From the security dilemma to the human-centered survival dilemma in the Eastern Mediterranean: The environmental security approach

Our EastMed dossier concludes with the article of Emre İşeri, where he suggests seeing the matter primarily from an environmental perspective.

eco güvenlik podcast

The scale of humans’ activities transforming the nature points to the fact that we now are in a new geologic age: the Anthropocene. In the face of pressures triggered by environmental degradation and in particular climate change, this age necessitates a relatively comprehensive agenda of environmental security.[1] Both the sustainable development targets set by the United Nations (UN) and the criteria determined at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) have reasserted the need for taking immediate measures against climate change. Within this context, not only has the issue of climate change been brought up to the global agenda, it also functions as leverage for energy transition policies in certain countries/unions. Aiming at becoming carbon-neutral by the year 2050, the European Union (EU) has declared the “green deal”.[2] However, concerning the fight against climate change at the global level, we still lag behind the targets that were set in Paris. Considerable decreases in carbon emission release rates have only been observed during the economic downsizing that emerged parallel to the Covid-19 process.[3] What course the fight against climate change will take after Covid-19 is directly connected to which steps decision-makers will take on their path to a sustainable “green economy” to reverse the positive correlation between economic growth and carbon emission releases.[4]

It is beyond doubt that struggling against climate change is not being easy for those “developing countries”, which are based on carbon-intensive economies. Those countries are not capable of breaking the abovementioned link between their economic growth and carbon emission releases. Fortunately, parallel to the gradual improvement in sustainable energy technologies, prices of those technologies are on the decline, which makes the effective development of renewable energy resource potentials more feasible.[5]

In addition to the fore mentioned developments regarding climate change and the global energy sector, some regions/countries are pretty far behind in terms of realizing their potential for renewable energy development. One of these regions is the East Mediterranean, which has high potentials of renewable energy resources, especially solar and wind.[6] The region is overexposed to the effects of climate change (e.g. water shortage) by being warmed up 20% faster than the world average.[7] Along the same line, the island of Cyprus should be mentioned here too, as one that is dependent on fossil energy. However, along with both sides of the island, Turkey and Greece quarrel apparently over natural gas reserves located at thousands of kilometers under the sea, as well as over the East Med, projected to export those reserves to the gradually shrinking EU energy market. (Map 1)

Map 1: Route of the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline (East Med) Project

east med boru hattı

Well then, why do riparian states of the East Mediterranean seemingly fight over fossil resources down at the sea bottom, miles and miles away, instead of developing joint projects accelerating optimum use of their renewable energy resources, that are also compatible with the climate act. Analytical tools that are used in the discussions over the concept of “security” in the International Relations (IR) literature might be instructive for being able to answer this thorny question.

From traditional security to the new security agenda

In simple terms, security may stand for being protected from threats. However, security is a very contested concept and no consensus exists over a single definition. The most fundamental discussion is concerned with who (referent object) and what will be secured, what the threats are, and through which means it would be possible to be protected from these threats (Table 1). Roughly speaking, there are two sides/aspects involved in the discussion: 1) Traditional state-centered approach 2) New security studies.

Energy/ Environment in the traditional state-centered security approach

The answer of the traditional state-centered approach to the question “security of whom?” is clear: the state. It is easy to understand why those who adopt this approach are exclusively interested in the security of the state. The pioneers of the realist tradition within the IR (Edward H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz), who have written at a time of destruction caused by the First and Second World Wars and the threat of the Cold War, suggested interstate conflicts to be the primary research area of the discipline. Based on the assumption that security can be objectively perceived, independently of the observing individuals as well as language,[8] the realist tradition puts forward that under the absence of overarching authority the anarchic structure of the international system would lead states to engage in military rivalry with other states, in order to safeguard their security (i.e. their sovereignty within a specific territory). Yet this exposes states with a “security dilemma”: military steps taken by any state in order to increase its own security will trigger reactions from other states, which in turn will end up causing a decrease rather than increase in the security of the state in question. Another point is that an excessive increase in military power would drag a state into economic weakness.

