IN THE JOURNAL | POINT OF VIEW
Our changing environment and the fate of national defense
October-December 2017
By: Nicolas Regaud

Climate change is indeed a challenge to global peace and security. It does not just affect the environment and societies. While a large number of countries are already suffering from food insecurity, insufficient water resources, desertification and the disappearance of arable land, in a context of demographic growth and often bad governance, climate change amplifies the effects of these structural weaknesses. It is now very clear that climate change is a risk amplifier and one of the main strategic challenges of this century.

By worsening food insecurity and increasing pressure on vital resources, in particular water, climate change contributes to the displacement of populations, bringing already densely populated cities to saturation, while poverty creates fertile ground for organized crime, violence and sometimes terrorism. The displacement of populations often transcends national frameworks, and we are already witnessing large-scale migratory movements at the regional and international levels that are likely to be even greater in the coming years, and the destabilizing power of these movements is naturally a cause for concern.

But my purpose in this essay is not to depict all the miseries and troubles that climate change could bring. I will instead attempt to answer the three following questions:

  • In what respect is climate change of particular concern to national defense institutions?
  • What can countries do at the national level?
  • What are the possible responses at the international and regional levels?

While diplomatic, development and environmental institutions played a crucial role in negotiating an ambitious global agreement in Paris in December 2015, and are now engaged in preventive action, defense institutions have a specific role to play in the field of peace and security. They must prepare for new risks and challenges, and may also contribute to sustainable development policies.

I will give a few examples of why the French Ministry of Defense is particularly concerned and now takes a very active role in this domain. As French territories are widespread around the world and mostly located in tropical areas prone to extreme climate events, French forces could be called upon more often to support civil authorities in providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

It is particularly concerning in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific, where almost three million French citizens live. Regionally based French naval, ground and air capabilities are frequently mobilized to assist in humanitarian and disaster relief operations in countries in need, in close cooperation with our regional partners, in particular Australia and New Zealand through coordinated assistance to Pacific Island countries. But the French Armed Forces are also supporting civil security forces in Metropolitan France in responding to forest fires, major flooding and other disasters. Thus, as climate change increases the number and intensity of extreme climate events, the French Armed Forces must consider the impact on their missions and the mobilization of assets.

Second, as climate change has consequences on ocean temperatures and acidification, it may have an impact on fish resources and kindle the greed of countries that suffer from depleted natural resources. In some countries, including France, naval forces play a critical role in monitoring their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, and carry out missions to police fishing activities, which means that climate change could increase the need for robust maritime surveillance capabilities.

Third, extreme climate events and rising sea levels could pose a threat to the military infrastructure necessary for defense operations and to critical civilian infrastructure usable by militaries. Thus, there is a need to anticipate possible impacts of climate change in the long run on critical infrastructure being built or maintained.

Until recently, the French Ministry of Defense has only approached the climate issue from the angle of its contribution to sustainable development policies. Military implications and international security were not considered.  Consequently, the French Ministry of Defense has become especially committed to contributing as best it can to preserving nature and reducing its ecological footprint.

As such, in 2012 a defense sustainable development strategy was drawn up. It was updated in 2016. The aim of this strategy is primarily to reconcile the preservation of biodiversity with operational activities, and to determine measures that can be taken for energy conservation and the development of renewable energy and recyclable equipment, both domestically and in overseas operations.

For instance, since 2008 all French armament programs must follow an eco-design process beginning with the first technical specifications. The new FREMM multi-mission naval frigates are a convincing example: the technologies used for managing waste produced at sea, for instance, anticipated changes in regulations that occurred throughout the ship’s design phase. And the electric propulsion and complex hybrid structure meant that fuel consumption was reduced by 20 percent compared to the previous class warships.

Reducing energy consumption is a major challenge for our defense department. Our consumption profile is atypical and imbalanced: 70 percent for operations fuel, compared to 30 percent for the rest. We therefore have very little room to maneuver, as we cannot envisage hampering our operational capacity. But through various energy-saving and renewable energy development measures, the French Ministry of Defense has already reduced its energy consumption by 17 percent in the last five years, and is committed to reducing it by 20 percent between now and 2020, excluding operational activities.

But if “green defense” is important, it is just one part of what needs to be done. For us, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, or COP21, has been a catalyst to go beyond and deepen our reflection on the various strategic challenges of climate change for defense, with the objective of drawing up a roadmap to be implemented at the national and international levels. At the national level, it is essential to expand the scope of our reflection in order to examine the consequences of climate change on armed forces operations that engage the five strategic functions identified by our white paper on defense and national security: knowledge and anticipation; deterrence ; protection ; prevention ; and military operations.  

