of such changes. The set of risks to people and institutions arising from ecological disruption, whose consequences are as serious as those posed by climate change, is a persistent blind spot for the security community.” – Dr. Rod Schoonover, Head of the Ecological Security Program at CSR’s Converging Risks Lab
“Launching and now expanding this program was a strategic move to fill an urgent need: We see evidence of the security implications of various forms of ecological destruction daily, yet the analytical, community building, and policy implementation work required were not being done in a concerted enough manner. The Council on Strategic Risks team, including our Center for Climate and Security, has unique methods and a long track record of filling such gaps, and we knew we needed to act.” – Christine Parthemore, CEO, The Council on Strategic Risks
“I first began working on environmental security issues as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security) in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Since then, ecological risks, from biodiversity loss, ocean health, and ecosystem decline, have rapidly accelerated. A major part of the drive to launch the Council on Strategic Risks nearly five years ago was to address urgent yet underappreciated security issues like this one. The Ecological Security Program is of critical importance to fulfilling this mission.” – Sherri Goodman, Chair of the Board, the Council on Strategic Risks
“Unfortunately, in a complex world with increasingly serious and converging risks, we can’t afford to choose to deal with just a few. We must deal with them all. The climate crisis goes hand in hand with a major ecological security crisis, and it must be taken seriously and acted upon, by the highest levels of government, before it’s too late. Our Ecological Security Program, led by a team of key experts on the intersection of ecological and security risks, is designed to help us address this crisis — both in terms of better understanding it and better understanding what to do about it. It’s essential to our founding mission of addressing systemic risks to society.” – Francesco Femia, Co-Founder and Research Director, The Council on Strategic Risks
“Tackling ecological security in the long-run requires the development of a new generation of national security leaders that understand the risks and how to address them. I’m thrilled that a key pillar of this effort is a fellowship program, modeled on our successful Climate Security Fellowship program, to do just that.” – Erin Sikorsky, Director, The Center for Climate and Security
“At CSR, we know first-hand how powerful it is to bring together diverse experts that do not normally collaborate in order to develop solutions to existential, multi-faceted risks. By establishing an innovative community of practice—known as The Alliance for Ecological Security—we will be once again breaking down silos to facilitate conversations, policy recommendations, and collaborative action aimed at tackling ecological disruption.“ – Andrea Rezzonico, Deputy to the CEO and Deputy Director, The Converging Risks Lab
“Nowadays, it’s not enough to produce cutting edge research in order to have desired effects, it’s also necessary to articulate compelling narratives that reach a broad audience.” – Dr. Natasha Bajema, Director, The Converging Risks Lab
“It is axiomatic that threats to the national security of the United States and our allies and partners are not static; new threats emerge, other long-standing threats grow and diminish in their nature, location, and intensity. As these threats evolve, so too must the responses of the United States and our allies and partners. We have begun to deal in serious ways with the security threats of climate change; now we must also begin to deal in serious ways with the ecological security threats highlighted by the Ecological Security Program.” – Brigadier Gen. Bob Barnes (Ret.), Member, Council on Strategic Risks Board of Directors