Just and Comprehensive Action on Climate Security in Australia and Beyond: An Interview with Cheryl Durrant

By Elsa Barron

The Australian Security Leaders Climate Group (ASLCG), a partner of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), is working to reframe the climate debate in Australia to address the multifaceted security risks posed by climate change. The group recently released its second report, an Australian Climate and Security Risk Assessment Implementation Proposal. I spoke with Cheryl Durrant, an executive member of the ASLCG and former Director of Preparedness & Mobilization at the Australian Department of Defense, about this report and the path towards just and comprehensive action on climate security risks for Australia and beyond.

Elsa Barron: How did you initially become concerned about the intersection between climate change and security challenges? How did that concern evolve over the course of your career and ultimately lead to the creation of the ASLCG?

Cheryl Durrant: Curiously, I am a military historian and I first understood the relationship between climate and security when I was studying the collapse of middle-American civilizations, which was partly an environmental collapse. That was my start, but I really became aware of the urgency and extremity of the current climate change crisis in 2012 when I commissioned a piece of work from our [The Australian] Defense Science and Technology Group on global change. From all of the global challenges presented in the report, climate change leapt out as different from the others in three ways: pervasiveness, probability, and scale. Climate change was happening everywhere, it was almost certain, and it had the potential to destroy civilizations and cause probable extinction if left unchecked. 

Barron: I’m curious, in addition to your own journey and interest, how have you seen the security community approach the connection between climate change?

Durrant: I think there are two strands to it. One is based on the ground. When we started going out and talking about climate change at international conferences and with other militaries, we constantly heard the same story: that the soldiers have already grasped this concept from the ground up. They are in the same training range every year and the landscape is changing. Soldiers and sailors are some of the most profound supporters of this work because they are in it every day. 

Then there is the second strand which is a more theoretical analysis of climate change as a geopolitical security challenge. This issue poses a dilemma for security professionals because it is a problem that is without boundaries. It doesn’t follow standard geopolitical thinking. You can’t think of it as a traditional enemy, because you contribute to it as well. You can’t fight yourself because you’re putting carbon in the atmosphere. 

Barron: Last year, ASLCG published its inaugural report titled, “Missing in Action: Responding to Australia’s Climate & Security Failure.” What has guided the progression from that report to the release of your most recent, solutions-oriented report, “Australian Climate & Security Risk Assessment?”

Durrant: If you see action on climate change as a campaign, which is a framing we are used to in the military, then the first step of that campaign is to get the government and the people of Australia to connect climate change to security. Then, they can recognize that action is needed and take steps towards that action. The ASLCG has been in the raising awareness step. Now we’ve largely accomplished the goal of that first step: the current government has adopted our policy suggestion of integrating a climate risk assessment. Now, we are in the second phase of the campaign which is moving from awareness to understanding and action.

When I started seriously looking into this problem in 2012, the general thinking was that we weren’t going to see catastrophic climate security impacts until 2100 or later. By 2015, we were concerned that we might see those catastrophic effects by mid-century. Now, we are seeing catastrophic effects for some parts of the planet already – horrific events this summer in Europe, Africa, South Asia, Australia, and North America. The time horizon we have to take action is really very short.

With our most recent report, we are recommending a broad risk assessment because that is a way to engage not only government, but also business, think tanks, and the general community to understand we are in a crisis mode. Unless everyone understands we are in crisis mode, then people aren’t prepared to make the sacrifices that a crisis mode entails. The response to the climate crisis will not be a smooth path, it will be a bumpy path and we need a mindset change to understand how urgent, how large, and how globally interconnected the climate risks that we face really are. 

Barron: ASLCG’s report argues that existential risks must be treated differently in policy-making than standard risks. How does this apply to climate security risks? Are there examples of low-probability yet high-impact risks that should be given more attention?

Durrant: From my perspective, there are probably two major existential risks we should be thinking about and they’re interconnected. Existential risk indicates the possibility of civilization collapse or human extinction. This kind of risk is not really comparable to something like an economic decline of 10 percent; it’s an entirely different scale and you really have to get your head around the gravity of that difference. 

The two risks that I elevate to this level are climate change and nuclear conflict. These carry the potential to cause human extinction or civilization collapse to such an extent that it might never come back again. They’re also connected because climate change escalates the risk of conflict and the fear of nuclear war is putting a break on some of the international cooperation we want to see around climate change. These two risks are now circling and exacerbating each other. There is a whole range of other existential risks like super volcano eruptions or solar events, but humanity has less capacity to control those risks. Let’s focus on the two that we can act on.

Barron: How do you communicate this level of risk? You mentioned that communication is often focused on hope because it is more empowering to people, so how do you really communicate the scale of risk in a way that is effective at galvanizing action?

Durrant: Risk is best communicated through lived experience. I already mentioned the soldier who feels the impacts of climate change in his bones as he’s losing his Christmases because he has to keep responding to fires. The bush that he loves and appreciates because he’s been training in it for 30 years is changing. He doesn’t see the little animals or birds he normally sees. It’s deeply felt and understood. It’s not an intellectual thing, it’s an experience of the heart. 

That’s why in our approach to the integrated risk assessment, we wanted to go further than pure analysis. We won’t change minds through glossy reports, we’ll do it by sitting down face-to-face with people. I see an amazing connection between the ecological security work that the IMCCS is doing and permaculture movements. Call it what you want– ecological security, environmental justice, intergenerational responsibility– but the goals are the same. It’s important to connect these movements together rather than separate them if we want to create change. 