The realist tradition also looks at energy issues from a state-centered perspective. Accordingly, there are three aspects of energy security: 1) Supply (consuming states) 2) Demand (producing states) 3) Energy technologies (transmission lines, refineries). In consuming states, the priority of politics is about controlling energy resources. As US president Richard Nixon stated in 1974: “security and economy are interconnected and energy is inseparable from both”. Geographical factors such as the place of continents and oceans, in addition to the distribution of natural resources, further complicate international energy relations. In other words, geopolitics is important. This importance derives not only from the fact that finite vital resources are concentrated in specific geographical regions, but should also be seen as an outcome of those resources being located within national borders, i.e. on territories of sovereign states. Therefore, the “realist” tradition understands the access of states to energy resources as a zero-sum game and deems strategic alliances as well as the use of military power necessary.[9] Consequently, global environmental issues, which belong to the category of “low-politics”, get on the realists’ radar only as far as they represent a threat to state security, such as a possibility of military conflict.[10] Considering the discussion over the geopolitics of climate change, the rivalry between NATO member states (USA, Norway, Denmark) and Russia with regard to the melting Arctic can be mentioned within this context.[11]

This line, which accepted issues related to the security of the state as belonging to the realm of “high-politics” alone, and approached developments in the fields of energy/security from a narrow-angle. Those alternative approaches calling for a widening security agenda have achieved their objectives only after the Cold War.

The new security agenda and environment

It was in the 1970s, when threats against the environment and economic development, issues that were perceived by the realist security approach as part of “low-politics”, started to become more evident and that critical voices were raised. This period marks the emergence of modern environment movements: in 1971 Green Peace was found, in 1972 the United Nations (UN) held the first environment conference in Stockholm. Despite the differences between them, there was one thing they had in common: their belief in the need to take responsibility for the environmental destruction caused by humans. In a similar vein, Richard Ullman in his work on “Redefining Security” (1983) has focused on the need for enlarging the concept of security so that it can encompass environmental and economic issues as well. Eventually the issue of environmental security effectively entered the agenda of international politics through the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report “Our Common Future”. Advocating for sustainable development and acting as a catalyst in paving the way for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, the report emphasized environmental security as the necessary condition for sustainable development.

 The new security agenda that this article discusses with reference to environmental developments has evolved parallel to critical studies, which targeted the security concept within the IR discipline. Suggesting that security cannot be confined to military threats and that security policies have to be expanded for covering also the happiness and well-being of people, the visibility of the “New security studies” has increased noticeably in the post-Cold War period. To put it differently, the answer to the question “Whose security?” started to shift from the state to the ecosystem and the human. This “extended” approach to the security concept (Table 1) is increasingly being accepted in many places, particularly among the European governments.[12]


Table 1: Extended Security Concepts

Extended Security Concepts

            The Copenhagen School, which is one of the pioneers of the “New Security Studies”, analyses security in five different sectors[13]: military, political, economic, social, and environmental. The most known postulate of the school reads: The unification of Europe is a construction of a “security community” through de-securitization- a process that was initiated by the decision-makers of the period to sustain regional peace without relying on military measures.[14] Starting from this point, the Copenhagen School defines securitization as an inter-subjective social process, whereas it differentiates between issues that might be constructed as security problems through speech-act as non-politicized, politicized, and securitized. In the process of securitization, securitizing actors can eliminate issues (such as the economy sector for energy, or environment for climate change) by presenting them as existential threats and by making use of post-political, non-routine urgent (unlawful) decisions as well as means (such as the use of violence). Within a securitization process, not only do securitizing actors bring an issue into the private sphere and turn it into a security issue, but they also construct a privileged status for themselves, as the ones who can overcome the problem.[15] Thus, a policy of securitization is a discursive field of competition between various political actors, which also has internal political reflections.[16]

            For securitization as an inter-subjective political process to be successful, the existential threats that they claim to exist, as well as the political decisions made to overcome these threats, have to be accepted by the followers. According to the Copenhagen School, there are several facilitating conditions, which make it easy for the process to gain success: the language used by the securitizing actor (internal) and historical affinity the audience has about the issue that is being constructed as a threat (external).[17]


The Securitization of Energy in East Mediterranean

            Although towards the end of the 2000s, various optimistic thinkers have evaluated the natural gas discoveries off Cyprus as an opportunity that may bring peace to the island, far from bringing peace, the developments have only sharpened the already existing conflicts. By approaching the issue with the theoretical framework of securitization vs. de-securitization, it becomes obvious that regional state actors don’t see the energy resources within their conflicting maritime zones as a political means for conflict resolution (Map 2).

