From the US to the Netherlands, military leaders are speaking up on climate change

'We see climate change as a security threat, and it’s an important threat'

Borzou Daragahi
The Hague
Wednesday 20 February 2019 17:23 GMT
Retired Royal Dutch Army General speaks up on climate change

When Tom Middendorp – then the highest ranking military official in the Dutch armed forces – declared climate change a threat to the world’s security in 2016, he was mocked in the press and among colleagues.

“The first reaction was very fierce,” the retired general said on Wednesday at a conference on climate change in The Hague. “They started calling me the ‘green general’.”

He took it as a compliment. Less than three years later, the security threats posed by climate change are no longer fringe notions.

This week, Mr Middendorp launched a global network of senior military leaders to drive policy on the security implications of climate change.

The International Military Council on Climate and Security, chaired by Mr Middendorp, includes former US Deputy Undersecretary of Defence Sherri Goodman, former US Navy Captain Steve Brock, former Royal Netherlands Army officer Michel Rademaker, and several researchers affiliated with US and European think tanks.

“We are concerned because our territories regularly get hit,” Numa Durbec, a French defence official who has overseen naval operations in the south Pacific, said at a panel in the Netherlands. “We are threatened by climate change, and we have to be ready for all the factors: health risks, the vulnerability of our infrastructure. We’re still at the beginning of it.”

Senior military officials said they were preparing for ever more dire security crises as climate change, rising sea levels, and worsening storms impacted their forces, bases and missions.

“We see climate change as a security threat, and it’s an important threat,” said James Clayden, a Dutch defence ministry official.

Just a short while ago, discussing the effects of global weather effects of carbon emissions was mostly the domain of tree-hugging environmentalists or aid and development professionals. That’s changed. At the Planetary Security Conference in The Hague this week, men and women in crisp military uniforms mingled with haggard environmental activists in gnatty sweaters and aid workers from Africa and Latin America.

The White House last year issued a report warning that fossil fuel emissions would impact the safety of Americans. US intelligence agencies have warned that climate change threatens the stability of nations.

Policymakers hope drawing the armed forces into the debate on countering the potentially devastating effects of climate change will strengthen arguments for decreasing carbon emissions. Armed forces’ tanks, fighter jets, and warships are also a major contributor to carbon emissions, which scientists consider the primary driver of climate change. Military leaders have begun to scale back their use of fossil fuels.

“Climate-related water, energy and food insecurity are on the rise in Europe’s neighbourhood, and this needs to be included in risk analysis, foresight, preparations for missions and during military operations,” said Louise van Schaik, head of Clingendael, a Dutch think tank. She is also a member of the International Military Council on Climate and Security. She added: “European climate targets also demand that the military step up its contribution to reducing the carbon footprint.”

Some also hope recruiting respected security officials to their cause will bolster the legitimacy of environmental activists and advocates fighting against climate-change sceptics. They are also trying to convince commerce and government to change consumption and industrial habits.

“There are moments when people in uniform – particularly people who are not climate-change professors – have the power to cut into public awareness,” said Richard Clarke, of the UK’s Department for International Development, speaking on a panel at The Hague.

Some are worried that bringing security forces into the management of climate change might carry ominous implications, promoting military solutions to a crisis that is rooted in global consumption and industrial habits.

“Militaries globally can be aware of the human security impacts of climate change, but [we need to be] really focusing on how the militaries can support other agencies in terms of helping alleviate potential human security risks,” said Jane Neilson, an official of New Zealand’s Ministry of Defence.

Military officials admit there has been little analysis of the environmental impact of bombing campaigns, such as the recent bombardment of Syrian and Iraqi targets during the war against Isis, though there are some studies on developing environmentally friendly munitions. Militaries rarely consider the environmental consequences of their operations before engaging in a conflict.

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“There’s no climate assessment at this point,” said Mr Clayden, the Dutch defence official. “There’s a crisis and you need to react. So we focus on the security part and air support and troops on the ground. There’s no mitigation thinking behind it.”

Others noted that the armed forces were already on the frontlines of climate change, sometimes contributing to the problems because of their lack of awareness.

“Our defence establishment is the biggest fuel user in the world, has the biggest budget of any organisations in the world,” said Mr Brock, who previously served in the White House. “To embark on tackling this global challenge and not potentially doing our part, we’ll never get there.”

UN military bases in Mali, for example, draw well water from parched aquifers also used by townspeople, while also hiking demand for fuel and driving up prices.

Mr Middendorp, speaking to an audience at The Hague conference, said that the impact of climatic or environmental change was already being felt on the ground by soldiers. He recalled a hard-won battle to take over territory controlled by the Taliban during a stint in Afghanistan. The US-led coalition forces won, only to watch the territory taken back by the Taliban soon thereafter.

“It took us a year to figure out what the problem was – a fight between groups over water,” he said. “We brought water engineers and solved the problem. And the Taliban left.”

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