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An Ecological Security Program Report by Robert Bentley, Lily Boland, Michael R. Zarfos, and Andrea Rezzonico
Edited by Erin Sikorsky and Francesco Femia
This scenario exercise explored how security risks may be heightened by ecological degradation due to anthropogenic stressors. The scenario was set in a fictional country, Khomland, with a number of geographic, social, economic, and political features characteristic of actual Southeast Asian states. During the game, three teams representing domestic civil society, the international community, and the governing elite, faced three stages of deteriorating ecological conditions. Teams were given the opportunity to respond directly to these ecological changes and to interact with one another. The game was structured to facilitate negotiations between various actors and to explore emerging conflicts among teams, illuminating the evolution of player decision-making and how those decisions may interact with a pressing ecological crisis.
Key takeaways from the exercise include:
- Human-driven ecological disruption initiated a domestic security crisis. Mismanagement of Khom’s ecosystems and external pressures from climate change, led to the collapse of fisheries and coastal agriculture—the resulting food and job insecurity prompted large scale migration into cities.
- Climate change and other forms of ecological degradation catalyzed internal conflict. Increasingly intense episodes of precipitation combined with upland deforestation made much of the country’s population centers and agricultural lands vulnerable to severe flooding. At the same time, extreme wet bulb temperatures proved fatal. These extreme events led to a spiraling conflict of extreme actions and responses.
- Society was not able to cope with the opening ecological crisis or its evolution. Players accepted the fate of Khom’s ecosystems and made pivots from actions intended to restore ecosystem services and solve the crisis toward ones intended only to manage it. Ecological mitigation, not restoration, was a more achievable goal given the lack of adaptation measures in place.
- It would have been more efficient and effective to avoid ecological degradation than it was to restore ecosystems. Ecosystem restoration takes years of community cooperation, funding, and a commitment to monitoring and upkeep. These capacities were largely absent from a society experiencing an internal security and political crisis.
- Player decisions often exacerbated rather than resolved the ecological crisis. The ecological situation forcibly shaped player decisions. Although play began with specific stressors and tipping points, followed by human action, this sequence was often obfuscated. As play progressed it became more difficult to distinguish between when human actions drove the ecological situation and when the ecological situation drove humans to act. Factional politics and unrest, catalyzed by job losses, food insecurity, and migration, largely distracted players from opportunities to restore ecosystems. Instead, ecological degradation was allowed to continue. This feedback loop between ecological degradation and insecurity and unrest only exacerbated the political crisis.
- Competing actions driven by socio-economic and political aims also contributed to ecological disruption. International funds reached the pockets of elites instead of the ecosystems that desperately needed attention. Civil disobedience in response to corruption resulted in the death of thousands and created a hotspot for disease spillover. Disruptive agricultural practices also continued as people migrated from cities to rural areas in search of better livelihoods threatened by both the country’s security services and the crisis.
- Rather than join forces to address the immediate impacts of ecological degradation, actors turned on one another. The government militarized its response to both the crisis and opposition from domestic political groups and civil society. As domestic actors turned against one another and vied for power, the international community became less incentivized to seek out financial support. Providing humanitarian aid became too precarious for risk-averse international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
- The political system turned from semi-democratic to a concentrated authoritarian state. The ruling elites amassed more power as the country’s situation worsened, in the name of preserving state stability. Ultimately, the crisis led to the end of the existing semi-democratic political system and the establishment of amore authoritarian state.
The results of this exercise show that loss of ecosystem functions and services, and the acceleration of climate change, may contribute to resource scarcity, food insecurity, economic fragility, community displacement, societal unrest, political instability, civil conflict and increased authoritarianism. Since this scenario exercise explicitly eschewed involvement of external powers, such a possibility cannot be ruled out. The scenario demonstrated that where social imperatives meet ecological degradation, the resultant cascade of risk pathways will be unpredictable and hazardous.
This report concludes with a series of recommendations inspired by participant discussions. Some of these include:
- Fund research, education programs, and scenario exercises focused on translating the security risks posed by ecological degradation and collapse. Governments and IGOs –particularly their security agencies—need data, resources, and expertise to begin to understand and successfully mitigate the complexities of ecological security issues. The private sector can fiscally support these initiatives.
- Direct early and upstream investments in governance and stability to ensure local organizations and state entities have the foundation to respond to complex crises when they emerge. This preparation prevents catastrophic impacts from completely overwhelming government capacities.
