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The importance of the concept of security in environmental protection.

Eduardo Schneider Lersch

At a time when the intersection between environmental sustainability, climate crisis, and global security is becoming increasingly pronounced, the concept of environmental security has emerged as a means to draw attention to this issue for policymakers. As our planet faces unprecedented challenges from climate change, resource depletion, and ecological degradation, the implications for national and international security are being deeply analyzed in an interdisciplinary manner.

Environmental issues have gained prominence in the fields of Law and political science as concerns about the risks related to human activities' impacts on modern societies have increased. Environmental security is understood as the protection and preservation of the environment against harm, pollution, and degradation. This involves implementing policies, regulations, and practices aimed at ensuring the sustainability of natural ecosystems, health, and the well-being of the communities that depend on this environment.

Concerns about environmental security encompass various variables that reflect the reality of the discussion. Natural resource scarcity, national interests, potential violent conflicts, forced displacement of people, and the preservation of ecosystems essential for ecological balance, among others, are part of the problem's contextualization. It was especially in the 1990s, with renewed perspectives of peace and conflict reduction, that the concept of security extended from nations to groups, individuals, systems, and international organizations, and eventually to the integrity of the biosphere.

Thus, studies on "security" have been expanding to include connotations beyond the traditional scope, notably of a military and national security nature. Although military tensions and violent conflicts still guide the hierarchical prioritization of this agenda, it is undeniable that the concept has broadened, especially in academia after the fall of the Berlin Wall, encompassing new typologies, critiques, and essays.

Environmental concerns began to emerge more frequently from the 1970s, solidifying in the following decades with the onset of global environmental crises. The debate gained momentum as the consequences of environmental degradation became more evident, mobilizing key global actors, such as the urgency to mitigate ozone layer deterioration and the growing concern about global warming. Additionally, countries with significant levels of environmental destruction, food insecurity, and rapid population growth became subjects of security analyses incorporating environmental aspects, a strategy adopted by researchers and environmentalists to attract the attention of opinion leaders and policymakers.

According to Maria Julia Trombetta, the relationship between the environment and security highlighted some of the consequences of environmental degradation that, however, did not penetrate traditional risk and security analysis: "analytically, it seemed to be a way to better explain new types of vulnerabilities, as well as the potential for conflict and violence that these vulnerabilities could be associated with" .

Different scopes of analysis are presented when security and the environment are confronted. Firstly, global human security is considered in the context of the Anthropocene and risk society, given the catastrophic potential triggered by climate change. From these circumstances, "traditional" security arguments are invoked, involving the defense of supranational interests, not necessarily with military meaning, representing a transformative logic in security analysis. Javier Sánchez Cano highlights three typologies of how the concept of security is used:

  1. Political use: Derives from political action and its discourse. Measures are generally invoked retrospectively, as an emergency in the face of a current situation, mobilizing important resources, autonomy, but also secrecy in certain decisions and crisis management.

  2. Analytical use: Used in conceptual analysis within social theory. It implies a concept previously used and then adapted to reality.

  3. Programmatic use: Encourages debate through the development and use of new concepts, principles, policies, organizations, technologies, and analyses. It is considered programmatic when security concepts are used to promote changes, based on current situations, among parameters that guide action, discourse, and foundations in different fields of knowledge.

In the legal field, environmental security is the object of study of "institutions, mechanisms, and techniques for the prevention and resolution of international environmental disputes that arose simultaneously with the depletion of certain natural resources.” In political science, there is a debate about the appropriateness of using the term "security" for environmental and/or ecological terms. Maria Julia Trombetta explains that: "the word security implies a specific logic or rationality, regardless of the context or the intention of the speakers.” Simon Dalby makes a similar observation, suggesting that linking these concepts to security requires challenging the prevailing foundations of geopolitics, international relations, and policymaking, to differentiate the use of this concept between different areas of knowledge.

