‘Greening’ the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces: the ‘Nugee Paradox’

Dr Jasper Humphries, Director of Programmes, The Marjan Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Environment, King’s College London.

Lieutenant-General Richard Nugee, the Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Lead for the Ministry of Defence, officially retired from the British Army in December. Before leaving, however, he oversaw an important report reviewing how the UK military is adapting to climate-change and the ‘green’ agenda. This review has yet to appear

     It will be interesting to see its contents. While military minds are characteristically honed to focus on identifiable threats, in this particular case there lurks the unsettling situation of military systems that are trained to use force being linked with environmental systems whose essence is amorphous and non-conflictual – the two systems being as paradoxically different as oil and water.

     General Nugee, with wide-ranging military experience that includes senior roles in Afghanistan and the delicate post of Chief of Defence People – as well as gaining a War Studies MA –certainly has the military experience and knowledge to deliver a comprehensive review. Furthermore, the fact that Nugee’s sister-in-law is Emily Thornberry, a member of the Labour Party’s Shadow Cabinet (International Trade Secretary) and also a former aspirant leader (she is married to the general’s brother, the Rt. Honourable Lord Justice Nugee), suggests that his combined milieu and hinterland are intriguingly broad and textured. High intellectual capability and public service are clearly a family theme, with the Nugees’ father, Edward, also being a highly distinguished barrister.

     The parameters of Nugee’s report are predictable enough: operational adaptation to changing climates, such as in the Arctic; dealing with green-house gas emissions created from both operational and logistical demands, and how all this can be achieved to fit in with the UK Government’s zero-emissions policy by 2050. This is in line with the Ministry of Defence acknowledgement of the strategic threat posed by climate-change in its latest Global Strategic Trends document as well as the generally recognised need to reduce carbon emissions.

     Therefore, given the review’s obvious outline, it will be its tone and thrust that will come under greatest scrutiny. Will it subtly cajole the Armed Forces into a paradigmatic shift incorporating significant sustainable thinking or will it merely offer suggestions amounting to just words of encouragement? Thus, will it either light the touch-paper for a seismic shift in thinking – maybe even a ‘green’ Revolution in Military Affairs – or just represent a ‘green’ Strategic Defence Review-lite?

     With General Nugee’s review process beginning in March 2020, it would have been in its early stages when both the crucial CoP26 UN climate crisis summit in Glasgow and the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD15) in Kunming, China were originally to have been held. But now both have been rescheduled for this year (CBD15 in May and CoP26 in November). These events, combined with the impending Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), and all against a backdrop of a potential post-COVID general economic down-turn, may put Nugee’s final report, when it appears, in a stark light.

     It seems inevitable, though, and regardless of ancillary events, that any significant military environmental green initiative proposed in the report could come under considerable scrutiny as thinking about climate-change and biodiversity loss become embedded deeper and deeper into governmental policy. One specific example is the new UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) underlining commitments to reduce emissions and implement carbon-pricing coupled with enforcement mechanisms.

     Given this fast-expanding political engagement with climate-change and biodiversity loss, the wider significance of the Nugee review in military terms also lies in its double-facing, Janus-like nature – what might be termed the ‘Nugee Paradox’. On the one hand, a green agenda could see the military stepping into the public/political arena further than they might otherwise feel comfortable with. Moreover, and bearing in mind that on climate-change and biodiversity loss the public’s feelings are strong, sensitive and growing, there is the possibility of greater outside involvement in military affairs on this green issue. On the other hand, the military will most definitely not want to feel its hands are being tied by ‘green thinking’.

     Moreover, there could also be emerging some variant of a moral contract between the Armed Forces and the general public as the green agenda leads to enhanced military-civilian collaboration. The military, for instance, and as posited by Anatol Lieven, will be spending more time in future dealing with climate-change induced emergencies than they will with traditional security taskings. Here, the Armed Forces clearly will have to strike a delicate balance between engaging with green sustainability issues while avoiding being used by various parties and groups for their own agendas, a situation of which General Nugee will have doubtless been aware. In short, the Armed Forces, whether they like or not, will be increasingly important ‘influencers’ in the domestic green space and will therefore carry increasing responsibility.

     To be clear, the UK’s Armed Forces will not be expected to go around saving whales, nice as that thought would be (although they have been training wildlife rangers in various African countries), but they will have to do more. They will be increasingly expected to make a contribution in the green space in ways that are perceived to be achievable, as per what must have been the broad parameters of General Nugee’s initial brief.

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