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Countries seek to green armed forces as they tackle security threat of climate change

27 April 2021 Amena Saiyid

Greening a country's military should complement plans to tackle climate impacts as a global threat to security, according to defense officials who spoke at the recently concluded gathering of world leaders on tackling climate change.

"It makes little sense to have more and more electric vehicles on our streets, while our armed forces still rely only on fossil fuels," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said 22 April during a discussion on climate security at the Leaders Summit on Climate.

NATO, as well as its members, including the US, operates bases and equipment that are reliant on fossil fuels. Any decrease in fossil fuel use would correspondingly lead to a reduction in GHG emissions at the national level as well.

As a former UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, Stoltenberg said his ambition for a NATO summit scheduled for 14 June is to adopt an action plan to reduce GHG emissions to net-zero levels in line with the targets set by its members. This plan could include an alliance-wide assessment of its assets and installations, prioritizing sustainable technologies in its purchases. At the same time, he said NATO should step up its monitoring capabilities to better understand and anticipate the impacts of climate change on security, including in the most vulnerable regions.

NATO is moving forward with its own plan, and not waiting for the UN Security Council to act on climate impacts as a security risk. Recent efforts by the US, UK, and France to deem climate change a security risk were thwarted by Russia, one of the council's five permanent members with the ability to veto any resolution.

Stoltenberg's words resonated with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield -- who moderated the discussion -- as well as with the heads of the defense ministries of Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Spain, the UK, and the US, who, along with the finance minister of Philippines, took part in the conversation.

Military forces must adapt

They agreed with Stoltenberg that the militaries of their respective countries must adapt so they can continue to operate under all extreme climate-fueled weather conditions, while at the same time protecting their military installations across the globe from the threat that a rise in sea levels poses.

From major European ports such as Rotterdam and Hamburg, to the world's largest naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, which houses NATO commands, and from Iraq to the Arctic, NATO soldiers and equipment hailing from its 30 member states face extreme heat and cold, Stoltenberg said.

"Increasingly, our troops are being called on to respond to natural disasters, at home and abroad," he said, adding: "So, climate change affects where and how we operate."

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the US military has been forced to call off exercises or had bases evacuated owing to wildfires or extreme storms in the past several years.

He pointed to the repeated evacuations of military bases in California caused by wildfires in the last several years; the billions of dollars in damages to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in 2018 caused by Hurricane Michael, and to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska due to severe flooding of the Missouri River in 2019; and to the delay of joint exercises with Australian and Japanese troops due to typhoons striking Guam in February 2019.

DOD largest GHG emitter

At the same time as it grapples with adapting its forces to climate change, the US Department of Defense (DOD) can play a major role in reducing GHG emissions. DOD is "the world's largest institutional user of petroleum and correspondingly, the single largest institutional producer of [GHGs] in the world," according to a November 2019 report by the Costs of War project at Brown and Boston universities.

Between fiscal years 1975 and 2018, the report said, DOD's total GHG emissions were estimated to exceed 3.68 billion mt of CO2-equivalent. In 2017 alone, DOD's total GHG emissions from installations and operations were greater than those of countries such Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal and also greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel.

The report's authors urged DOD to reduce its GHG usage, as it drives overall US emissions, a recommendation that has not gone unnoticed by the Biden administration, which announced an economy-wide goal of halving US GHG emissions compared with 2005 levels by 2030.

UK 'raises the bar'

At the summit, Austin said he saw in Biden's all-of-government approach to tackling climate impacts an opportunity to reduce the US military's carbon footprint by increasing the energy efficiency of its platforms and installations, deploying clean distributed generation and energy storage, and electrifying its vehicle fleets.

DOD plans to complete a climate-exposure assessment of its major installations inside the US within a year, and an assessment of those located beyond its borders in two years, using a tool that it also plans to share with its allies, according to the White House.

Austin said the UK's recently released Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach has "raised the bar" for how armed forces can adapt to an operational environment that considers the impacts of climate change while advancing military capabilities and resilience.

"When we operate more sustainably, we become more logistically agile and ready to respond to crises," Austin told his counterparts.

Japanese Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo said 1 million more people have been added to the roster of its special forces just to respond to climate-fueled disasters.

Climate, a threat multiplier

There was no dissent from their fellow participants when Thomas-Greenfield and Austin said climate-fueled impacts are a "threat multiplier."

The physical effects of climate change are likely to intensify during the next two decades, especially in the 2030s, with more droughts, storms, sea level rises, and melting of the Arctic ice caps, according to Avril Haines, US Director of National Intelligence, who shared the findings of a report by the agency she heads for the discussion.

Thomas-Greenfield reminded participants that unpredictable and extreme weather can make vital resources like food and water even more scarce in impoverished regions, propelling mass migration, inciting violence, and threatening the stability of already fragile economies. "Scarcity spurs desperation. And desperation leads to violence," Thomas-Greenfield added.

Across the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa, Spain remains sensitive to the impact of global warming on North Africa and the countries making up the Sahel -- Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad -- that are threatening food and water supplies for millions living in those regions, according to Margarita Robles Fernández, the country's defense minister.

These countries are experiencing increasingly intense droughts, with increases in temperatures that are 1.5 times greater than the rest of the world is seeing, she said.

Kenya Defense Minister Monica Juma agreed that the existing effects of pandemic, civil wars, and violence are being exacerbated across the African continent by the lingering effects of climate change on food and water supplies.

Iraq's Defense Minister Jumaah Inad reminded the panel that climate-fueled droughts in Basra over the past several years have fueled tribal conflicts, resulted in mass migration of large numbers of people, many of whom were preyed upon by Daesh, the Arabic name for the Islamic militant group known as Islamic State.

"Today, no nation can find lasting security without addressing the climate crisis," Austin said.

Posted 27 April 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate and Energy Research Analyst


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