Therefore, proposals on new principles and concepts of security aim to elevate the level of debate. Firstly, it is a way to guide public policies and practices, from their theorization to the creation of practical guidelines. Secondly, it serves to raise public awareness, disseminating current thinking about new concepts and the goals of these initiatives. Thirdly, it is a way to challenge existing policies and predominant definitions. Counterpoints to such policy foundations enrich the debate and give rise to new propositions. Finally, it is also a way to influence the distribution of power and resources, for example, proposing the reduction of military budget expenditures, allocating these resources to environmental defense programs and organizations.

With the advance of the climate crisis, discussions are emerging about how to adapt to a new paradigm of planetary defense and global security. The discussion is relevant, as there is a global mobilization in the face of threats to humanity caused by external factors, but planning for internal threats is not subject to as much scrutiny. In current circumstances, institutional action seems based on the premise that internal threats are nonexistent or immune to this type of intervention. From a more biocentric or ecocentric point of view, there is a deeper discussion about "ecological security,” considering the balance of all species and ecosystems in nature, affected precisely by human intervention.

In this context, security has a meaning that harks back to protection. The choice of the term "security" does not carry the same traditional sense of armed or military conflict, but rather a governance issue to prevent this type of escalation, encompassing issues of natural resource management, disaster prevention, sustainability defense, and its application to preserve critical aspects for the survival of all species. However, Javier Sanchez Cano reflects that the choice of the term is not far from this reality, since environmental degradation has catastrophic potential on scales similar to wars, and the relationship between ecology and armed conflict is closer than assumed, especially in underdeveloped regions rich in natural resources and exotic ecosystems.

In this sense, the reality of Latin American countries offers an important context when it comes to security issues, including environmental or ecological security. The levels of insecurity (in all relevant areas) experienced daily by citizens of these nations are very different from those perceived by the most prosperous nations and regions. Environmental security is often linked to extractivist activities such as: "governance problems and the failure of democracy in certain Latin American countries make socio-environmental conflicts related to extractivist activities more visible.” The issue is also analyzed from the perspective of the security of indigenous populations, who are subject to special protection in Latin American legal systems and are located in remote areas, and unfortunately are targeted by legal and/or illegal extractivist policies.

In a broader context, climate change is seen as a "threat multiplier,” many of which are directly related to human security at local, regional, and global levels. As the consequences of climate change become more external, a shift in political and institutional discourse can be observed, with a return to concepts of global and human security. Consensus is important when it comes to international coordination, as the community of actors involved needs to identify the limits of traditional systems and rationalize the instruments to be used. The urgency context must be considered to avoid exceptional measures that unbalance the relationship of power and strength among the involved parties, turning security into an oppressive force, paradoxically transforming it into a source of insecurity.

Trombetta suggests that the process of "securitization" of these new analyses differs from traditional security studies, even in its adaptation. In this sense, this methodology fits well into the concept of risk society, because this parameter:

challenges the logic of violence, antagonism, and war suggested by securitization. It suggests a set of security practices based on risk management and prevention. [...] Securitization is widely understood as the social construction of an issue as a security issue - it can be considered as a reflective process that is not only ‘rule-driven,’ but also ‘rule-changing’ (Beck 1997, 134). Securitization is not about applying a fixed meaning of security as exceptionalism that inscribes enemies in a context. Instead, it is "an always (situated and iterative) process of meaning generation” (Stritzel 2007, 366). By securitizing non-traditional issues, the incongruity of a specific security logic appears as different practices are applied. In this framework, the construction of both threats and the rules by which security is performed is open to a process of social construction and transformation.”

The logic of securitization analysis allows for coherent institutional action, as well as coordination among environmental actors at various levels and areas, generating a social process that specifies priority threats and establishes actions, emphasizing those that are preventive and coordinated not only by state actions that designate "enemies" and promote security based on traditional concepts. As in the case of combating climate change, the importance of the concept of security or protection within this paradigm is expanded, showing that the process of securitizing this threat is reflective and contextualized to generate new meanings and multifaceted and interdisciplinary practices.

