Climate change is creating security threats around the world – and the military is responding


The British Army is currently “too slow and resistant to change”, according to Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of the British Defense Staff. The urgent always takes precedence over the important. But in the context of one of the world’s biggest security challenges – climate change – threats and adaptations are changing rapidly.

In the summer of 2021, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change increased threat level posed by climate change to a “code red for humanity”. Anthropogenic climate change is both evident and growing, transforming natural, economic and socio-political environments. In addition to mitigating threats, governments and their militaries maneuver to exploit opportunities and leverage benefits.

A range of climate scenarios have been predicted – but all have in common an increased frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, more droughts and floods, melting ice caps and permafrost, rising sea levels and acidification and ocean deoxygenation.

Both human and national security will almost certainly be affected by threats to agricultural regimes, including increased presence of pests and diseases, food price spikes, and shocks to food production and logistics. The consequences will include the recalibration of diplomatic alliances, the displacement and dispossession of peoples, border disputes, rampant famine and war.

The pace of the climate threat has accelerated. Some parts of the world are becoming “climate conflict hotspots”. The effects of climate change shape, proliferate and amplify the threat, interacting in complex ways with pre-existing vulnerabilities such as socio-economic inequalities, fragile governance and inter-group tensions.

the UN reports that temperature increases in the Sahel region of Africa will be 1.5 times higher than the global average. This is an existential problem for many countries in the region, such as Mali, where destructive weather conditions jeopardizes agricultural production. With a population growth rate of almost 3%, Mali is also one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in the world.

Vicious circle: famine and violence in the Sahel have become a continuing reality in recent years.
Jake Lyell/Alamy Stock Photo

Tensions between ethnic groups, for example Fulani and Dogon, have been exacerbated by decades of relocation of cattle ranching and horticulture as well as migration to urban centres. Violent clashes over grasslands, water sources and local infrastructure have become commonplace.

Scorched earth is fertile only as a recruiting ground for violent and extremist organizations. Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, Islamic State of West Africa (ISWA), Jamaat Nusratul Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and Katiba Macina pose a threat in the Sahel, often with the intent and capabilities to mount complex attacks against government and civilian targets.

Militarization of the Arctic

In the Arctic, melting sea ice amplifies strategic competition as accessibility to resources improves, especially mineral deposits and fossil fuels. New trade routes are emerging, the Northern Sea Route (NSR), for example, should compete with Suez Canal traffic and alter trade flows between Asia and Europe. Russia has declared the NSR “a national transport corridor” as a way to ensure exclusive access to that.

Others, such as China and the United States, however, have indicated that they consider it an “international domain”. In reference to the “Polar Silk Road”, China has begun to refer to itself as a “near arctic state», which, in absolute terms, is geographically false. Various Arctic and non-Arctic countries are build icebreakers capitalize on these new economic realities.

In turn, the Far North is facing an unprecedented process of militarization. Russia invests heavily in defense infrastructure and exercises its power through the presence of nuclear submarines, MiG-31 Foxhound aircraft flights over the North Pole and in American and Scandinavian airspace, and exercises of their Arctic motorized brigade. Together, this posture informs Russia’s various competitors of its presence and, if necessary, will use force to defend its strategic interests.

Military jet flying above the clouds.
A USAF B1-B launcher, part of a bomber deployment to Norway to operate in the strategically important Arctic region.
Abaca Press/Alamy Stock Photo

NATO was also present in the contest. US President Joe Biden, for example, relaunched Arctic Warrior, a Cold War training program – and, in early 2021, sent B-1 Lancer strategic bombers to Norway. This brought Russian military targets in the Arctic and beyond within easy reach. In response and to signal a competitive position, Russia sent a missile cruiser of its Northern Fleet to the region.

Carbon footprints

Climate change also amplifies national security risks. There are physical risks. Many coastal naval bases are, for example, threatened by the sea level rises. There are liability risks. Countries, especially those in the southern hemisphere, will seek damages from others for loss and damage resulting in economic, physical and cultural harm.

Globally, greenhouse gas emissions from the military are a huge contributor to the climate crisis. And, as UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace made clear at COP26, the need to reduce military emissions must be part of the path to sustainability. His remarks were in line with the ambitions presented in the statement of the Ministry of Defense Strategic approach on climate change and sustainability.

Action followed words. In the United Kingdom, the army has invested in a prototype electric hybrid armored, reconnaissance and logistics vehicles, with significantly reduced emissions and improved performance. The electric trucks that transport a field hospital can now provide up to 12 hours of electricity, providing the equivalent of nine diesel generators. New buildings on the military training area are also net negative, powered from renewable sources such as anaerobic digesters and solar farms.

The Royal Air Force recently carried out a world’s first flight powered by 100% synthetic fuel, authorized the use of 50% sustainable aviation fuel in all its planes, and plans to order electrically powered aircraft for training. The Royal Navy, meanwhile, is incorporating the sustainability of alternative fuels into the design of new ships.

By addressing their carbon footprint, the military strengthens its role in sustainable security. Moreover, as agents of “climate diplomacy”, they can influence positive changes in other countries and ministries. This is becoming a vital role in a warming and increasingly uncertain world.

This article was co-authored by Lieutenant-General (Retired) Richard Nugee, Senior Research Associate of the Project on climate change and (in)security, a collaboration between the University of Oxford and the Center for Historical and Conflict Research (CHACR).


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