Climate Change and Defence: Are we ready for its impact? Dr Ziya Meral, CHACR

Climate Change and Defence: Are we ready for its impact?

This article was originally published by Wavell Room.

When reflecting on climate change from the perspective of those who compose defence policy there are two approaches to take.

The first approach addresses the question of the impact that military operations, equipment and facilities may be having on the production of greenhouse emissions, and what can be done to minimise them and contribute to efforts to contain climate change. There have already been some steps taken in this direction. In March, the Ministry of Defence released an important document setting out “the ambition, the principles and the methods needed for UK Defence to meet the challenge of climate change.”  It demonstrates tangible and practical reflections on energy use by Defence, as well as how the estates owned by Defence can be managed in a more environmentally conscious manner.

But the MoD’s Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach also makes it clear that if you are only thinking about the implications of climate change for Defence from this first angle, and see it as a boutique issue driven by the latest social and political trends, then you are risking developing a giant blind-spot that will have substantial implications for defence planning and operations for decades to come.

Climate change is real, and it is happening. Temperatures are rising. Geographies are being altered with expanding deserts and melting ice. Habitats are being affected by more frequent and larger fires, floods, storms. All of these have tremendous social, economic and political effects as well as geopolitical and global implications and pose direct questions for Defence at tactical, operational and strategic levels. Allow me to point to some of these:

Are we going to see new conflicts and security risks triggered by climate change?

There is still not much hard data for arguments that climate change is causing new conflicts. It is plausible to assume, however, that hardening physical conditions will play a part in social unrest, political discontent and localised tensions, all of which may lead to an increased likelihood of violence in ungoverned spaces or weaker states. One can already see this manifested in the tensions between pastoral nomads and resident locals across the middle belt of Nigeria and the wider SAHEL region. As increasingly harsh conditions minimise economic opportunities and damage the habitability of an area, and as poorer states fail to provide the fundamental services to counteract these effects, it is reasonable to assume that we will see more unrest and mass movements of people, with all of the tensions and frictions that emerge from that. We will also see more political pressure, and more assertive postures, taken over fundamental resources like water. These pressures are likely to amplify the stakes over projects like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Damn over the Nile, for example. Countries holding upstream water resources will seek to translate that increasingly precious and sought-after resource into competitive advantage. At the opposite extreme, the opening of possibilities of new northern trade routes and new resource exploration opportunities will galvanise geopolitical and geo-economic competition further. We already see signs of that in posturing over the Arctic. In other words, climate change will be a catalyst for, if not an accelerator or exaggerator of, the ongoing local and global tensions that are already in place.

What kinds of operational demands would climate change bring?

We have already seen how British forces have been mobilised in supporting responses to floods at home or the devastating impacts of hurricanes abroad. It is fair to assume that, with climate change, such operations both at home and abroad will only increase in frequency and scope. It is highly likely that there will also be operational demands in responding to sudden unrest or mass movements of people. Climate change will affect a wide range of geographies, whether through increased temperatures in desert conditions, or storms and rising sea levels on shorelines. New or exacerbated humanitarian crises are essential scenarios for defence or foreign aid planners to consider, especially in those localities most affected by both. New pandemics, originating as a result of some or all of these factors should also be considered. With those considerations come some inevitable questions of the likelihood of familiar peace and stabilisation missions, and of less familiar missions to counter secondary effects: perhaps to prevent unsustainable and destabilising economic circumstances, and their associated criminal activities, from developing in a way that begins to impinge upon national interests. For example, the UK already gives considerable support to anti-poaching efforts in Africa to protect vulnerable species.  The Integrated Review suggests a renewed interest in contributing globally to an increasingly broad range of contexts. Protection of water or other crucial supplies and supply chains around the world are not unthinkable missions lying ahead of us. We cannot overlook how all of these conditions, both in isolation and in combination, will play a part in maintaining and creating new terrorism threats, and with those threats will likely come demands to deploy abroad to respond to terror networks and to work at home to continue to support police forces and the Civil Powers.

What would be the operational impacts of extreme weather conditions?

