Pivoting Toward Climate Security: An Interview with Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee (ret.)
By Elsa Barron
Lieutenant General Richard Nugee (ret.) recently joined the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) as a senior advisor. He is the Non-Executive Director for Climate Change and Sustainability for the UK Government.
Previously, he spent a year leading the Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach at the Ministry of Defence at the end of his 36-year military career. The following conversation reflects on his pivot toward climate security and his priorities and hopes for future action. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Elsa Barron: What led you to prioritize climate change toward the end of your military career?
Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee (ret.): I sat for four years on the executive committee of defense, and climate change wasn’t mentioned, sustainability wasn’t mentioned. I realized that actually, climate change was something that the UK military wasn’t really paying attention to. There were pockets of good practice. But broadly speaking, it wasn’t being considered on a daily basis, or on a yearly basis, or even on a review basis. And so I raised it as a subject and offered to do a report examining climate change and its effects on the military, and also the impact of the military on climate change.
There was a general feeling, and it’s very common military thinking, that we will adapt to whatever the environment is. At the end of the day, we’ll just deal with what comes, and I don’t think that is enough. When it comes to climate change, I think there are very significant opportunities for the military, but there are also circumstances that the military will find very difficult to navigate if they haven’t planned ahead. And so what I tried to do in the UK military was provoke a discussion and debate on the issue and present opportunities for action.
Barron: Are there elements of your on-the-ground experience throughout your career that have elevated your concern about climate change?
Nugee: One example is my experience as a battle group commander in southern Iraq. We didn’t have any air conditioning and we were living in the desert where generally, it’s a very dry heat averaging about 40-45 degrees Celsius, and you can mostly cope with that. But then things change for about two weeks of the year, they call it the cooker. For two weeks, the temperature rises to 50 to 55 degrees and the direction of the wind changes. Instead of coming off the dry deserts from the north, it comes from the south, and straight across the Gulf. As a result, you get 100% humidity at around 55 degrees Celsius and it’s almost unlivable.
What I saw was my soldiers literally trying to avoid doing anything because it was too hot. A lot of soldiers were in the hospital for short periods. A few of my soldiers went back to the UK with heatstroke. And this was them doing their jobs. And it struck me that we were unprepared. If that is an example of what climate change is going to do to certain parts of the world as they heat up, it is going to be very difficult.
There are other examples; in Afghanistan, the fact that the snow was melting faster than normal in the Hindu Kush, meant that there were floods coming down the valleys. Instead of a gentle trickle of water all year round, you get a huge flood and then you get nothing. And if you get nothing, you don’t have water for irrigation. What we found was that farmers were rapidly turning to the Taliban as a source of income. There was no ideology at all, a very high percentage of those joining the Taliban were fighting for money, they were fighting to put food on the table of their families because the Taliban paid them five dollars a day. I think it’s desperately sad that people would turn to the Taliban to fight when actually all they wanted was to have a job.
Barron: Climate change has long been underappreciated as a security threat. Yet even in just the past five years, the conversation has accelerated greatly within institutions like the UK MOD and NATO. What is your perspective on these developments?
Nugee: There’s a really good example of these issues being brought right to the forefront in Europe in the last year. That’s because Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has deliberately, in my view, weaponized energy. Why is that relevant to climate change? Because, actually, for once we have an alternative to gas, we have an alternative to oil, and that is renewable energy. By weaponizing energy, Putin has highlighted the energy security implications of reliance on oil and gas. And by doing that, he has, I hope, encouraged many to think of renewable energy as a viable and cheap alternative to fossil fuels. Europe ought to be doing everything it can to build up its energy security, and it’s now largely within our grasp.
NATO countries are beginning to take this more seriously. It’s all very well talking about it, it’s all very well having horizon scanning as to what’s happening, but that’s not enough. I think we need to act, we need to act as militaries to take advantage of technologies and persuade politicians to try and support others with access to fewer resources. We need to build a narrative that says it is in our interest to do so. I mean, I’m being very clear. This is about national security.
Barron: I’m curious, has there ever been a moment in your work when you’ve been surprised or challenged to change your perspective on something in light of the new challenges the world is facing?
Nugee: One thing which I suppose really surprised me was the huge flooding in Pakistan last year. It is, of course, not just climate change that has caused the floods in Pakistan. It’s a number of factors combined together. But actually, climate change has exacerbated the whole problem to the extent that a third of the country was underwater. Now, why is that a concern from a national security perspective? Because actually, what happened, and it happens in Bangladesh regularly with flooding, is that the military forces pick up the pieces and try and solve the problems that these floods cause. Well, if they are doing that, you have to ask, what are they not doing in terms of protecting their nation?
Barron: What are your hopes for the next generation of climate security leaders and what advice would you give them?
Nugee: So I think there are two elements to this. The first is to embrace the opportunities that combating climate change gives us in terms of new technologies and innovation. Why wouldn’t we want to embrace new technologies that are better for capabilities and also reduce emissions? Look through a sustainability lens on everything you do, and you will end up much more efficient and effective.