To illustrate, let me give a few examples. First, in terms of knowledge and anticipation, we must develop a new risk mapping linked to climate change at the regional and international levels, and encourage research centers specializing in environmental matters to contribute their expertise to the French Ministry of Defense’s strategic foresight exercises.

Second, prevention and protection involves examining the possibilities of strengthening interdepartmental synergy in terms of risk analysis and foresight, so that assistance and cooperation policies are integrated within a comprehensive approach. In particular, this means studying the vulnerability of our major technical infrastructure for transportation, energy and communications to large-scale climate events and rising sea levels, and anticipating the impact of a rise in the number and intensity of natural disasters on our human and material resources. As a recent example of interdepartmental cooperation, I will mention a project supported by the French Ministry of Defense, in cooperation with the Natural History Museum and the Department of the Environment, for analyzing trans-Pacific migratory bird behavior, which is likely to bring vital pieces of information complementary to satellite data, thus contributing early warning tools against cyclones.

To help reach all of these objectives, the French Ministry of Defense is supporting a four-year, approximately $1.5 million study program involving two dozen climate scientists and experts on regional and defense issues. All information will be shared publicly online and with other French government agencies.

Combating climate change and its security consequences cannot be carried out in isolation in each individual country. That is why regional and international cooperation is of the utmost importance. During the past decade, the international community has increasingly explored links between climate change and international security. The UN Security Council, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have taken this issue up, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, the African Union and the G7, among others.

But the climate issue has mostly been approached by these organizations from the angle of human-security, diplomacy and development – rarely touching upon defense. Regional defense organizations such as NATO and the European Defense Agency have developed a more defense-oriented approach, but their work has been essentially focused on the dimension of “green defense”: energy security, alternative fuels, eco-designed equipment and so forth.

A third dimension lies in the development of exchanges and cooperation within subregional defense forums and among militaries. This in particular is important in the Asia-Pacific, through workshops and seminars organized under the framework of the Asean Regional Forum, by the US Pacific Command and also by France recently. In June 2016, the French command in French Polynesia organized a seminar in Papeete on climate change implication for defense, with participants coming from almost all the Western Pacific countries. Another seminar was organized in Paris that November for senior civilian officials and military officers from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, and a conference on environmental security was organized in April in Ho Chi Minh City with senior officials from Vietnam, Asean, the European Union and France.

During the third South Pacific Defense Ministers Meeting, which gathers Australia, Chile, Fiji, France, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga, in Auckland on April 6, the ministers “welcomed the proposal by France to lead a coordinated study on climate change’s impact on defense cooperation in the South Pacific and the work of our armed forces. The results and recommendations of this coordinated study should be released during an international conference hosted by France prior to the 2019 ministers meeting.

In my view, such subregional defense initiatives for developing exchanges of experience and cooperation are very promising, and the right way to work in the future.

As the international community, and particularly France, was mobilized around the climate issue in the run-up to COP21, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suggested an international conference gathering defense ministers and senior government officials from around the world to create a dynamic of dialogue and cooperation among defense institutions on climate change and its strategic implications. It took place in Paris in October 2015.

This conference marked a new stage, considering it was the first international meeting of its kind, with a large audience composed of 14 defense ministers and more than 600 representatives of defense institutions, national and international administrations and the academic, nonprofit and private sector communities. There were 36 delegations from around the world, including 15 government department representatives from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

In a nutshell, three key ideas were put forward during this conference:

  • Encourage strategic research on climate change and cooperation among research centers associated with defense ministries.
  • Encourage subregional defense forums to launch studies on climate change implications for nations’ armed forces and for regional cooperation.
  • Support the continuation of high-level conferences to establish yearly meetings, including newly participating countries, coupled with the COP’s conferences. Participants recognized their importance in exchanging views and good practices at the political level, for promoting new ideas and encouraging international cooperation on an increasingly worrying global strategic challenge.

The good news is that Morocco, the chair and host of the COP22 in November 2016, organized a second such gathering that took place in Skhirat two months beforehand. That meeting brought together delegations from 26 countries, including a dozen defense ministers and vice ministers. It is our hope that a third edition will be organized during the COP23 period, to be chaired by Fiji and which will run until November 2018, as we want this new cycle of international meetings dedicated to climate change, defense and security to be a lasting success, thus contributing to international resilience and cooperation among countries around the world.


Nicolas Regaud is special representative to the Indo-Asia Pacific of the director general for international relations and strategy, at the French Ministry of the Armed Forces.

This essay was adapted from his presentation at the inaugural Jakarta Geopolitical Forum in May.

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