Map 2: Conflicting Maritime Zones

Conflicting Maritime Zones

On the contrary, decision-makers prefer to exploit those resources for securitization and they are successful in doing so to the extent that their citizens approve them. As securitizing actors, the decision-makers in Turkey utilized speech-acts in the process as follows: the other state (Greece, France) / non-state actors (Greek Cypriot side, ENI, Total) are “sources of threat”, energy resources/ export routes (such as the East Med pipeline) within maritime zones are “values/assets under threat”, and the answer to the question “Whose security?” is the Turkish state. With the approval of the Turkish public opinion, which has been molded with dominant historical narratives that depict Greece as the other, and in accordance with the “Blue Motherland” doctrine,[18] Turkey’s securitizing actors have defined the security strategy for the region. Within this context, Turkey has been resorting to several means of gunboat diplomacy, such as a show of force with warships, seismic exploration activities in conflict zones, and issuing messages through maritime navigational communication systems (NAVTEX).[19] On the other hand, the parties of the conflict (Greek Cypriot part and Greece) carry out search operations in the zones, which Turkey claims to be in its jurisdiction, appeal diplomatically to the European Union to impose sanctions on Turkey, and continue to buy arms and conduct military exercises/cooperation against Turkey with various states, notably France.


Concluding remarks: environmental security and climate change in the East Mediterranean

What we see now is that the parties of the conflict, while trying to guarantee their energy security, are stuck in a “security dilemma” – just as the state-centered security approach would predict. If the current situation should continue, the military, economic and environmental insecurities of both sides will increase, let alone ensuring security. A continuous, mutual increase in military power as well as military cooperation will further augment insecurity. Additional military expenditures will also deepen the economic insecurity in both Turkey and Greece, where causes related to the Covid-19 pandemic have already created an economic recession. Furthermore, the ongoing tension will prevent the optimum development of joint projects for making use of the rich, potential renewable energy resources, particularly in Cyprus.

 The environmental insecurity of the parties will escalate in two ways: while developing resources and constructing transmission lines will destruct the marine ecosystem, the struggle against climate change will be put on ice. Beyond these, one point is obvious: The plan for feasible production of securitized natural gas reserves, their transmission through the 1900 km long East Med pipeline, which will cost 6 billion Euros to build, and finally, their export to the European Union that is aiming at moving to a carbon-free economy and whose energy market is already shrinking, contains a lot of incalculability.[20]

            As one of the regions that will be affected most by climate change, the East Mediterranean is face to face with various existential risks, water shortage being in the fırst place. Decision-makers of the involved states should be aware of the fact that the main security threat for the common fate of the people living in the region is sustainability. In other words, they should act with responsibility to address the “survival dilemma”[21] for the well-being of the whole region. For this, it is required that decision-makers move beyond narrow security perspectives and that they –parallel to the enlarged security approach- securitize climate change, so that they can immediately work on joint, renewable energy projects for the construction of a sustainable East Mediterranean region. This paradigmatic change suggested for the region can have a solid base with the support of great powers. Thus, if the EU, in coordination with the USA under the presidency of Biden, increases its support for sustainability projects (such as “EMME-CARE”[22] and “Ecocity Mağusa/Farmagusta”[23]) that could create the real “positive agenda” in the region. Eventually, this would enhance prospects for building sustainable Eastern Mediterranean region.


[1] Dalby, Simon. “Environmental Security and Climate Change.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. 2020:1. (

[3]“Stop CO2 emissions bouncing back after Covid plunge, says IEA”, Guardian, 13.10.2020;

[5]“Solar is now ‘cheapest electricity in history’, confirms IEA”, Carbon Brief, 13.10.2020;

[6] Tsangas, Michail, Antonis A. Zorpas, Mejdi Jeguirim, and Lionel Limousy. “Cyprus energy resources and their potential to increase sustainability.” In 2018 9th International Renewable Energy Congress (IREC), pp. 1-7. IEEE, 2018; Asumadu-Sarkodie, Samuel, Ҫağlan Sevinç, and Herath MPC Jayaweera. “A hybrid solar photovoltaic-wind turbine-rankine cycle for electricity generation in Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” Cogent Engineering 3, no. 1 (2016): 1-19; Kylili, Angeliki, and Paris A. Fokaides. “Competitive auction mechanisms for the promotion renewable energy technologies: The case of the 50 MW photovoltaics projects in Cyprus.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 42 (2015): 226-233.

