Conference: The Implications of Climate Change for Defence

Daria Mokhnacheva

Migration and displacement were repeatedly mentioned among the greatest security challenges posed by climate change at an international high-level event organized by the French Ministry of Defence on October 14th, 2015 in Paris.

The conference, entitled “The Implications of Climate Change for Defence”, brought together Ministers of Defence and other high-level officials and representatives of the military sector from several countries of the South and North to discuss the security implications of climate change ahead of the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC to be held in Paris at the end of this year. The conference was opened by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, the Minister of Environment, Ségolène Royal and the French Special Envoy for the Protection of the Planet, Nicolas Hulot, who highlighted key social, economic and political challenges associated with climate change, including displacement.

The links between climate change, insecurity and conflict have been widely discussed this year in academic and policy circles following the publication of a study linking drought and the Syrian civil war. The relationship between climate change and security has traditionally been perceived from a conflict studies and national security perspective: the US military for example identified climate change as a significant threat to national security in the early 2000s, and more recently in the 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap of the US Department of Defense. The discussions at the Paris defence conference shed light on different types of links between climate change and conflict, including through resource scarcity and associated local tensions, as highlighted by the Minister of Defence of Morocco and by the Deputy Director of UNEP; global conflicts around resources such as in the Arctic; or the radicalization of the youth in the absence of alternative livelihoods, becoming easy targets for terrorism recruitment, for example in Ghana and Niger. Some speakers also mentioned mass population movements resulting from water stress, desertification and ecosystem loss as a trigger of potential tensions, posing numerous challenges in terms of border management, human trafficking, or radicalization and criminality in growing cities.

Yet, the presentations of different speakers at the conference showed that the understanding of the impacts of climate change by the military and defence actors goes way beyond this traditional national security perspective. In fact, defence actors increasingly consider this issue from the human security perspective, and look into the socio-economic challenges that climate change poses to the populations. Land degradation, resource depletion, sea level rise, more frequent and intense hazards, all constitute major threats to local livelihoods, undermining food production and economic systems, leading to poverty, and potentially resulting in forced displacement or migration to crowded cities.

Recognizing these challenges, the defence sector is increasingly reflecting on the potential role the military could play in supporting development and adaptation efforts to better protect the population. For indeed, through its resources, capacities, technological innovation and ability to quickly mobilize, the military could not only be an important humanitarian actor in the context of natural disasters, but it could also play an active role in supporting climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as development action, as a way to ensure peace and prevent conflict and insecurity in the long term. In some countries like Gabon or Chad, the military is already actively involved in environmental protection and development efforts; in Chad, addressing climate change in the Lake Chad region is one of the greatest challenges the army is currently facing. Cooperation between national armies in the context of disasters is also a common practice within the African Union.

From the mobility point of view, defence and military actors could play a key role both in protecting the population and managing displacement and relief following disasters, as well as in contributing to disaster risk reduction efforts - for example by using the army’s technology to establish early warning and information sharing systems -, or supporting adaptation and land rehabilitation projects to protect livelihoods, reduce vulnerability, and thus prevent forced migration.

Responding to the challenges posed by climate change will require the mobilization and involvement of all, and efforts to address climate change and ensure human security would greatly benefit from the expertise of such strong actors as the defence sector. Increased international cooperation and exchange of good practices and expertise between countries would be an immense step forward, and it is hoped that governments will build on the momentum of this first international meeting of defence actors on climate change.