Climate Change and National Security

Although the pandemic has dominated all of our lives for over a year now, it is not the only crisis that the world faces.  The issue of Climate Change and what we should do to combat it has risen much higher up the political agenda in recent months, and with the COP-26 summit in the UK this November, it is becoming a subject that will increasingly dominate the news headlines and affect every part of our lives.

One sector that one seldom thinks of as having a role to play in helping our national life become more climate-aware is Defence and National Security.  Quite apart from jokes about tanks and their fuel consumption – “more gallons-per-mile than miles-per-gallon”, and so on – it is always assumed that the military will do “whatever it takes” to defend the country, and that green efficiency is a very long way down their priority list compared with countering threats to our national security.

But this is far from the case.  Armed forces across the world have very large carbon footprints well beyond those diesel-guzzling tanks, and the British military is becoming recognised as a leader in the thinking on how to reduce it without compromising national security.  It is a subject which can only grow in importance and profile, and I am thus very pleased to append below a guest article by my brother Lt Gen Richard Nugee, in which he discusses for IEMA (the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment) why climate change is after all a security issue and what role the military and the Ministry of Defence can play.  The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of the Ministry of Defence or IEMA[1]


Climate and Security – are they related?
Richard Nugee

The last year is certainly one few of us will forget. The pandemic has caused great hurt for some through grief or the endless numbing of being stuck at home – cabin fever in your own house; for many it may drive different working patterns and a reappraisal of what is important in life. Perhaps though one of the most remarkable sentiments to come out of it is one of hope: hope that when we really need to, the vast majority pull together for the benefit of all, epitomised by Sir Tom Moore. And a more profound hope that nature and wildlife seemed to recover from human interference.

At the same time, however, we should be under no illusion that we will need every aspect of this hope and regeneration to tackle the climate change crisis that is unfolding in front of us. And more. Defence can play a very significant part in tackling climate change, through ensuring that conflict across the world is minimised as much as possible.

It is perhaps obvious to some that the potential for conflict is made more likely as a result of increasingly limited resources. Growing desertification and unlivable heat, scarcity of water that affects crop growth, violent storms resulting in flooding followed by drought, all lead in one direction: more local, then perhaps regional and even continental migration of dispossessed peoples. Those forced to move through the impact of climate change inevitably end up in areas that others already inhabit; human experience indicates that the meeting of such populations, the mobile coming to the static, has almost always increased tension, and the potential for conflict.

Conflict, as those who have experienced it will recognise, becomes all consuming, especially when life or livelihood is personally at risk. Any ideas and practices that reduce emissions, preserve the environment and biodiversity, recycle or reduce waste, fall rapidly to the bottom of the priority list. The effect of conflict not only inhibits actions to reduce emissions and improve the environment, but is likely to increase environmental damage and quite possibly emissions from the participants. It could therefore be said that conflict itself accelerates and exacerbates the damage to the climate, which in turn makes conflict more likely, in a vicious cycle that will make it close to impossible to reach the Paris goals of remaining at no more than 1.5°C increase globally, or net zero emissions across the world. And there is ample evidence that women and youth are particularly affected by conflict, so tackling this will have a disproportionate benefit for them.

Climate change will also affect the geopolitics of the world. The opening of the Arctic sea in the summer, likely in the next 15-20 years, will allow for new flows of trade, but also competition for resources in ways that we cannot yet predict. The transition from fossil fuels, reducing the income for fossil fuel-based economies, while of course the right thing to do for the environment, will cause significant shifts in global and national powerbases. Our history tells us that in the past, these have often been accompanied by violence and conflict; and yet slowing down the transition, necessary to allow those countries to diversify, will damage the environment further, perhaps beyond repair.

So what can Defence do?

