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Add Natural Conservation to Security-Cooperation Efforts

Protecting ecosystems can reduce destabilizing refugee flows, resource insecurity, and more.

U.S. security cooperation efforts, long focused on supporting foreign militaries, should do more to foster conservation. 

Among the root causes of natural resource scarcities and other nature-related security challenges is humanity’s broken relationship with nature, including climate change. Pollution, severe drought, flooding, and the over-exploitation of forests, fisheries, and other critical resources deny communities critical needs, like clean drinking water, while undermining health, livelihoods, and local economies. As conditions worsen, they can force entire communities to migrate. Increased conservation can reduce migration and lessen the internal strife that can destabilize regions and communities.

Last year, amid a global pandemic, a record 40.5 million people were displaced from their homes worldwide. Weather-related disasters, including storms, floods, and other phenomena, displaced three quarters of those. Climate change will likely cause these types of disasters to increase in frequency and severity. Bad actors can exploit humanitarian disasters to recruit to their cause and expand their territory. In the Sahel, where an estimated 80 percent of farmland suffers from environmental degradation, extremists have preyed on food-insecure people to swell their ranks. In Iraq, after a weak harvest, ISIS provided cash and food to farmers with a promise of more aid.

Conflict can follow displacement. In Nigeria, desertification, instability, and a loss of grazing land forced nomadic herders to migrate into new territory where they clashed with sedentary farming communities. A vicious cycle can erupt as conflict further exacerbates resource insecurity. 

The United States is the leading provider of humanitarian aid in the world, but it cannot adequately respond to the growing threat of climate-related displacement by simply reacting when disasters occur. As environmental stresses, natural disasters, and extreme weather events grow more frequent and intense, the U.S. government should redouble its efforts to help developing countries become more resilient and more prepared. This includes greatly increasing U.S. assistance for conservation and climate finance to confront the intertwined challenges of global nature loss and worsening climate effects. 

Preventing desperate conditions from arising in the first place through conservation efforts can provide part of the solution to some of our most pressing national security challenges. Investments in resilient agriculture help vulnerable communities to conserve soil and freshwater resources, enhancing their food and water security. Restored and intact mangroves and wetlands mitigate the damage that coastal communities face from flooding and storm surge. Sustainably managed forests and fisheries protect livelihoods and provide economic opportunities.

The Pentagon should not restrict its conservation efforts to foreign countries. Since 2018, the Defense Department has spent $8.5 billion to rebuild from disasters, a dramatic jump from the $2.4 billion the military spent rebuilding from disasters in the previous two decades. For the U.S. military to fulfill its mission of deterring war and protecting national security, it needs to attend to the risks posed by climate change to its capabilities. As Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Environment and Energy Resilience Richard Kidd recently testified to Congress, the DOD’s disaster preparedness efforts often neglected nature, but improving conservation would shelter military installations from climate threats. Expanding work like the recent partnership with DOD and state governments to protect salt marsh from Florida to North Carolina as a buffer against storms would be a good starting point.

The U.S. faces many global challenges that require leadership and investment of resources. But this is an area where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Modest investments now in global conservation will help us avoid much greater costs down the road. Climate change may not be reversed, but its damages can be limited. And taking concerted steps now to conserve and restore nature will help do just that, while also yielding multiple benefits for long-term security, health, and prosperity. 

Two decades after World Refugee Day was established, the U.S. should tackle this challenge head-on to prevent the refugee crises of the future. Doing so means providing increased financial and technical support to global efforts to mitigate and build resilience to the risks posed by a rapidly changing planet. Aiding states, regional entities, tribes, and localities in pre-disaster and risk planning—including the protection and sustainable management of their natural resources—will not only benefit U.S. national security, but will make for a safer world in the long run.

Alice C. Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, former special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Resilience Policy on the National Security Council. She is the author of The Fight for Climate after COVID-19.