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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.
CCS and IMCCS to Host Events on Food Security and the Clean Energy Transition at the Munich Security Conference
The Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) in partnership with NATO look forward to hosting innovative conversations on key climate security issues, including food security and the clean energy transition, at the Munich Security Conference set to take place February 17-19, 2023.
Climate change is a strategically significant security risk that will affect our most basic resources, including food, with potentially dire security ramifications. National and international security communities, including militaries and intelligence agencies, understand these risks and are taking action to anticipate them. However, progress in mitigating these risks will require deeper collaboration among the climate change, agriculture and food security, and national security communities through targeted research, policy development, and community building.
In order to address these challenges, CCS will host an interactive roundtable under the title “Feeding Climate Resilience: Mapping the Security Benefits of Agriculture and Climate Adaptation” with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, featuring a high-level discussion aimed at identifying further areas of cooperation among these sectors and exploring possible areas for policy action.
The Clean Energy Transition
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent global energy crisis, coupled with the last few years of unprecedented extreme heat, droughts, and floods, have revealed a new, more complex security reality for NATO countries. Navigating this reality requires militaries to systematically recognize the opportunities and challenges that exist within the nexus between climate change and security, and the global clean energy transition.
The deterioration in Euro-Atlantic security will lead to increases in Alliance military procurement as well as the intensity of training, exercising, and patrolling. Such investment decisions can maintain and enhance operational effectiveness and collective defense requirements by taking advantage of the innovative solutions offered by the green energy transition that are designed for future operating environments while contributing to individual countries’ UNFCCC Paris Agreement commitments. However, it is also important to identify and mitigate new dependencies created by a switch from Russian fossil fuels to a critical minerals supply chain currently dominated by China and to think holistically about interoperability and other factors of relevance to the Alliance.
A roundtable discussion titled “Cleaner and Meaner: The Military Energy Transition by Design” and hosted by IMCCS and NATO will identify key opportunities to speed NATO militaries’ transition to clean energy, as well as challenges/obstacles that require cooperation and strategic planning across the Alliance. The conversation will seek to identify next steps for NATO countries, including through technological innovation and partnerships with the private sector, and builds on conversations about the implementation of climate security planning hosted by IMCCS and NATO at the 2022 conference.
Follow us here and on social media for more coming out of this year’s conversations at MSC.
By Elsa Barron
Are you a young person concerned about the impacts of climate change on well-being and security in your home community? Is your community pursuing innovative approaches to managing climate risks that increase safety and security for your neighbors? Do you have a message to share with policymakers across NATO nations about the opportunities and challenges your home will face in a warming world? The International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) and the U.S. Mission to NATO want to hear your story. We are launching a call for young people to submit short videos showcasing their personal climate security stories. NATO has increased its ambition on climate change over the past few years and your fresh perspectives can help them drive their action even further.
Selected videos will be featured in a #MyClimateSecurityStory social media campaign showcasing youth experiences with climate security risks across the Arctic, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. In addition to being featured on social media, selected individuals will be invited to a Young Leaders’ Climate Security Dialogue with the potential for in-person engagement at a NATO ministerial meeting.
Read the full Call for Submissions and apply here.
Just and Comprehensive Action on Climate Security in Australia and Beyond: An Interview with Cheryl Durrant
By Elsa Barron
The Australian Security Leaders Climate Group (ASLCG), a partner of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), is working to reframe the climate debate in Australia to address the multifaceted security risks posed by climate change. The group recently released its second report, an Australian Climate and Security Risk Assessment Implementation Proposal. I spoke with Cheryl Durrant, an executive member of the ASLCG and former Director of Preparedness & Mobilization at the Australian Department of Defense, about this report and the path towards just and comprehensive action on climate security risks for Australia and beyond.
Elsa Barron: How did you initially become concerned about the intersection between climate change and security challenges? How did that concern evolve over the course of your career and ultimately lead to the creation of the ASLCG?
