Climate and Ecological Crises

As the impact of both global warming and the ecological crisis becomes evident, new triggers for conflict emerge. All activities are scrutinised for mitigation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body responsible for collating scientific evidence on the issue, has concluded that climate change impacts have the potential to exacerbate factors linked to conflict. This can also act as a ‘threat multiplier’ that can worsen existing problems, especially in countries and regions with failing governments or experiencing long-term turmoil. Coincident with climate change is the ecological crisis. Scientists now agree that we are currently living in and presiding over the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, a period defined as a loss of 75% of species. Uniquely, this has been caused by humans – the others have all been caused by volcanoes and meteors.

One of the consequences is changing weather patterns. As floods, droughts, storms, fires and food shortages become more frequent, there will be increasing threats to international peace and security. Alongside humanitarian crises, including mass migration and disease transmission, transport and trade routes will be disrupted, and global supply chains affected. All this is likely to increase the need for related military interventions, with serving personnel having to operate in extreme ‘climate change-affected’ conditions more frequently.

The importance of the challenge was fully recognised by the Ministry of Defence in its March 2021 Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach and roadmap. The roadmap commits “to becoming more resilient and sustainable in the face of the immense challenge of global climate change” and comprises 3 aims: To “adapt, fight and win in ever more hostile and unforgiving physical environments; contribute to the UK’s net zero by 2050 target by reducing emissions and scaling up the transition to renewables; act and be recognised as a global leader both in responding to the emerging geopolitical and conflict-related threats being exacerbated by climate change and in addressing carbon emissions.”

The UN International Law Commission has adopted 28 draft principles, which collectively are the “Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts” (PERAC). Following an opportunity for states and other stakeholders to provide feedback, it is expected that these will be adopted by governments in 2021. Although broadly in agreement, the UK government currently argues that ‘there is no basis for treating all the natural environment as a civilian object for the purposes of the laws of armed conflict. At the same time, the UK Prime Minister’s recent environmental statement to the Security Council highlighted environmental concern to be of utmost importance, indicating that over the next ten years, environmental concerns will carry significantly more weight in military planning and operations than they have previously.

While both climate change and biodiversity loss were identified as “transnational challenges” in the 2021 Integrated Review, the belief that environmental issues are not a priority for the Armed Forces was widely expressed during our discussions. Most we spoke to suggested that failure to address climate change and the ecological crisis will have little or no impact on the perceptions of the Armed Forces or serving personnel. “It should be an issue, but I don’t believe it will get salience versus other issues, in the near future at least.” Some also suggested that greater military engagement alongside the civil authorities in response to environmental crises may be good for ongoing public perception.

On the other hand, some felt that the next generation of military recruits will have strong views about environmental impact, and an inadequate response to the challenge may well have a negative effect both around ongoing public support and recruitment. “Look at the protests among school kids. Those kids that are protesting now are the people who will be leaving the Armed Forces in 10 years’ time.” They suggested that rising public pressure will mean that greater effort is needed to roll out more effective climate-sensitive initiatives and support the green agenda better. “Our next generation of recruits increasingly make career decisions based on a prospective employer’s environmental credentials.”

In addition to having a profound effect on the location and extent of military activity, concern about the environment may have the unintended consequence of switching public attention away from the charities and organisations that support the Armed Forces. Looking ahead, fundraising may be affected, as public priorities change.

Example Implication: Growing concern for our planet will increase public scrutiny of the Armed Forces. How Government responds will impact recruitment, Service length and the civil response to those in transition.


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