When we think of threats to America’s national security, the first thing that comes to mind for most is threats from foreign adversaries. And yet there is another kind of national security threat. The culprit: A microscopic virus that jumped from wildlife to people caused by “zoonotic spillover,” driven by humanity’s broken relationship with wildlife and nature.    

Among the most underappreciated national security threats of the 21st Century is arguably global environmental disruption. This includes the illegal exploitation and commercial trade in live wildlife. Trade in species that can transmit pathogens to people helps give rise to new zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, and it is doing so with increasing frequency as the next pandemic of zoonotic origin could likely happen in the next 10 years, not the next century.

During this past year, we have all experienced how a global pandemic caused by zoonotic disease has disrupted social order, undermined economic stability, depressed trade, decimated public health capacity, intensified food insecurity, eroded public confidence in government and worsened social and political inequalities. We need to recognize that one wildlife-borne virus has proven more capable of harming our country than many conventional security threats.

In addition to being an exacerbating factor in zoonotic disease spillover, trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products, including elephant ivory and rhino horn, also generates billions of dollars a year in illegal profits that help finance transnational organized crime and extremist groups, some of which threaten American interests.

These illicit activities rob local communities of wildlife they rely on for tourism revenues and other benefits and weaken the rule of law and stability in developing countries, making the world less safe in the process.

Our well-being depends on recognizing and responding to these threats, and that means protecting the ecological integrity of our planet, its biodiversity and its natural resources. In a new report, “The Security Threat That Binds Us,” national security experts at the Converging Risks Lab, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks, detail the ties between the degradation of nature around the world and the natural security of the United States.

The threats presented in this report have real consequences for America’s safety, security and strategic interests. We need to make adjustments to our national security focus to better protect our country from the growing number of threats that are rooted in the decline of nature and ecological systems. 

U.S. government efforts to conserve and protect the integrity of nature on a global scale are a necessary and vital component of America’s approach to ensuring our long-term national security and well-being. As defense and intelligence agencies design and update America’s national security strategies, they must ensure that these 21st century threats are well-integrated and addressed. This includes drawing on the expertise and efforts of federal agencies engaged in global conservation, including the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service. With nature loss emerging as among the greatest challenges we now face as a society, the conservation of biodiversity and natural resources needs to be elevated as a key goal of our foreign policy, development and foreign assistance, and resourced accordingly.   

By investing in international conservation efforts, the United States not only helps protect iconic wildlife and critical ecosystems; it also protects human health and prevents criminal activities that can undermine communities, governments and regional security interests. In doing so, we strengthen our partners, promote economic prosperity and enhance our own national security.  

Ray Mabus served as the 75th United States Secretary of the Navy from 2009 to 2017, the longest tenure as leader of the Navy and Marine Corps since World War I. He also served as Mississippi governor and as United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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