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Climate Change: Are Global Threats An Opportunity To Put The UK Back On The Map In 2020?

In the annual BFBS defence review, experts have discussed the environmental landscape for the coming year.

Climbing Ice Chamber Royal Marines Antarctica Blue ID 45153988 Credit Defence Imagery Royal Navy

Some of the brightest minds in UK security and defence have come together for the Sitrep Review of the Year.

Here is how they believe climate change will impact the military landscape and Britain's standing among the world powers.

In some respect, the international stage for climate change in 2020 is already set.

Between 9 and 20 November 2020, Glasgow will host the United Nations Climate Change Conference - marking the 26th talks held by the UN. 

Professor Paul Rogers, Global Security Consultant with Oxford Research Group says that, while the 2015 UN climate change summit made "interesting progress", there were then "three duds in a row, with Madrid the most recent".

Professor Rogers argues that the Glasgow talks will be hugely important due to "the change in the public mood and the science" regarding what he describes as a climate emergency.

He went on to label climate change the biggest threat to UK security. 

To match the public mood, BFBS Defence Analyst Christopher Lee has called for "a military contingent" in attendance to learn of future defence requirements in relation to the environment. 

If events continue on the same trajectory as 2019, discussions are likely to intensify as they enter a new decade. 

One contributor keen to distinguish climate change as a matter for defence is Professor Michael Clarke, former Director General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and now Associate Director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter.

"Anything that threatens to stop people going about their daily lives and requires the mobilisation of extra resources is a security problem," he says. 

While severe weather events have only "inconvenienced" the UK, in comparison to recent wildfires in Australia, securitising the issue offers the UK a chance to be a fighting force on the global security stage.  

As public concern in the West rises alongside water levels in the arctic, Mr Lee sees the 'war on climate change' as one worth winning and "a big opportunity".

"One of the problems of British defence is that there no big ideas," he says - endorsing strategic military involvement in climate decision-making.

A unique treatment of the climate emergency as a matter for defence could see the military machine exercising its influence with government, experts suggest.

Royal Australian Navy aircrewman over wildfires in NSW 311219 CREDIT AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE
A Royal Australian Navy aircrewman over the wildfires in New South Wales. The UK has not yet witnessed environment disaster on this scale (Picture: Australian Defence Force).

Professor Rogers encouraged the senior military officials to work drive decision-makers toward "conflict prevention" measures, rather than reactive ones.

Rather than simply adding to the 2020 defence inbox - already brimming with heightened tensions such as those in the Gulf - the idea is that this approach would be beneficial to Ministry of Defence (MOD) resources too.

Reactive measures to climate issues have included disaster relief efforts from Royal Navy vessels in storm-hit nations and RAF deployment to deal with flooding.

Time will tell if the new decade is to witness a 'green military' in Britain.

Speaking in September 2019 at London's defence and equipment event, DSEI, Chief of the General Staff General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith suggested the Army's current fleet of vehicles and tanks could be the last to run on fossil fuels.

While the Times' Defence Editor Lucy Fisher joked "solar-powered tanks" could be an idea for decades still to come, the notion of a climate-conscious generation has made an impression on the chief of an Army, whose service is still 10% below strength.

Gen Carlton-Smith said at DSEI: "Our future recruits who increasingly make career decisions based on a prospective employers' environmental credentials."

The MOD will hope to see the Armed Forces move as a unit on sustainability.

While 2019 started with the announcement that thousands of unused ration packs would be donated to charity, by July the department had come under fire for wrapping more than two million packs per-year in non-recyclable plastic sleeves.

RFA Mounts Bay crew delivering aid to Fox Town on Little Abaco
RFA Mounts Bay crew delivering aid in the Bahamas, where Hurricane Dorian hit in 2019 (Picture: MOD).

Though many defence matters are dealt with through long-term investment strategy and lasting intervention, Professor Rogers believes that immediate action is required "to prevent really serious problems in the 2030s, 40s, and 50s".

The challenge of the rapid decarbonisation required, however, has not yet captured the interest of the word's most influential nations.

"The problem is that so many key countries just aren't interested in it," he said. 

America, Brazil, Russia, Australia were listed among those yet to prioritise climate action, India and China "will not be told what to do" and "the Canadians...will talk the talk, but they won't walk the walk".

"This is probably the biggest single problem facing humanity, and we're really not facing it as soon as we could."

Last year saw the MOD become one of several protest sites for climate activist group Extinction Rebellion in the UK.

The International Energy Agency's Global Energy & CO2 Status Report 2019 shows a record-high in UK electricity generation from renewables and a record low in the share of coal.

Meanwhile, China, India, and the United States accounted for 85% of the net increase in emissions.

Experts suggest the UK's renewable energy capability could repromote the UK's status worldwide - given that the world eventually do take climate change seriously.

Discussion across the table at the BFBS annual review noted both the requirement for Britain to make large moves on its own as it leaves the European Union, and the potential for defence involvement in such moves.

Professor Rogers says: "This is the one area, in all of the areas, where Britain could punch above its weight.

"If you want to be a significant power in the world, in the coming era... leading on that will probably increase your status more than anything."

How To Listen: Sitrep's Review of the Year can be downloaded on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and on Spotify.

Cover image: Royal Marines ice climbing in Antarctica (Picture: MOD).