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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.
Almost a year after the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine began, it was no surprise that the 2023 Munich Security Conference focused on the importance and implications of the ongoing conflict. This focus included a look at the second-order effects of the conflict, such as global food insecurity and the energy transition – a recognition that tackling such transnational challenges are integral to what the conference report identified as a need for “A re-envisioned liberal, rules-based international order…to strengthen democratic resilience in an era of fierce systemic competition with autocratic regimes.”
Underscoring the importance of these issues, early in the conference NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmerman, and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell met to discuss the intersection of climate change and security. As Kerry said, “While we must confront the security risks the world faces head on, we must also do so with an eye to the climate crisis, which is making these dangers worse.”
The Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and the International Military Council for Climate and Security (IMCCS) helped drive the conversation forward on these topics at the conference through two high-level side-events: “Cleaner and Meaner: The Military Energy Security Transition by Design” and “Feeding Climate Resilience: Mapping the Security Benefits of Agriculture and Climate Adaptation.” The events included government officials, NGO and private foundation representatives, defense sector leaders and the media.
Implementing NATO’s Climate Security Action Plan
NATO and IMCCS co-hosted the Cleaner and Meaner side-event, which focused on the challenges and opportunities facing NATO members as they consider the security risks of climate change and the need to transition away from fossil fuel dependence. During the event, the NATO Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges David van Weel, said that the alliance needs “to mainstream climate change and energy transition considerations into the entire NATO enterprise, including training, exercising, force planning, and the development and procurement of military capabilities.”
The conversation culminated in three key takeaways: first, public-private partnerships are critical for decarbonizing defense. As one participant put it, militaries must work with the private sector to more quickly turn clean energy technologies into capabilities. Second, competing timelines are a key challenge for militaries – the need to resupply today in the face of the Ukraine conflict with the longer timeline needed to integrate new clean energy technologies. Further complicating matters is the fact that equipment procured today may not be as useful in a warming world, and participants noted militaries will need to reexamine their assumptions and strategic planning priorities to manage such change. A third takeaway was the importance of focusing on the operational benefits of clean energy for the military. Demonstrating that investments in clean energy will help militaries achieve their core duties will help speed the transition.
The Food and Climate Security Nexus
The Feeding Climate Resilience side-event hosted by CCS explored the intersection of food insecurity, climate change, and conflict. As one participant put it, investing in stable ground through climate and agricultural adaptation ensures that the soil is less fertile for insurgencies. The conversation emphasized three key needs: (1) the adoption of a more holistic and systems approach to the issues of climate change, food insecurity, and instability; (2) an increase in technology innovation in agriculture; and (3) more inclusive policy and decision making, from the subnational to international level. Participants discussed the need to develop, collect and disseminate concrete examples of successful and sustainable climate and food security-related initiatives which reduce conflict and build peace.
Participants underscored the security benefits of increased support for sustainable development policies and technological innovations that promote climate-smart agriculture and investments in science and technology that target the needs of small farmers–especially women. The conversation also identified the importance of scaling up climate finance and developing more responsive and inclusive planning and policy systems for finance, water management, and markets. Perhaps the most crucial lesson in addressing the current food security challenge is the importance of partnerships, particularly at the local and subnational level and between the private sector, government and civil society, among others. South-South cooperation and Triangular cooperation, or that between developed and developing countries, is also critical. The most promising multilateral partnerships are in areas like science and technology, because they can leverage the immense capabilities and assets of the private sector in cooperation with government and civil society.
The group concluded that tackling these issues requires a new Green Revolution. Research and innovation in agriculture are at the core of long-term food security and diminish the possibility of conflict, instability, and hunger, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Additionally, the conversation on food and climate must include water advocates as water is a key socio-economic driver for sustainable growth, livelihood, justice, food security, and labor. Without equitable and secure access to water for all, there can be no sustainable development or climate security.
CCS and IMCCS look forward to acting on the priorities outlined by participants in both sessions through targeted research, policy development and community building to increase awareness and investment in the military energy transition, agricultural adaptation, food security, and climate resilience.
Featured image sourced from: MSC / David Hecker, Munich Security Conference.
RELEASE: International Military Council Issues “World Climate and Security Report 2021” Warning of Catastrophic Climate Risks and Urging Significant Greenhouse Gas Reductions
June 7, 2021 — Today the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) released its second annual World Climate and Security Report, which warns of the compound security threats posed by the convergence of climate change with other global risks, such as COVID-19. The report reveals that the increasing pace and intensity of climate hazards will strain military and security services around the world as they are called on to respond to climate-driven crises, while also facing direct climate threats to their own infrastructure and readiness. The authors also call on security institutions around the globe to act as “leading voices urging significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, given recent warnings about the catastrophic security implications of climate change under plausible climate scenarios.”
The report will be released during a virtual seminar at 10 AM ET/4 PM CET today (RSVP here: http://bit.ly/WCSR2021) featuring senior climate security experts from NATO, the United States, the UK, and Europe, including NATO Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges David van Weel, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gotemoeller, Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee, UK Ministry of Defence, and Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Francois Bausch.
UPDATE (8 June 2021). See a recording of the launch event below.(more…)
The Hague, Netherlands, 19 February 2019 — At the Planetary Security Conference, a meeting of hundreds of security and foreign policy experts and practitioners, the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and its partners the Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael)/ the Planetary Security Initiative, the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), and the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) announced the creation of a new International Military Council on Climate and Security, or IMCCS. The IMCCS will be a “standing” umbrella network of senior military leaders from across the globe that will meet regularly, produce an annual World Climate and Security Report, and drive communications and policy in support of actions on the security implications of a changing climate – at national, regional and international levels. As it expands, the IMCCS will welcome new members and institutional affiliates from across the globe. The Center for Climate and Security, a policy institute of the Council on Strategic Risks with a team and advisory board of senior military and security experts, will serve as the Secretariat of the IMCCS. (more…)