Defence can and should have a role to play to reduce the incidence and likelihood of conflict. At all levels, Defence should not operate on its own, but should tackle the security implications of climate change in collaboration with Development and Diplomacy agencies – the 3D of climate and security. This applies just as much at the local as at the strategic and international level. For example, on the ground in Somalia, the UN employ a climate security advisor who looks for solutions through development and diplomacy (in this case through the provision of irrigation, negotiated across tribal boundaries) to reduce the migration into the cities, thereby denying al-Shabaab recruits. And of course this is recognised by al-Shabaab who are trying to disrupt the irrigation plans.

Defence has a number of attributes that should be very valuable in tackling the likelihood of conflict. Our data gathering through the intelligence agencies and understanding of geopolitics, our ability to horizon scan looking for possible areas of conflict, when overlaid with an understanding of where the effects of climate change are felt most – as it is an unfortunate but not surprising coincidence that those parts of the world most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are also those least able to cope with it – allows us to focus on the most affected parts of the world. This horizon scanning, combined with our ability to assess risk, offers the opportunity to provide early warning and the potential for prepositioned support, partnering with organisations inside and outside government.

UK Defence, working with the FCDO, has an opportunity to build resilience, through providing protection to reduce migration at source, improve governance and support to local communities, particularly in Africa. With stability improved, there is increased likelihood that the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including climate change and the environment, can be met. In a similar vein, if the UK military can share its improving experience on what it takes to reduce military emissions, that will in itself be of benefit. In the words of the Integrated Review we should be a force for good.

Similarly, Defence should be increasingly prepared to deploy in support of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief – we deploy support to the Caribbean annually now during the hurricane season, whereas in the past it was much more intermittent. In a similar vein, closer to home, Defence should be more prepared to support the civil authorities in the event of floods or wildfires, if needed.

Education is a key role that the military can play: we need to help ‘train the trainer’ so that we can take full advantage of the connections the military has across the world. It is often said that when militaries are not fighting each other, they are talking to each other, and there is a very healthy network of common education across many parts of the world’s militaries, with, for example, often as many as 30-40 countries sending students to the UK Defence Academy on courses. This, along with the wide network of defence attachés in most countries, offers great opportunity for the exchange of knowledge and ideas on the whole issue of climate and security. Indeed a number of attachés have already commented that this angle offers greater opportunity for engaging with their hosts; using existing relationships and alliances, such as the 5 eyes community and NATO, is a great place to start.

Increasing stability and reducing conflict is key, but not all Defence can and should do

There is much that Defence needs to do. The reduction of our emissions is an imperative that must be tackled, now, as it will take a long time to affect every part of Defence’s wide responsibilities, and improve our biodiversity and sustainability. We also need to adapt to a climate changed world: this is as relevant for the resilience of all our bases, both in the UK and overseas, as for our equipment, making sure it can operate in hotter, more extreme weather systems. Importantly this also applies to preparing our people for operating in a different environment, from the training and planning to integrate climate change into scenario building, to educating every member of the extended Defence community about what they can do as individuals and leaders.

This is not an either/or. Defence has always embraced new technology and has often led the world through its innovation. As the nation’s ultimate protection of our security, we have a duty to be as militarily capable and effective as we can be – and that includes in a climate changed world with novel green technologies. The green energy revolution that is unfolding offers Defence the opportunity to become more effective, more self-sufficient and more efficient, while reducing emissions. There is the opportunity for a genuine win-win.

The security of individuals, the nation and ultimately the stability of the world is undeniably affected by the effects of climate change, the changing environment, the change to resources and the weather patterns that will follow increased emissions into the atmosphere. Defence has a large, complex and comprehensive part to play in ensuring that we are safer from all threats, including the threats from climate change. Defence may look different in the future but its purpose – to protect the nation’s citizens – does not change, even if the threat itself looks very different.


[1]              The article was originally published by IEMA on their website and is reprinted here with their permission.  See


Lt General Richard Nugee CB CVO CBE is a non-executive director at the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), advising on Climate Change and Sustainability, having previously held the position of MOD Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Lead.  He spent his career in the Armed Forces; his last full-time post was as Chief of Defence People, 2016-2020.