Similarly, Webersik emphasizes that “climate change is no longer a development or environmental issue, but now a matter of international peace and security. Here, an expanded concept of security can capture much of the climate-related security issues, including food security, water scarcity, and migration.” In other words, environmental security involves topics on human security, while risks arising from the climate crisis can lead to conflicts and violent disputes. The assurance of coherent public policies and institutional actions against climate change is adequate to the expansion of the security concept but is not separate from traditional security issues. In fact, it brings the same concerns as one of the most "conventional" security issues, as “environmental security has replaced the threat of a global nuclear war, as it shares two characteristics: both have global reach and their effects can be highly devastating.”

Beyond international coordination, there is a need for improvement of regional and local contexts. The normative framework of Brazilian and Latin American reality contains a dense framework of environmental protection, aimed at protecting vulnerable populations, ecosystems, and species. Institutional action has a tacit securitization bias, however, its effectiveness needs to be improved. Environmental defense is already scrutinized by the inter-American human rights protection system.

In the context of insecurity experienced, especially in Latin American countries, of environmental regression, the multiplication of extractivist crimes and degradation in preservation areas, as well as violent conflict against communities and populations inserted in these areas, the subject is relevant and deserves greater attention from authorities. Only by understanding the intricate links between the environment and security can we promote a more resilient and sustainable future for all.


[1] TROMBETTA, M. J. Environmental security and climate change: analyzing the discourse, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 21:4, 585-602, 2008, DOI: 10.1080/09557570802452920

[2] De acordo com Ulrich Beck, a sociedade de risco é identificada pela presença e pelo gerenciamento generalizados de riscos, especialmente aqueles que são gerados pelas atividades humanas na era moderna. Beck argumenta que a sociedade contemporânea deixou de se concentrar na distribuição de riqueza para se concentrar na distribuição e mitigação de riscos e perigos, desencadeados por causas sistemáticas que são congruentes com o impulso para o progresso e o lucro.  Os riscos na sociedade moderna são incertos e invisíveis, pois não podem ser facilmente controlados ou previstos. Suas consequências usualmente só se tornam evidentes a longo prazo, a exemplo da poluição ambiental, dos acidentes nucleares, doenças relacionadas ao trabalho, efeitos colaterais indesejados de produtos químicos e medicamentos ou as mudanças no funcionamento dos ecossistemas terrestres devido às mudanças climáticas. Cfr. BECK, U. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications, 1992.

[3]   CANO, J. S. De la seguridad compartida a la seguridad ecológica. Ecologia Política. Barcelona, v. 15, 1998, p. 11-30.

[4] CANO, op. cit., p. 19

[5] Simon, Dalby. Ecological metaphors of security: world politics in the biosphere. Alternatives, 23:3, 2008, p. 291- 320.

[6] ROTHSCHILD, E., 1995. What Is Security? Daedalus 124, p. 58-61.

[7] Cfr. Tarancón, A.C., Soler, E.S., Asensio, E.P., 2023. Integral Planetary Defense. A new concept of security for the Anthropocene. Cuad. Electrónicos Filos. Derecho 366-400., p. 372

[8] Essas circunstancias é englobada pelo Estado da arte ambiental da Constituição Brasileira de 1988, que inclui a justiça interespécies.

[9] CANO, op. cit., p. 25

[10] VEYRUNES, E. Las amenazas percibidas para la Amazonía: un estado del arte en términos de seguridad ambiental. Documento de investigación, 2008.           Editorial Universidad del Rosario. Disponible en:, p. 11

[11] O conselho de segurança da ONU há décadas tem buscado conscientizar sobre essa realidade. Cfr.'threat-multiplier'-un-security-council-debates-its-impact-peace

[13] TROMBETTA, op. cit., p. 590-591.

[14] Webersik, C. Climate change and security: a gathering storm of global challenges, Security and the environment. Praeger, Santa Barbara, 2010, p. 112

[15] BARNETT, J., 2003. Security and climate change. Glob. Environ. Change, p. 9-10.

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