How to address the global climate threat without compromising security

Every country’s defense and security forces have a lot to contend with. Budgets are shrinking, price tags are rising and threats are becoming more complex. At the same time, the world is heating up, which means the environment in which a force operates gets hotter and more extreme with each passing year. Climate change is already creating instability, increasing the risk of violence and disasters that require military forces to restore order. This trend will increase and put additional strain on military budgets. At the same time, many militaries are under pressure to reduce their own environmental impact, which requires greater collaboration with civilian industry at all levels. If these issues are not addressed in a timely manner, there will be consequences for every society.

In the defense context, it’s not just about reducing carbon emissions to reach net-zero targets, or about great-power competition. It’s about preparing to operate in more extreme environments, such as extremely hot or dry, without risking human life or compromising combat capability.

Of course there are moral advantages, but militaries will always prioritize combat skills above anything else. Until recently, it was not understood that climate change has played a role in shaping skill requirements.

Defense cannot afford to wait for the consequences of climate change to dictate its pace of development

Science predicts that current patterns of global warming will result in rising sea levels, increased resource insecurity, more frequent natural disasters and mass migration. In many cases, military forces are deployed to deal with the response.

In 2016, riots broke out in the Indian city of Bengaluru over water disputes with a neighboring country. Shops were looted, people killed and injured. A severe drought in 2019 sparked protests in the Indian city of Chennai, and in 2022 both India and Pakistan suffered a long and hot summer with droughts and floods. These events are increasing in frequency around the world, creating potential for conflict or instability, particularly in countries with very high poverty rates.

A view of a flooded area after heavy rains in Bangalore, India, Monday September 5th.  AP

Although these issues are often viewed as factors that could increase the potential for conflict, they are often communicated as either a national security risk or a defense risk, but not always both. It’s becoming increasingly clear that it may be impossible to separate the two.

Jordan is currently experiencing the effects of water insecurity and acknowledging the heightened potential for conflict, with Jordan’s former Minister of Water and Irrigation, Hazim El Naser, recalling that a series of Arab uprisings in 2011 “came about in part because of water scarcity.” .

Drought-related food insecurity can also contribute to political upheaval and create stressors that increase the potential for war, as in Syria. Assisting in dealing with such uncertainties has the potential to improve interstate relations in general, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

As the military continues to contribute to international disaster relief, we are seeing a shift in the way nations and national armies view the threats that climate change poses. China has long recognized climate change as an urgent threat in its official security policy, considering the risk to its water, food and energy security.

Part of the Dead Sea, as seen from Jordan last year, is dropping dramatically in elevation due to the severe drought.  AFP

In June 2022, NATO released its Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment report, in which it described climate change as an “overarching challenge of our time” that will only “intensify as the world continues to warm”. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg describes the need to reduce emissions as essential to ensure his organization can remain operational at all times while maintaining operational efficiency.

Therefore, it is likely that governments will continue to demand more from their militaries to manage and protect resources and respond to national or international disasters, and hence spending on climate-related solutions will increase regardless of net-zero political support .

In defense, climate change is not just about responding to the threats the environment poses to security, but also about military forces limiting their impact on the environment. Air Forces in particular, as aircraft typically emit the bulk of military emissions.

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However, it’s not all about carbon. For example, in the naval sector, many nations are experimenting with ways to reduce ships’ environmental impact, most notably the UK, US and Sweden. Adoption or incorporation of renewable or sustainable energy sources (such as solar panels, wind farms, and alternative fuels) also allows for reduced emissions and expenses on utility bills, but has the added security benefit of improving military resilience by reducing reliance on the state grid for electricity.

It is in a state’s interest to “go green”, with Ukraine, Kosovo and Iraq showing that it is very easy for a force to attack a national power grid, causing mass power outages, even with cyber attacks. Excessive heat can also lead to power outages, as California recently had to consider.

The war in Ukraine reminds us that conflict can arise at any time. Defense cannot afford to wait for the consequences of climate change to dictate its pace of development. Military leaders cannot shirk their obligation to their personnel to equip them with the equipment and skills they need to operate in a climate-altered world.

Emissions related to shelling and destruction are inevitable, but it is no longer possible to ignore the need to deal with an increasingly volatile environment. Nations are becoming aware of the growing number of national security risks, and we cannot be sure of the nature or location of a conflict or disaster, but we can be sure that a sustained military response will be required.

Published: September 16, 2022, 6:00 p.m

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