Terrorism, cyberattacks, and nuclear proliferation are three of the most prominent threats to national security today. But, another, more subtle danger—climate change—has emerged as an integral factor in assessing global geographic vulnerability to conflict, according to a research study conducted by Frank Galgano, PhD, a professor in Villanova University’s Department of Geography and the Environment.
Coupled with related economic and demographic challenges, environmental problems can provide the flashpoint that sparks a dangerous downward spiral toward conflict or war. While developing states are at greater risk, none are immune. Three-fifths of the world’s population is vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change and other problematic effects because they lack the capacity for resilience, says Galgano.
The results of Galgano’s four-year study are in accord with the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which has evaluated the vulnerability of human populations resulting from exposure to the adverse effects of climate change. In its 2014 report, the IPCC examined the issues of impacts, adaptations, and vulnerability, suggesting that institutions and governments, especially in the developing world, will have a great deal of trouble adapting to the strain of climate change. Adaptation will be hindered by a lack of capacity and the hardest hit by these problems will be those living in poverty and within failing, unstable states.
Through his research, Galgano developed a Vulnerability Risk Index (VRI) which assesses and ranks 173 nation states (87 percent of the global population) from most to least vulnerable to conflict. As might be expected, developing nations in Africa and some Middle Eastern countries demonstrate the greatest level of risk to environmentally - triggered conflict, while the United States, Canada and European nations, as well as Japan and Australia, are among the least vulnerable to conflict.
“The integration of information into an index, like the VRI, offers a new lens by which to evaluate new threats on the national security landscape and assess risk related to exposure, vulnerability, and adaptive capacity,” says Galgano. “This is important because leaders of governmental organizations and non–governmental agencies, as well as the scientific community have increasingly come to accept that the adverse effects of climate change and other environmental factors have exposed many vulnerable societies to instability and potentially, violent conflict.”
The six variables factored into the equation used to calculate the VRI index include: exposure to climate change, governance, total fertility rate, gross national income, food security and existing vulnerability to armed conflict.
The VRI, which is detailed in Galgano’s just released book, The Environment-Conflict Nexus: Climate Change and the Emergent National Security Landscape, is not predictive, but assesses risk to indicate areas where there is a need to lower vulnerability. These include sub-Saharan countries in dire straits like Somalia, Ethiopia, Darfur and Chad. While vulnerability is concentrated in the developing world, most countries are vulnerable in some way, says Galgano.
The reason few discern a connection between the environment and national/global security is because the national security field is dominated by international relations professionals, political scientists and anthropologists who only ascribe warfare to politico-military matters, says Galgano.
Fear of environmental determinism, the fatalistic notion that it’s too late to avert climate change, is another school of thought Galgano noted while conducting his research. But, he doesn’t buy into that philosophy. Intrastate or internecine violence is only one possible outcome and only in discreet cases, says Galgano.
“It’s not necessarily just the climate change and it’s not necessarily the political issues,” Galgano added. “It’s the two of them together. That’s the world I’m trying to bring together.”
There are preventative and remedial measures that can be taken to lessen nations’ vulnerability to conflict, according to Galgano.
“Not all outcomes lead to violence. Somebody can always step in or something could always intervene to prevent conflict. Anything can happen,” says Galgano. “The United Nations can intervene with its peacekeeping forces. Non-governmental agencies (NGOs) like Catholic Relief Services can come in and resolve a food crisis. Ten years from now desalinization technology that is cost effective may be advanced enough to produce water in a lab on an industrial scale and we’ll have an abundance of water.”
Galgano’s interest in environmental security research began while serving in the United States Army working as a member of the permanent military faculty at the United States Military Academy at West Point. During that time he completed several analyses for the Defense Intelligence Agency. A Lieutenant Colonel whose military career spanned nearly 28 years, with deployments and overseas assignments in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Galgano has observed firsthand the conditions that threaten national security by converging into vulnerability, conflict and war.
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