[7] Pietrapertosa, Filomena, Valeriy Khokhlov, Monica Salvia, and Carmelina Cosmi. “Climate change adaptation policies and plans: A survey in 11 South East European countries.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 81 (2018): 3041-3050; “Risks associated to climate and environmental changes in the Mediterranean region”, MEDCC, 2019;

[8] Baysal, Başar and Çağla Lüleci. “Kopenhag Okulu ve Güvenlikleştirme Teorisi” [The Copenhagen School and the Securitization Theory]. Security Strategies Journal 11, no. 22 (2015): 68.

[9]Kuzemko, Caroline, Michael F. Keating and Andreas Goldthau (ed.). The global energy challenge: Environment, development and security. Macmillan International Higher Education (2015):8-9.

[10] Erçandırlı, Yelda. “Yeşil Teori”[Green Theory], in Ramazan Gözen (ed.), Uluslararası İlişkiler Teorileri Theories of International Relations], İletişim Yayınları, İstanbul (2014): 498.

[11] Rowe, Elana Wilson. “Analyzing frenemies: An Arctic repertoire of cooperation and rivalry.” Political Geography 76 (2019): 1-10;

[12] Brauch, Hans Günter, “Güvenliğin Yeniden Kavramsallaştırılması: Barış, Güvenlik, Kalkınma ve Çevre Kavramsal Dörtlüsü.” [Reconceptualizing Security: Conceptual Quartet of Peace,

Security, Development and Environment], Uluslararası İlişkiler 5, no. 18 (2008):5; Bilgin, Pınar. “Güvenlik Çalışmalarında Yeni Açılımlar: Yeni Güvenlik Çalışmaları” [New Approaches in Security Studies: New Security Studies] SAREM Stratejik Arastirmalar Dergisi 8, no. 14 (2010): 32.

[13] The analysis of specific aspects of a holistic “reality” through looking at the patterns of relations or interactions among various aspects.

[14] Bilgin 2010:42.

[15] Hisarlıoğlu, Fulya, “Güvenlikleştirme” [Securitization], Güvenlik Yazıları Serisi, No.24, October 2019:4.ıoglu_v.1.pdf

[16] See for example Kaliber, Alper. “Securing the ground through securitized ‘Foreign’policy: The Cyprus case.” Security Dialogue 36, no. 3 (2005): 319-337; Çelenk, Ayşe Aslihan. “The restructuring of Turkey’s policy towards Cyprus: The Justice and Development Party’s struggle for power.” Turkish Studies 8, no. 3 (2007): 349-363.

[17] Baysal and Lüleci (2015): 83.

[18]The security strategy that Turkey pursues in the region is the result of an approach, which in the Western literature is called “forward defence” and by encompassing various maritime jurisdiction zones, it grew into the “Blue Motherland” doctrine. See İlhan Uzger, “Mavi Vatan ve Türkiye’nin yeni güvenlik doktrini”, Gazete Duvar, 15.06.2020, ; “Doğu Akdeniz: Mavi Vatan doktrini nedir, Türkiye ve Yunanistan neden anlaşamıyor?” BBCTürkçe, 31.07.2020,

[19] See; Emre İşeri, “Turkey’s Entangled (Energy) Security Concerns and the Cyprus Question in the Eastern Mediterranean”, in Alexis Heraclides & Gizem Alioğlu Çakmak (ed.) Greece and Turkey in Conflict and Cooperation: From Europeanization to De-Europeanization, London:Routledge, 2019, ss. 257-270; Emre İşeri & Ahmet Bartan Çağrı “Turkey’s Geostrategic Vision and Energy Concerns in the Eastern Mediterranean Security Architecture: A View from Ankara”, in Tziarras Zenonas (ed.), The New Geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean: Trilateral Partnerships and Regional Security. Re-imagining the Eastern Mediterranean Series: PCC Report, 3. Nicosia: PRIO Cyprus Centre, 2019, ss. 111-124.

[20] For similar discussions, see; Paul Hockenos, “No Gas, No War in the Mediterranean”, 10.09.2020; Global Witness, Pyrrhic Victory:Why Europe and Turkey should not fight over offisl gas we cannot use, 2020,

[21] First used by Hans Günter Brauch as a term to define the relations between security, environment and development, which are being caused by global environmental changes through natural and human interventions. See, Brauch (2008).

[22] The Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East – Climate and Atmosphere Research (EMME-CARE) Project;

[23] See, The Famagusta Ecocity Project”