The second piece is to invest in climate resilience in countries abroad by providing training and supporting adaptation. This builds on the ability of our militaries to think strategically, which we’re usually quite good at. It is an opportunity to help countries cope with the effects of climate change, which ultimately builds up stability around the world- including in Europe.
EVENT: Managing Unavoidable Climate Security Risks: U.S. Investments in Resilience
On April 27th, the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) will host the virtual roundtable, “Managing Unavoidable Climate Security Risks: U.S. Investments in Resilience” from 2:00 – 3:30 pm Eastern Time.
Senior U.S. officials from key agencies will convene to discuss investments in climate security, as reflected in the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget request in March. The Administration has made unprecedented budgetary investments in climate security to date, amid shortfalls in climate finance for the developing world and ongoing competition with China. At the same time, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s comprehensive report in March underscores that adaptation remains inadequate to the impacts of climate change, some of which are unavoidable. As the Administration enters its second half in this environment, how can U.S. climate security investments position agencies to manage the unavoidable security challenges of climate change?
The event, moderated by the Center for Climate and Security Deputy Director Tom Ellison, will include:
- Ko Barrett, Senior Advisor for Climate, NOAA
- Joe Bryan, Chief Sustainability Officer and Senior Advisor to the Secretary, DOD
- Christina Chan, Senior Adaptation Advisor, SPEC
- Ann Vaughan, Senior Advisor for Climate Change, USAID
- Swathi Veeravalli, Director for Climate Security and Adaptation, NSC
CSR Announces New Staff, Internal Moves
Continued Capacity-building at CSR’s Core
Continuing a trajectory of rapid growth, the Council on Strategic Risks is pleased to announce a new round of hires across its programs and role changes for existing staff.
The Center for Climate and Security (CCS) added expertise across its portfolios, bringing on Tom Ellison, Patricia Parera, and Michael Zarfos to advance progress in addressing security threats posed by climate change, and to analyze growing ecological security risks. The Converging Risks Lab also welcomed Lily Boland as a new team member.
Ellison joins CCS as Deputy Director after a decade of informing policymakers on the security and foreign policy implications of climate change as a Senior Analyst for the US government. Increasing leadership capacity, Ellison will drive strategy and program development to accelerate progress on the Center’s work at the nexus of foreign policy and climate security.
Parera previously served as Associate Director for Partnerships and Global Initiatives at Virginia Tech where she also was a lecturer on sustainable development. At CCS, she will lead research at the intersection of climate change and food security as a Senior Fellow.
Dr. Zarfos will be tackling complex, converging risks caused by ecological change as an Ecological Security Research Fellow. He is also a postdoctoral researcher with the Dovciak Lab at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF), examining how human-induced environmental change impacts forest ecosystems.
CSR was also thrilled to bring on Lily Boland as a Strategic Foresight Fellow to develop security foresight tools and lead analysis of long-term consequences of nuclear weapons use for the Converging Risks Lab. Boland joins from the Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs and the War Studies Department at King’s College London where she studied intelligence and international security.
Yong-Bee Lim, previously a Deputy Director and Fellow at the Nolan Center, has now transitioned to a new role as the Deputy Director of the Converging Risks Lab where he will address cross-cutting security issues.
Andrea Rezzonico, previously the Deputy Director at the Converging Risks Lab, is now the Program Lead, Ecological Security at the Center for Climate and Security.
EVENT: Climate Security in NATO’s Backyard: A Discussion with Young Leaders
By Elsa Barron
On April 21st, the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), supported by the U.S. Mission to NATO, will host the webinar, “Climate Security in NATO’s Backyard: A Discussion with Young Leaders” from 9:30-10:15 am Eastern Time (3:30-4:15 pm Central European Time).
NATO’s most recent polling data shows that the risks of climate change and extreme weather are top of mind for NATO country citizens, with 32 percent ranking it as their greatest concern, above the risk of war, terrorism, or political instability.
As NATO develops its climate security ambition while simultaneously navigating an ongoing conflict in Europe, engaging meaningfully with young leaders is critical for future sustainability and security. The Alliance has much to gain from young leaders’ innovative and systematic ideas for addressing globalized and interconnected challenges such as climate change and conflict.
IMCCS Director Erin Sikorsky and IMCCS Secretary General Sherri Goodman will welcome the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Julianne Smith and NATO 2030 Young Leader Katarina Kertysova for a conversation on a future vision for peace and security. The conversation will then transition into a discussion moderated by CCS Research Fellow Elsa Barron featuring young leaders from across ten countries, including:
- Pau Alvarez Aragones, Spain
- Virginia Bertuzzi, Italy
- Selma Bichbich, Algeria
- Jackson Blackwell, United States
- Diana Garlytska, Ukraine (based in Lithuania)
- Marieke Jacobs, Netherlands
- Kostian Jano, Albania
- Sofia Kabbej, France
- Andrej Mitreski, North Macedonia
- Michelle Ramirez, United States
- George Tavridis, Greece
- Ytze de Vries, Netherlands