Cheryl Durrant: Curiously, I am a military historian and I first understood the relationship between climate and security when I was studying the collapse of middle-American civilizations, which was partly an environmental collapse. That was my start, but I really became aware of the urgency and extremity of the current climate change crisis in 2012 when I commissioned a piece of work from our [The Australian] Defense Science and Technology Group on global change. From all of the global challenges presented in the report, climate change leapt out as different from the others in three ways: pervasiveness, probability, and scale. Climate change was happening everywhere, it was almost certain, and it had the potential to destroy civilizations and cause probable extinction if left unchecked.
Barron: I’m curious, in addition to your own journey and interest, how have you seen the security community approach the connection between climate change?
Durrant: I think there are two strands to it. One is based on the ground. When we started going out and talking about climate change at international conferences and with other militaries, we constantly heard the same story: that the soldiers have already grasped this concept from the ground up. They are in the same training range every year and the landscape is changing. Soldiers and sailors are some of the most profound supporters of this work because they are in it every day.
Then there is the second strand which is a more theoretical analysis of climate change as a geopolitical security challenge. This issue poses a dilemma for security professionals because it is a problem that is without boundaries. It doesn’t follow standard geopolitical thinking. You can’t think of it as a traditional enemy, because you contribute to it as well. You can’t fight yourself because you’re putting carbon in the atmosphere.
Barron: Last year, ASLCG published its inaugural report titled, “Missing in Action: Responding to Australia’s Climate & Security Failure.” What has guided the progression from that report to the release of your most recent, solutions-oriented report, “Australian Climate & Security Risk Assessment?”
Durrant: If you see action on climate change as a campaign, which is a framing we are used to in the military, then the first step of that campaign is to get the government and the people of Australia to connect climate change to security. Then, they can recognize that action is needed and take steps towards that action. The ASLCG has been in the raising awareness step. Now we’ve largely accomplished the goal of that first step: the current government has adopted our policy suggestion of integrating a climate risk assessment. Now, we are in the second phase of the campaign which is moving from awareness to understanding and action.
When I started seriously looking into this problem in 2012, the general thinking was that we weren’t going to see catastrophic climate security impacts until 2100 or later. By 2015, we were concerned that we might see those catastrophic effects by mid-century. Now, we are seeing catastrophic effects for some parts of the planet already – horrific events this summer in Europe, Africa, South Asia, Australia, and North America. The time horizon we have to take action is really very short.
With our most recent report, we are recommending a broad risk assessment because that is a way to engage not only government, but also business, think tanks, and the general community to understand we are in a crisis mode. Unless everyone understands we are in crisis mode, then people aren’t prepared to make the sacrifices that a crisis mode entails. The response to the climate crisis will not be a smooth path, it will be a bumpy path and we need a mindset change to understand how urgent, how large, and how globally interconnected the climate risks that we face really are.
Barron: ASLCG’s report argues that existential risks must be treated differently in policy-making than standard risks. How does this apply to climate security risks? Are there examples of low-probability yet high-impact risks that should be given more attention?
Durrant: From my perspective, there are probably two major existential risks we should be thinking about and they’re interconnected. Existential risk indicates the possibility of civilization collapse or human extinction. This kind of risk is not really comparable to something like an economic decline of 10 percent; it’s an entirely different scale and you really have to get your head around the gravity of that difference.
The two risks that I elevate to this level are climate change and nuclear conflict. These carry the potential to cause human extinction or civilization collapse to such an extent that it might never come back again. They’re also connected because climate change escalates the risk of conflict and the fear of nuclear war is putting a break on some of the international cooperation we want to see around climate change. These two risks are now circling and exacerbating each other. There is a whole range of other existential risks like super volcano eruptions or solar events, but humanity has less capacity to control those risks. Let’s focus on the two that we can act on.
Barron: How do you communicate this level of risk? You mentioned that communication is often focused on hope because it is more empowering to people, so how do you really communicate the scale of risk in a way that is effective at galvanizing action?
Durrant: Risk is best communicated through lived experience. I already mentioned the soldier who feels the impacts of climate change in his bones as he’s losing his Christmases because he has to keep responding to fires. The bush that he loves and appreciates because he’s been training in it for 30 years is changing. He doesn’t see the little animals or birds he normally sees. It’s deeply felt and understood. It’s not an intellectual thing, it’s an experience of the heart.