- Prioritize conservation and disincentivize environmental damage from the outset – it is easier to prevent ecological disruption than it is to respond to it. Governments and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) must address this initiative in partnership with local civil society organizations (CSOs) and the private sector to ensure communities are considered, supported, and involved in these efforts. Communicating the economic value provided by these integral ecosystem services will help reluctant actors recognize their benefits and the costs of their degradation and loss.
- Increase aid for, and investment in, adaptation and resilience. Local communities, CSOs, and governments need support to adapt to ecological degradation and build more resilient societies. Nature-based solutions ( e.g. restoration of upland forests, wetlands, and mangroves to protect against flooding) are an essential part of this approach.
- Build the capacity to quickly deploy hybrid responses to ecological emergencies. There is a clear need to augment global institutional capabilities to be able to deliver complex humanitarian, developmental, reparative, and structural responses during complex ecological crises. IGOs should prepare to respond to issues such as mass displacement and food insecurity, and governments should consider more flexible policies for absorbing and hosting displaced peoples. At the same time, organizations must be able to rapidly deploy solutions aimed at strengthening communities through climate adaptation and ecosystem restoration.
- Invest in and deploy technology to make agriculture more resilient and regenerative; Subsidize and promote agricultural practices that rebuild and protect ecosystem function, biodiversity, and reduce emissions while maintaining yields.
- Combat or circumvent corrupt networks and actors. Corruption thwarts the efficacy of external aid, investment, and influence campaigns. This can be mitigated through improved transparency by proactive governments and direct support for civil society from the international community.
By Michael R. Zarfos
This month, the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and its Ecological Security Program (ESP) had the opportunity to comment on the Draft Prospectus for the First National Nature Assessment (NNA1) prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), and is publishing its input here. The NNA1 will be completed in 2026 and will consider the state, direction, and probable future of U.S. lands, waters, wildlife, biodiversity, and ecosystems. It will identify the benefits these sources provide to society, and the risks associated with their deterioration or loss. In accomplishing these tasks, the NNA1 will quantify and characterize the state of the ecological security of the United States and its future outlook. While the United States has published a National Climate Assessment since 2000, NNA1 will be an important step in systematically assessing broader ecological security assets and risks.
CCS broadly supports the themes and framework proposed in the draft prospectus. The themes (conservation and natural resource management, economic interests, human health and well-being, safety and security) and cross cutting areas woven throughout them (climate change, equity) all intersect with the national security of the United States and, in particular, climate and ecological security. The framework is designed to consider information from a variety of sources ranging from the peer-reviewed literature to the experiences and perspectives of local communities. This breadth, diversity, and specificity of information should make the NNA1 useful to many consumers. Furthermore, the communication of NNA1’s findings will be enhanced by additional products designed to supplement the primary report, including special peer-reviewed journals and videos relating how a diversity of communities value nature.
While all four themes identified in the Draft Prospectus intersect with security issues, the “Safety and Security” theme is most directly relevant to CCS and ESP. In addressing this theme, NNA1 would focus on the following questions (paraphrased):
- Question 1: What losses from natural and environmental hazards have been averted by nature (e.g., protected areas, green and blue infrastructure, restored areas) over time, and for whom? Where and how much can nature-based solutions equitably reduce future risk from these hazards?
- Question 2: How have trends and spatial patterns in nature affected food and water security? What are opportunities for nature-based solutions to avert these emerging risks?
- Question 3: Where might changes in nature and climate cause people within the US to migrate, and where might they go? What nature- or natural resource-related risks and opportunities are they likely to face in these new locations?
CCS comments on the theme of Safety and Security and its proposed questions:
Generally, CCS suggested that geographic coverage of the NNA1 be expanded beyond the United States and its territories to include ecosystems in close proximity to US diplomatic, scientific, and military installations and shared infrastructure abroad. Proximate ecosystems likely provide services to these installations and the communities that support them. Ecosystem loss or degradation might undermine community and installation resilience to threats such as climate change and natural disasters, undermining US national security, global operations, and deterrence.
CCS provided the following input on each of the thematic questions:
- Question 1: In addition to constructed, protected, or restored nature, USGCRP should also consider unprotected, but extant nature (e.g., privately owned forests or grasslands) and anthropogenic ecosystems (e.g., crop monocultures, urban vegetation) as a source of potential hazard aversion. For example, in New England, about 80% of forests are privately owned, most are not protected through any legal instrument, and many of these forests regenerated naturally, rather than being actively restored. Anthropogenic ecosystems also provide services (e.g., water infiltration, thermal regulation), even if these are reduced.
