Climate-change and War (part one): Tilting at ‘Straw Men’

Dr Jasper Humphreys, Director of Programmes, Marjan Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Environment, Department of War Studies, King’s College London

It’s taken for granted that politicians stretch, twist and bowdlerise the connection between the word ’war’ with their ‘hot button’ topic, and climate-change is no exception. War-like rhetoric pulsed through a recent plea by UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutierrez for climate action while US Senator, Victoria Octavio-Cortez, linked the two a little further back when telling the United States ‘: ‘this is our World War II; what we have is an existential threat in the context of war’.

All just pure semiotic grand-standing one might reasonably say. However, let’s cast cynicism aside and take the politicians at their word: what might ‘war’ and climate-change imply in real terms?

When it comes to climate-change, like the rest of the world the British armed forces have been playing ‘catch up’. Since March 2020, Lieutenant-General Richard Nugee has been leading a review into climate-change policy in the MoD, while between 2009 and 2013 Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti  held the position of  the UK’s Climate and Energy Security Envoy.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been increasing the climate-change volume with each Quadrennial Defense Review since the turn of the century. In October 2014, the Pentagon released its review of risks and threats which stated: “a changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions. We are considering the impacts of climate-change in our war-games and defence-planning scenarios”. Meanwhile, ‘think-tanks’ far and wide have been fast-forwarding articles and round-tables.                       

So far, so predictable, even if the granular thinking is getting increasingly specific and directed. However, the question remains, what does the connection between the military and climate-change imply, as the image of the Clausewitzian ‘holy trinity’ hovers in the background?

We know what climate-change and war can look like. Geoffrey Parker’s book, Global Crisis: Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, examined the frequency of both war and climate-change events 300 years ago. The 17th century was not only a particularly violent period of history but it did also have many incidences of extreme weather, both hot and cold. 

Parker highlights the impact of droughts, freezing weather and storms not only on the outcome of battles but, just as importantly, by creating food insecurity through bad harvests, famine and the inability to transport food as well as wood for heating, climate-change most certainly created huge social stress that fed into the conflict dynamic. However, Parker stresses that even with all the quantitative data he presented he would not like to pronounce on a clear causal link between climate-change and conflict – there are just too many other social, economic and political variables in Parker’s opinion.

Climate-change represents the latest in a series of environmental drivers of human conflict that have been identified in recent decades. These include drought, desertification, land degradation, failing water supplies, deforestation, fisheries depletion, and even ozone depletion.

With climate-change being invisible and presenting no obvious enemy, this not only places climate-change in a puzzling semantic ‘no man’s land’ but it also makes strategic thinking in this case equally baffling.

Instead, the narrative of climate-change as a strategic threat has been depicted as being a ‘threat multiplier’ or ‘secondary threat’, floating on a sea of environmental issues that stretches seemingly beyond the horizon. With the environmental drivers as primary agents, these bleed into secondary agents such as social, economic and cultural deprivation clustered around human security. All this heaving and tangled environmental mass lies at the heart of the climate-change/security dilemma that face military planners.

With so many interlinked targets, at first sight and along with some creative imagination, developing a security strategy against climate-change could seem more like conducting counter-insurgency. On closer inspection, however, the compilation of problems are so inherently different as to make any comparison in creating an overarching strategy impossible. A recent example is pinning down the origins of the Syrian civil war, the argument beginning with a neatly packaged narrative of overlapping climate-change, drought and politics that gradually unravelled when more data suggested at the very least that there were numerous question-marks about this origin story.

The result: discussion about the military’s role in tackling climate-change becomes circular, suggesting that an echo-chamber effect of ‘think-tank’ round-tables, conferences and articles has created a ‘straw-man’ construct that broadly arrives back at the beginning, leaving the military conveniently to stick with strategising against ‘known’ enemies both abroad and in state treasuries.

In view of all this conceptual fog, it is clear that strategic climate-change thinking has to find a new direction as a re-examination process of how and what the military can actually achieve: the answer, quite simply, is to put the cart before the horse. If climate-change is the grave threat to human existence that many say it is, then the empirical justification for military intervention grows exponentially.

Given the highly contested and heavily freighted nature of recent military interventions, it seems instructive and indeed pertinent to take ecological intervention as a guide, the sine qua non here being Professor Robyn Eckersley’s 2007 paper ‘Ecological Intervention: Prospects and Limits’.

Her definition of ecological intervention was ‘exploring the use of military force for environmental protection [that] enables a useful stock-taking and clarification of the relationship between new ecological norms and the fundamental political and legal norm of non-intervention and its corollary, self‐determination’.

Her paper is a foundational document for the growing ‘ecocide’ movement that judges harm to the climate to be the sixth Crime Against Humanity, adding to the five that followed the Nuremburg Trials. It is also core to the growing United Nations engagement with protecting the environment after armed conflict that has spawned organisations such as PAX and The Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS).

Eckersley’s argument is logical, moral and empirical and is focused on the fact that if we care about the environment as much as we say we do, the world has to make hard choices about protection intervention. While Eckersley is clearly spiritually enthusiastic about intervention she doesn’t shy away from the pitfalls of ecological intervention, using the last-minute operational failure to save the Northern sub-species of the White Rhino in DR Congo as a sad but instructive case-study. Just as crucially, Eckersley ends by saying that while military intervention to save the environment makes logical and moral sense, it is unlikely to happen – it is a leap of faith just too far, also bearing in mind the paper was written in 2007.

Given that the world’s moral and empirical compass towards the environment has clearly radically changed since 2007, along with the fact that Clausewitz’s swinging pendulum within the ‘holy’ trinity has also clearly moved the passion of the ‘people’ in demanding climate action, means that the pressure on military planners to come up with a meaningful response to climate-change will only increase. This is not to say that the military are expected to save the world but just like the rest of us, they will be expected to cast aside ‘straw men’ and play a demonstrably meaningful part: what form their intervention takes is another question.

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