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The World’s Militaries Aren’t Ready for Climate Change

These days, threats don’t just come from other states.

By , the director of the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks.
A person in firefighting gear and goggles carries a long yellow hose amid a smoky haze.
A person in firefighting gear and goggles carries a long yellow hose amid a smoky haze.
Members of the Spanish Emergency Military Unit try to put out a wildfire near the village of Verin in northwestern Spain on Aug. 4. Migue Riopa/AFP via Getty Images

As the war in Ukraine continued this summer, with billions of dollars’ worth of military aid pouring into Kyiv from its allies and partners, governments around the world were also busy deploying their militaries to deal with a less conventional threat: climate change.

In Poland, troops disposed of thousands of fish on the banks of the Oder River that had died due to rising water temperatures and pollution. In Mexico, military airplanes tried to spur rain after weeks of drought by seeding clouds with silver iodide and acetone. In Switzerland, the army airlifted water to thirsty livestock in dry mountain pastures. In more than 10 European nations, forces were deployed to fight fires, including in neighboring countries, while in countries as disparate as China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, militaries rescued citizens from unprecedented floods.

At the same time, militaries themselves grappled with the direct impacts of these hazards. For example, a July heat wave melted a British Royal Air Force runway in the United Kingdom and led to wildfires that interrupted training exercises across the country. A U.S. military training facility in Germany went up in flames in August, likely due to drought. Also in August, the U.S. Defense Department warned of flood risks to its personnel and facilities in Seoul as South Korea faced its heaviest rainfall in 80 years.

As the war in Ukraine continued this summer, with billions of dollars’ worth of military aid pouring into Kyiv from its allies and partners, governments around the world were also busy deploying their militaries to deal with a less conventional threat: climate change.

In Poland, troops disposed of thousands of fish on the banks of the Oder River that had died due to rising water temperatures and pollution. In Mexico, military airplanes tried to spur rain after weeks of drought by seeding clouds with silver iodide and acetone. In Switzerland, the army airlifted water to thirsty livestock in dry mountain pastures. In more than 10 European nations, forces were deployed to fight fires, including in neighboring countries, while in countries as disparate as China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, militaries rescued citizens from unprecedented floods.

At the same time, militaries themselves grappled with the direct impacts of these hazards. For example, a July heat wave melted a British Royal Air Force runway in the United Kingdom and led to wildfires that interrupted training exercises across the country. A U.S. military training facility in Germany went up in flames in August, likely due to drought. Also in August, the U.S. Defense Department warned of flood risks to its personnel and facilities in Seoul as South Korea faced its heaviest rainfall in 80 years.

Although many governments acknowledge the security risks that climate change poses, this summer’s scramble to manage climate threats suggests few are moving quickly enough to take action. As Janez Lenarcic, the European Union’s head of crisis management, noted, the longer fire season that has crept into new geographic areas is straining the bloc’s response capabilities as it fields nearly simultaneous requests for firefighting support from multiple countries that cannot manage it alone. This is a growing problem in other parts of the world as well.

The intense climate pummeling militaries this summer suggests that governments need to ask themselves some tough questions about their security and defense posture going forward. Do their security strategies reflect the increased threats they face on the ground? Do they have the resources needed to match the intensified pace and scale of these hazards? And do they have the right partnerships with other countries to manage shared risks?

Governments and militaries can start to find answers to these tough questions by taking stock of the lessons learned from their experiences and comparing notes among regions. In doing so, they can identify opportunities to shift their approaches.

Ad hoc responses to wildfires and droughts strain military personnel and equipment.

First, they should realize that their official military strategies are inadequate and update them accordingly. Strategies focused merely on conventional threats from other states leave militaries scrambling to respond to events like those of this summer—and ironically, less prepared to deal with conventional threats, since ad hoc responses to wildfires and droughts strain military personnel and equipment.

In particular, this summer has shown that focusing only on mitigation—or emissions-cutting measures—is inadequate. Investing in electric airplanes and hydrogen-fueled vehicles, as South Korea’s military promised last year, should be applauded, but it will not help to address today’s record-breaking floods and fires by itself. This isn’t to say those investments aren’t important. In fact, they are critical to preventing future catastrophic security risks. But such goals must be matched by a strategic focus on adapting to the threats already here.

