Energy & Environment

Protecting the environment is our best wall of defense

Getty Images

Our new president rode to the White House on the promise to make America not only great again but also safe.

Donald Trump makes the case that by signing executive orders to ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and begin construction of a border wall with Mexico, he is taking key steps toward this safety. But his other actions — nominating anti-environment individuals to his Cabinet, vowing to dismantle environmental regulations, pledging to undo efforts to combat climate change — indicate that his administration’s policy agenda will be in direct conflict with a safer country.

When it comes to America’s safety, Trump’s approach has focused heavily on current threats from terrorism and illegal immigration. This plan, however, does not establish the cornerstone of any effective security strategy — preventive defense — which, like preventive healthcare, takes active steps to avoid crises.

Our history shows that one of the most critical preventive defenses is safeguarding our planet’s health. After all, the environment provides us with basic resources and life-essential services that we need to survive and thrive — an idea made explicit in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

We protect ourselves when we protect the environment.

The link between safety and the environment is not new. Environmental degradation and scarcity have long played important roles in sociopolitical unrest, conflicts, mass migrations and refugee crises. Even the 1996 National Security Strategy recognized that environmental degradation threatened the security and prosperity of America.

{mosads}No region of the world is immune to instability caused by dwindling resources. Studies show that violent conflicts, such as Darfur, strongly correlate with land degradation, deforestation and water scarcity. At the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ Global Security Forum in 2015, former CIA Director John Brennan also argued that today’s challenges in the Middle East have roots in climate change and environmental problems.


Threats posed by environmental degradation will intensify with climate change, which exacerbates other stresses, such as disease, food and water scarcity, and poverty. No wonder the National Security Strategy singles out climate change as an urgent and growing threat to America. This is not a message of liberals alone; the George W. Bush administration also identified climate change as a security issue in their national intelligence assessment.

Americans have experienced firsthand the impact of environmental degradation and climate change on our safety, health and prosperity. Recall the Dust Bowl, an environmental disaster that caused 2.5 million people to leave the Great Plains in the 1930s. Remember the million people along the Gulf Coast displaced by Hurricane Katrina, a storm made catastrophic because of the loss of protective wetlands, marshes and coastal habitats.

More is coming.

Communities on Tangier Island in Virginia and Sarichef Island in Alaska are being forced to relocate due to rising seas, with costs expected to exceed $180 million for the town of Shishmaref, Alaska alone. One sobering study estimated that 13 million people in the U.S. will be displaced from sea-level rise.

Yet Trump ignores climate change and instead focuses on refugees and immigrants, linking them to terrorism, crime and economic instability. Of course, we should ensure that our immigration and refugee programs are not vulnerable to fraud and exploitation.

But anyone worried about refugees should also worry about climate change and environmental disasters. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, disasters across 113 countries in 2015 displaced more than twice the number of people as who fled conflict and violence.

Climate change also drives up refugee numbers by eroding the natural resources and ecosystem services that support human health and well-being. When the environment can no longer provide sufficient goods and services, entire populations are forced to move. As many as 7 million Mexicans, for example, are predicted to immigrate to the U.S. over the next 70 years as climate change reduces their crop yields.

Such mass movements are borne of necessity and survival.

Trump’s wall and immigration ban miss the big picture: our safety and security depend upon a healthy environment. Failure to address climate change and environmental degradation will escalate instability and conflict, and increase the already growing number of environmental refugees.

As the world’s greatest contributor to climate change, the U.S. cannot ignore its role in creating the environmental problems that force people from their homelands. We can best serve America’s safety by taking bold steps to protect our planet and ensure access to safe, clean and productive environments that provide for people’s health and well-being.

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin Professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a Public Voices fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags ban Climate change Donald Trump Environment executive Global warming Immigration order Refugee travel

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video