- Questions 1 & 2: When evaluating the potential for nature-based solutions to mitigate natural hazards and food and water insecurity, CCS recommends that USGCRP present example benefit-cost analyses that compare nature-based solutions with synthetic solutions (e.g., conserving a wetland and riparian buffers vs. constructing a waste treatment plant). Such analyses could include a comparison of different methods for valuing ecosystem services. These comparisons should help policymakers weigh the potential benefits of retaining ecosystems rather than relying on technology to replace services once they have been destroyed.
- Question 2: CCS recommends that USGCRP’s assessment of changes in nature which could impact food and water security include trends in environmental pollution and in biotic eruptions (e.g., introduced non-native invasive species and pests, algal blooms) that may impact both anthropogenic and natural ecosystems. Atmospheric deposition of pollutants such as nitrogen, sulfur, and mercury is often transboundary, challenging regulation. Compounding biotic eruptions may have a significant impact on water quality and food production which is not evident when considering these eruptions in isolation.
- Question 2: USGCRP should consider broadening its analysis to consider the impacts of changes in nature abroad on US food and water security. To the extent that the United States imports food and shares water resources with other countries, its security may be impacted by changes in nature that interrupt global supply chains or undermine food production or aquatic ecosystems abroad.
- Question 3: In addition to considering where changes in nature and climate might lead to human migration (both from and to), consider exploring how this migration might impact nature and its associated benefits and risks in some of the probable receiving locations (i.e., cascading impacts and feedback loops). If mismanaged, the necessary expansion of services, housing, and infrastructure could eliminate important ecosystem services while leaving migrants vulnerable to future natural disasters (e.g., building in future flood plains and on existing wetlands).
The First National Nature Assessment is an important step in America’s growing effort to quantify the state, trajectory, and benefits of our nature. The inclusion of climate and ecological security considerations in this assessment is vital for national security and is complementary with its other themes (conservation and natural resource management, economic interests, human health and well-being) and cross-cutting areas (climate change, equity).
By Michael R. Zarfos
Edited by Andrea Rezzonico and Francesco Femia
Human society benefits from environmental and biological predictability. Farmers expect to be able to plant a particular species and variety of crop that will survive and thrive in the soils and under the climate conditions that are typical of their given region.They have systems in place to manage the different pests and diseases that are typical of their environment. Hunters, foresters, and fishers all rely on sustainable stocks of specific species to enable their livelihoods. Similarly, each type of ecosystem exists within an envelope of predictable environmental conditions.
This equilibrium extends beyond the nonliving (abiotic) inputs to the system (e.g., water, heat, and nutrients) to include its living (biotic) components—its native species and pathogens. A newly introduced species may come to dominate the system as its population explodes, leading to local extinctions.Similarly, a native species stimulated by climate change or nutrient pollution can grow out of control, drastically altering the local environment and the services people derive from it. These complex interactions represent a category of potential tipping point, what we term human-driven “biotic eruptions,” which can severely disrupt the world we live in and undermine our security. Policymakers should consider these biotic eruptions in a global security context, and take actions accordingly.(more…)
Leadership in the Polycrisis: How UK Defense Training Can Help Us Navigate a Future of Unprecedented Environmental Disruption
By Laurie Laybourn and Matt Ince
Edited by Erin Sikorsky and Francesco Femia
The global scale, systemic interconnection, and severity of today’s climate and ecological crises has led researchers to conclude that the world has entered a new era—or overall state—of complex, cascading, and compounding risk.Some have labelled this the ‘polycrisis.’ Approaches to leadership development in a defense context—which commonly focus on the ability to operate effectively under intense conditions—might have increasing relevance for civilian leaders wanting to enhance their capacity to respond to this emergent polycrisis era. We undertook research exploring these approaches, utilizing structured workshops and interviews with around thirty senior officers and personnel across the United Kingdom (UK) Defense enterprise. We found that the strong emphasis placed on physical and mental resilience, situational rehearsal, and an initiative mindset grounded in organizational structure and team ethos will increasingly have a broader leadership applicability as the destabilizing consequences of the climate and ecological crisis grow. This briefer explores our findings.(more…)