Some countries are making progress on this front. For example, the EU’s Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, which was released in March, requires all member states to develop strategies to prepare their armed forces for climate change by 2023. In April, the French defense ministry released its climate security strategy. It noted the likelihood of increased demand for military resources to support domestic disaster relief operations and emphasized the need for further study to develop interministerial processes to manage deployments. In August, the Japanese defense ministry released its first climate security strategy, which highlighted the need to reinforce the country’s military facilities against typhoons and update equipment to withstand extreme heat.

But time is short to develop new processes along these lines. Not long after each country released its strategy, both France and Japan were hit with unusually strong extreme weather events—a megafire and typhoon, respectively—underscoring the difficulty of getting ahead in planning for the future while in the midst of a crisis.

Strategies mean nothing without resources, so militaries must also invest significantly in equipment and personnel. In particular, this summer’s wildfires revealed the inadequacy of many countries’ air firefighting capabilities. In Greece, the Hellenic Air Force was stuck using planes from the 1970s to fight fires six times larger than any the country had faced in the past decade. France’s aircraft were frequently inoperable due to a lack of mechanics and parts for the aging planes, and Italy had to rely on French planes to fight its own fires in Sardinia. In Algeria, which faced its second summer in a row of extreme wildfires, the country’s one Russian water-bomber broke down, and a deal to buy firefighting planes from a Spanish company fell through because of a diplomatic spat over the Western Sahara. Meanwhile, record heat in the United Kingdom has raised questions about whether the country needs its own air firefighting capabilities instead of contracting out to private companies.

In the United States, Richard Kidd, a Pentagon official responsible for climate adaptation, has argued that the military needs to “own the heat,” noting both the increased demand for U.S. National Guard troops to fight domestic wildfires and the growing number of “Category 5” heat days (the most extreme category) at Army training posts. The Pentagon’s most recent budget request reflects these concerns by asking for $3.1 billion in climate-related investments, including funding to make equipment and facilities more resilient to climate stress.

The United States should leverage its extensive international military education and training programs to ensure its allies and partners have the skills to responsibly manage climate-driven disasters. The current devastation in Pakistan illustrates why such an approach could be beneficial. This month, one-third of Pakistan was underwater amid flooding that has displaced millions of people. The Pakistani military has been at the helm of the government’s response, arranging rescue missions, creating camps for displaced people, and raising funds. But the trade-off for such activity is reduced capacity to focus on other security threats, and press reports indicate that despite the military’s prominent role in the flood response, as of early September, some flood-affected citizens still have not seen government assistance.

For its part, the United States has provided millions of dollars in military training to Pakistan to date. If the U.S. military focuses more of that training on developing climate resilience and best practices for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, countries like Pakistan would be better prepared in the face of future crises. This could include guidance on developing and integrating climate hazard early warning systems, evaluating the climate resilience of military facilities and equipment, and increasing collaboration with civil society and humanitarian actors ahead of crises. Bringing a stronger climate lens to such training could also address other security concerns, such as the safety of nuclear facilities or the risk that extremist groups will take advantage of the government’s inability to manage crises. In 2010, for instance, the Pakistani Taliban stepped in to provide aid in communities affected by similar but less-intense flooding in an attempt to gain local support.

Governments and militaries should continue to find ways to pool resources. For instance, regional bodies, such as the African Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, could emulate the EU model of a shared firefighting fleet, calibrated to the specific climate hazards they face in their geographies. Currently, the bloc’s fleet is temporary and contingent on donations from member states. EU leaders plan to build a permanent capacity by 2030, and the EU is already expanding the number of firefighting planes financed by the bloc and purchased by individual countries. Such an approach not only makes financial sense for countries with limited budgets and competing security priorities; it also provides opportunities to strengthen trust, exchange best practices, and ensure interoperability among neighboring militaries and civil protection services.

The science is clear: Even if all emissions were cut tomorrow, over the next 10 to 20 years, temperatures will continue to warm, extreme weather will intensify, and wildfires will spread. Militaries will be called on in countries, rich and poor, to respond. Taking the time to learn lessons from this summer and implement new approaches will help militaries around the world keep their countries’ territory and citizens safe—and put the world on a more stable trajectory.

Erin Sikorsky is the director of the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks. Twitter: @ErinSikorsky

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