There is a host of very tactical questions to ponder. How can our soldiers operate under increasingly high levels of heat? Will we need to re-consider a huge range of ‘givens’ or ‘norms’, from their uniforms to shoes and socks, to their accommodation, and to their hydration and the medical risks posed to them in such conditions? How would our tanks or other armoured vehicles, or our helicopters, or jets, or ships, cope with temperatures above certain levels or with prolonged stormy (wet and sand) conditions? What might this mean for given expectations of air support – both in terms of when aircraft or helicopters can fly, and of how overheating on the ground might affect airframes and availability, for example? Will all sorts of things, from runways to engines and airframes need to be adapted to respond to higher temperatures and stronger winds? What are the implications for naval vessels of increased salinity or increasingly rough seas? How would navigation systems that are known to be vulnerable to weather conditions be impaired further? How would our full range of weapon systems be touched, or the storage and carriage of explosives and ammunition be affected by such conditions?  What about the millions of old and weather-worn mines, or the arms and explosives stocks scattered across the world in substandard warehouses or locations that our personnel might be asked to deploy to and operate in or near? How would the nitty-gritty of deployments be affected: tour lengths, R&R, operating hours, acclimatisation and training programmes, and so on? Which Defence facilities and estates, at home and abroad, might be vulnerable to changing weather patterns and increased sea levels and the risk of floods? What will such patterns mean for future military bases, their locations, their use and the way they are constructed and maintained? These, and many other, questions highlight what an operational and logistic challenge climate change is likely to pose.

What would be the impact of climate change on R&D and procurement?

As hinted in the cluster of questions above, Defence will have to place a whole new research and development emphasis on materials, technologies, equipment and assets that can protect our personnel and enable them to operate under extreme weather conditions. Alternative energy sources and their use in future platforms are already being explored, but this will require more focus if it is to ensure a competitive and operational edge, generated by more sustainable and effective platforms that do not just perform well in such conditions, but exploit them for advantage. This transformation of emphasis and attitudes will need to have started already if we are to see such platforms in use in a decade when some of the excesses of climate change will already begin to become more demanding. And this mindset will need to move beyond an adaptation of current norms. This really is not about Defence settling for lesser options or accepting reduced performance, or about non-serious concerns over solar-powered armoured vehicles that may run out of juice half-way through the day like a cheap smart phone, or about ‘gradual adaptation’. There are some genuinely exciting developments – like hybrid vehicles, that can perform better, demand less of a supply chain to run, and be much more cost-effective – across all sorts of industries whose extraordinary innovation Defence will need to work alongside in a genuinely exploitative and symbiotic relationship if it is to maintain a developmental edge.

How can we incorporate climate change into defence policy and practice?

Without a doubt, the UK’s role as the chair of the COP26 UN Climate Change conference and the current government’s policy focus on a ‘green industrial revolution’ to ensure the UK eradicates its harmful contributions to climate change by 2050 have already demonstrated a deepening political will to operationalise the climate change challenge in our policy responses. The aforementioned MoD document and the creation of a Climate Change and Sustainability Director tie in well with the new emphasis in government policy. But the challenges remain: how do we deepen and internalise this conversation across all British forces at all levels? How do we ensure that the full weight of climate change assessments is taken into account? How do we change the attitudes of those who still see this simply as a fashionable drive to demonstrate a reduction by Defence in its contributions to greenhouse emissions? How do we ensure that, across Defence, military personnel and civil servants alike are analysing the impacts of climate change on the current and future operating environment and on the demands of procurement (both in terms of platforms and equipment and in terms of attitudes of mind and procedures)? How do we ensure that all of the argument above is debated, taught, absorbed and incorporated at all levels of doctrinal, operational and logistic analysis, planning, exercising, training and deployments? And what must policy do to drive these changes beyond statements of intent?

How we answer these questions now, or how we start approaching potential answers, will have tremendous impact in the decades ahead. How we really deal with this now, beyond making statements of intent, will either prepare the UK for the reasonable expectations of the future and give ‘Global Britain’ a genuinely competitive edge, or, due to the demands of the here and now, risk kicking the can down the road long enough to leave the next generation out in the hot.