That’s why in our approach to the integrated risk assessment, we wanted to go further than pure analysis. We won’t change minds through glossy reports, we’ll do it by sitting down face-to-face with people. I see an amazing connection between the ecological security work that the IMCCS is doing and permaculture movements. Call it what you want– ecological security, environmental justice, intergenerational responsibility– but the goals are the same. It’s important to connect these movements together rather than separate them if we want to create change.
That requires the thinkers and leaders, such as the security leaders, to go humbly amongst the public and have their one-on-one, face-to-face, small group conversation and build the movement from the bottom-up. Ultimately, we need a social tipping point. Yes, physically it is a problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But, in terms of the human cause and response, it’s a social movement challenge. Without a social tipping point, I don’t see our action being quick enough or big enough to avert a worsening crisis.
Barron: The ASLCG report advocates using scenarios methodology for carrying out a risk assessment. In the case of Australia, what parties should be brought into scenario planning to conduct a thorough analysis of climate security?
Durrant: It’s important that scenarios are an immersive experience. In order to create that immersion, I think there are three main groups that are important: security professionals, climate science and sector impact experts (e.g. economy, health, environment, infrastructure), and community and civic groups. I think it’s really important to bring these groups all together. By design, the assessment will help information to flow from the bottom-up.
These integrated scenarios provide opportunities for creativity, for example, imagining plausible utopias. How do we rethink international security and creatively imagine the rules of a different world? I think this creativity is really important because the right-brained thinkers– the intelligence officers and the security analysts– are very good at dystopias but not very good at utopias. I think bringing the creative arts, storytelling sector, and other strange bedfellows for the security world into the conversation is important for addressing this multifaceted crisis.
We also need diverse groups to solve diverse planetary problems. The answer to an African problem might be from an Indian solution and the answer to an American problem might come from a Nordic solution and the answer to an Australian problem might come from a Chinese solution, so we can’t afford to not share the solutions. It’s also important to get youth and other groups involved that also come with unique skills and perspectives.
Barron: I completely agree with your points on diversity and also youth engagement, do you see that as a part of the positive social tipping point we’re working towards?
Durrant: Yes, and it’s people coming with their authentic voices as well. We have a certain paradigm that can be reductionist, patriarchal, and capitalist. There are many assumptions that are deeply embedded in how we think. Women’s voices, Indigenous voices, non-Western voices, and youth voices are not captive in that paradigm.
Certain rules of thinking tend to run very deep in the security community. Traditionally, security is about a bad guy, whereas the climate crisis doesn’t really have a clearly defined adversary. That means there is a whole body of learning you need to put aside in order to think differently, and it’s a very hard transformation to make. Our mindset for dealing with problems doesn’t often get to the root cause.
Barron: What is at stake for Australia if it falls behind its allies and partners in getting to those root causes? In contrast, what opportunities exist if Australia steps up its commitment to combating these challenges?
Durrant: I’ll start with the opportunities. Australia can be a leader because, uniquely among the western alliance, it’s very rich in renewable energy resources and also agricultural resources; it’s a net exporter. Even with its major climate vulnerabilities, the biocapacity of the Australian continent to continue to produce food is substantial. When the world starts to get short of food and needs secure access to critical minerals, Australia can be there. Australia also has masses of nuclear, hydrogen, wind, and solar energy so it’s actually really well poised to be a renewable energy superpower.
Australia has a choice in how to use this power. It can choose to perpetrate great power to control and shape the world in our favor. Or, it can use its force to address social justice concerns and provide resources to those who need them most. We have to think globally and not just locally and transform the mindset from thinking “oh we’re lucky we don’t have to work too hard”, to thinking “wow, we’re fortunate, we can help others and lead the transition.” Some of that shift is evident in the government’s efforts. They are seeing that they can be a force for good and need to choose that path.
Read about the ASLCG’s first report, “Missing in Action,” here.