Climate Change, Security, and Defence: Re-defining Security

Publié le mercredi 13 janvier 2016

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This piece originated on The Conference Board of Canada's blog  


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At first glance, the issue of climate change may not be immediately associated with branches of national security and defence. There is a tendency to limit our thoughts on defence and security to putting up fences or defining borders. What is often left unacknowledged, in the context of defence priorities, is the human security element in which climate change has proven to play a dramatic role.

As part of the run-up to COP21 in Paris, The Conference Board of Canada helped organize an event in Ottawa on November 24 to examine the relationship between climate change, security, and defence. The conference was centred on themes of international and domestic security priorities, global migration, military greening initiatives, and Arctic sovereignty. The conference included presentations by academics, think tanks, and of course, various defence and military officials.


Human Security

At its core, the practical characterization of security involves the protection of vulnerable communities facing stressors of all sorts, including the impact of climate change. It should not be limited to immediate threats posed from across our borders. Instead, it needs to include hybrid threats—multiple threats demonstrated through varying capacities—with climate change being one of them. If it is the mandate of security and defense institutions to protect civil society, then human security concerns raised by climate change are by virtue a central element to develop institutional priorities around.  

Dealing With Environmental Crises and Climate-Related Disasters

Military forces, worldwide, have been called on countless times to aid in post-disaster and emergency response events, many of which were linked to environmental catastrophes. The military’s role in crisis and humanitarian relief has become pronounced over the years. Civil society is increasingly dependent on military institutions for aid in matters that ripple beyond traditional capacity; for instance, managing the in-flow of refugees or as authority figures in ungoverned spaces.

Defence institutions recognize that military cooperation and preparation are required to meetthe needs of environmental disasters, such as oil spills and emergency response situations. The role of defence departments in the battle against climate change has been, and will continue to be, vital for civil society.

Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier

Climate change has become a threat multiplier for state security—an issue that defence departments may have neglected to consider as salient only a decade ago. Since then, the issue has risen in importance throughout defence institutions worldwide, becoming a listed priority, especially in regard to foreign relations and the protection of vital resources.

Much of the discussion at the November conference referenced the growing concern over common resources becoming security issues. In many circumstances, there is potential for conflict in communities that share a common resource such as a body of water or fishery. These circumstances are laden with competitive values, and often the bodies of law that govern these issues are not concrete enough or there is a lack of institutional capacity to deal with these issues.

Defining Geopolitical Relationships Because of Climate Change

Recognizing the role that climate change plays as a military and foreign relations strategy has created a dynamic mandate among institutions and changed how they understand security. In many circumstances, these initiatives have encouraged cooperation and collaboration within and among national defence departments. Norway’s Major-General Hannestad eluded to this strategic insight in his portrayal of Norway’s climate-related defence strategies, which include collaboration with Russian forces in the Arctic. Geopolitical conflicts, such as the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, can create divergent relations between nations, making it difficult to maintain collaborative efforts such as preparing for oil spills in the Arctic. However, as each nation has legitimate interests in protecting the Arctic and maintaining their claims to sovereignty, the coupling between defence and climate change becomes a strategic foreign relations and security priority, encompassing a potential range of external benefits for civil society.

A Dynamic Understanding of Security

The traditional view of security priorities tends to avoid addressing issues of community degradation and threats to livelihoods outside the context of border protection. This contextualization reduces the institutional capacity to address genuine threats facing many communities today. The insights shared at the conference around the impacts of climate change clearly showed that we need to redefine our traditional concepts of security and defence. The ability of the military to effectively plan for and deal with long-term issues is, and will be, critical to address various threats to human security—whether or not they require the traditional abilities of the military.


Benson Westerterp, MSc Graduate Student. Ben is a graduate student with the Institute of the Environment at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on carbon accounting policy and practices in Canada’s private sector.


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