Military Leaders Call for Urgent Climate Action

Climate change is teaching military leaders to think about security in a new way.
Collecting water

Afghanistan, like much of Asia, depends on the Himalayan-Hindu Kush mountain glaciers for its water supply.

Photo by Keith Stanski

On October 29, military leaders from around the world released a statement warning that, if the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen fail “to deliver an effective and institutionally robust climate protection system, preserving security and stability even at current levels will become increasingly difficult.”

The signers, active and retired military officers from India, Mauritania, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Guyana, are part of a group called the Military Advisory Council. It was convened by to the Climate Change and the Military project, an international initiative led by the Institute for Environmental Security, the Brookings Institution, Chatham House, and other think tanks. The officers met in Brussels, Belgium and Bonn, Germany for five days earlier in October to discuss the impact of climate change on global security.

“Military leaders have the requirement to advise our civilian leaders on defense issues, and one of the most important aspects of this advice is identifying future threats to peace and security,” said council member Wendell C. King, a retired Brigadier General and current dean of academics at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, in an e-mail interview. “Environmental security issues, and climate change in particular, are now issues which threaten security and peace in the world and, therefore, rightfully belong in the security discussion. Environmental security is vastly different from threats we have dealt with in the past, but no less real and no less dangerous.”

Among the council’s most immediate concerns are the melting of polar ice—which will lead to open navigation in the north, competition for resources, the extinction of Arctic ecosystems, and rising sea levels, among other impacts—and the speed with which glacial ice in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush is melting. That melt will cause dangerous flooding in the short-term and devastating water shortages in the long-term. In a speech at the Brookings Institute yesterday, King pointed out that water supplies in Afghanistan will also be compromised. 

"Sustaining peace is much cheaper by all measures than rebuilding it—we must learn to invest in solutions earlier."
-Brig. Gen.
Wendell C. King

But glacial melt is just one way that, according to the council’s statement, “failure to recognize the conflict and instability implications of climate change, and to invest in a range of preventative and adaptive actions will be very costly in terms of destabilizing nations, causing human suffering, retarding development, and providing the required military response.”

As the predicted impacts of climate change have become more dire, “climate security” has emerged as an increasingly prominent field of study. The Military Advisory Council is not alone in arguing that the predicted effects of climate change—flooding, drought, food and water shortages, extreme weather, a refugee crisis—make it an issue of national and international security.

In a 2007 study called “A Climate of Conflict,” the NGO International Alert found that, in 46 countries, climate change is likely to exacerbate social and political problems and “create a high risk of violent conflict.” Together, those 46 countries are home to 2.7 billion people. In 56 additional countries, home to 1.2 billion people, the report found a less immediate but still “high risk of political instability, with potential violent conflict a distinct risk in the longer term” as the effects of climate change interact with other factors.

Climate change is already having an impact on global security. According to the council’s statement, “incremental, and at times abrupt, climate change is resulting in an unprecedented scale of human misery, loss of biodiversity and damage to infrastructure with consequential security implications that need to be addressed urgently.”

Still, believing that it’s not too late to mitigate such disasters, the council concludes its statement by calling upon all governments “to work for an ambitious and equitable international agreement on climate in Copenhagen at the COP 15.” It also calls upon national militaries around the world to reduce their own carbon “bootprints.”

According to King, climate change is teaching military leaders that “we will have to look more broadly at threats to peace and security in the world.”

But what does that really mean?

“Winning battles is much easier than building peace; our solutions must be comprehensive and long-term,” said King. “Sustaining peace is much cheaper by all measures than rebuilding it—we must learn to invest in solutions earlier. Finally, we have to analyze and plan for the future, looking out much farther than we are really comfortable with. In climate change, and all environmental security issues, if it takes a long time to break it, it takes infinitely longer to fix it.” 

Brooke Jarvis
No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.