Rising sea levels, super storms, and droughts, oh my! Everyone on Earth seems to think that climate change is the most significant threat to global security — except people in the United States. We’re so committed to burying our heads in the sand that our own government has chosen to focus not on the problems associated with climate change, but on environmentalists. That’s right. The people fighting to protect the environment are the ones viewed as the potential security risk.
As the NSA’s PRISM scandal has unfolded and released scores of documents that the government would just as soon rather hide under the rug, some important information about the handling of environmentalists has emerged. While activists have always suspected they’ve been unfairly profiled, and have noted on numerous occasions that they seem to attract more attention than actual domestic terrorists, the PRISM documents confirm that environmentalists and eco groups were singled out for surveillance and close monitoring, as if their activities posed a legitimate threat to national security. After all, that’s the defense the government has used in discussions of PRISM and other infringements on civil liberties, arguing that the privacy of some must be sacrificed for the safety of many. Meanwhile, right-wing groups have been allowed to engage in actual acts of domestic terror and incitements to violence without such scrutiny.
What gives? The PRISM documents reveal that the Pentagon was putting plans in place to deal with major civil unrest in the wake of disasters, including potential environmental disasters, but that it had a special focus on environmental protest and activism. Millions of dollars are spent annually on pursuing environmental groups, many of whom are harmless — unless, of course, you think lobbying the government to take action on environmental issues is somehow causing harm, or you believe that educating the public about climate change poses a risk to national security.
The environment itself can become a security risk, but the people pushing to protect it certainly aren’t. While their express goal is to focus on environmental health and the protection of the planet, many are also concerned about the stability of nations and states as well as other political actors, because with global unrest tends to come environmental abuses. For example, in the Balkans and Iraq, depleted uranium was left behind after bitter wars, one of which had a lot to do with oil resources and control. Environmentalists are well aware that climate change will cause unrest which could lead to political instability, and they’re trying to prevent these problems, not cause them.
Policy-wise, the government should be promoting environmental protection as a sound national security practice. And while the government needs to remain separate from private organizations and can’t support environmental groups, it certainly doesn’t need to persecute them, either. Redirecting the resources currently used to spy on environmental advocates to actual concrete environmental protection and policy would do far more for national security in the long term, but that would require the government to admit that its decades-long policy of harassing environmental activists was wrong.
Is it ready to go there?
Photo credit: Michael Baird