That requires the thinkers and leaders, such as the security leaders, to go humbly amongst the public and have their one-on-one, face-to-face, small group conversation and build the movement from the bottom-up. Ultimately, we need a social tipping point. Yes, physically it is a problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But, in terms of the human cause and response, it’s a social movement challenge. Without a social tipping point, I don’t see our action being quick enough or big enough to avert a worsening crisis. 

Barron: The ASLCG report advocates using scenarios methodology for carrying out a risk assessment. In the case of Australia, what parties should be brought into scenario planning to conduct a thorough analysis of climate security?

Durrant: It’s important that scenarios are an immersive experience. In order to create that immersion, I think there are three main groups that are important: security professionals, climate science and sector impact experts (e.g. economy, health, environment, infrastructure), and community and civic groups. I think it’s really important to bring these groups all together. By design, the assessment will help information to flow from the bottom-up. 

These integrated scenarios provide opportunities for creativity, for example, imagining plausible utopias. How do we rethink international security and creatively imagine the rules of a different world? I think this creativity is really important because the right-brained thinkers– the intelligence officers and the security analysts– are very good at dystopias but not very good at utopias. I think bringing the creative arts, storytelling sector, and other strange bedfellows for the security world into the conversation is important for addressing this multifaceted crisis. 

We also need diverse groups to solve diverse planetary problems. The answer to an African problem might be from an Indian solution and the answer to an American problem might come from a Nordic solution and the answer to an Australian problem might come from a Chinese solution, so we can’t afford to not share the solutions. It’s also important to get youth and other groups involved that also come with unique skills and perspectives. 

Barron: I completely agree with your points on diversity and also youth engagement, do you see that as a part of the positive social tipping point we’re working towards?

Durrant: Yes, and it’s people coming with their authentic voices as well. We have a certain paradigm that can be reductionist, patriarchal, and capitalist. There are many assumptions that are deeply embedded in how we think. Women’s voices, Indigenous voices, non-Western voices, and youth voices are not captive in that paradigm. 

Certain rules of thinking tend to run very deep in the security community. Traditionally, security is about a bad guy, whereas the climate crisis doesn’t really have a clearly defined adversary. That means there is a whole body of learning you need to put aside in order to think differently, and it’s a very hard transformation to make. Our mindset for dealing with problems doesn’t often get to the root cause. 

Barron: What is at stake for Australia if it falls behind its allies and partners in getting to those root causes? In contrast, what opportunities exist if Australia steps up its commitment to combating these challenges?

Durrant: I’ll start with the opportunities. Australia can be a leader because, uniquely among the western alliance, it’s very rich in renewable energy resources and also agricultural resources; it’s a net exporter. Even with its major climate vulnerabilities, the biocapacity of the Australian continent to continue to produce food is substantial. When the world starts to get short of food and needs secure access to critical minerals, Australia can be there. Australia also has masses of nuclear, hydrogen, wind, and solar energy so it’s actually really well poised to be a renewable energy superpower. 

Australia has a choice in how to use this power. It can choose to perpetrate great power to control and shape the world in our favor. Or, it can use its force to address social justice concerns and provide resources to those who need them most.  We have to think globally and not just locally and transform the mindset from thinking “oh we’re lucky we don’t have to work too hard”, to thinking “wow, we’re fortunate, we can help others and lead the transition.” Some of that shift is evident in the government’s efforts. They are seeing that they can be a force for good and need to choose that path. 

Read about the ASLCG’s first report, “Missing in Action,” here

Summer Heatwave Underscores Importance of NATO’s Climate Security Focus

By Erin Sikorsky

On July 18, the UK Royal Air Force halted flights out of its largest airbase because the ‘runway had melted’ – a line my colleagues suggested they’d expect to read in a dystopian science fiction novel about the future. Alas, this headline was all too real, as countries across Europe battled record climate change-driven heatwaves. 

While part of the RAF was (temporarily) grounded, other European militaries – in Spain, Germany, France, Portugal, Cyprus, and Slovenia – were helping fight unprecedented fires across their countries. Nearly half of the EU and UK is at risk of drought, with the European Commission’s Joint Research Center assessing that water and heat stress are driving crop yields down and straining energy production across the continent. Given that food and energy crises were expected well before this heatwave struck, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg could not have asked for a better illustration of his assertion that climate change is a “crisis multiplier.”

Stoltenberg uttered that phrase just a few weeks before this latest spate of climate hazards, at the annual NATO leaders Summit in Madrid, where the alliance announced a goal of reducing emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030 and reducing to net zero by 2050. Saying “what can be measured can be cut,” Stoltenberg noted NATO had created a new methodology for measuring military emissions. Details of the methodology have not yet been released, however, though a press report suggests the base comparison year will be 2019, and the 45 percent target will apply to NATO political and military facilities as well as NATO-owned military equipment like surveillance planes and drones.

There were other climate announcements at the Summit as well. The new Strategic Concept for the alliance—a high level guiding document—refers repeatedly to risks from climate change, emphasizing crisis prevention and cooperative security as pathways to manage climate risks. NATO also released a “Climate Change and Security Impact Assessment”, as required by the 2021 Climate Change and Security Action Plan adopted by the alliance. The new assessment provides a high-level analysis of how climate change is impacting NATO in four key areas: 1 ) the strategic environment; 2) its assets and installations; 3) its missions and multi-domain operations; and 4) its resilience and civil preparedness. The report also includes a useful graphic identifying mitigation, adaptation and overlapping opportunities for the alliance going forward. 

Importantly, NATO is not just identifying risks, but also funding opportunities to tackle them. The alliance revealed a new $1 billion Innovation Fund at the Summit – the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund to invest in dual-use technologies, including in the energy arena. The fund complements NATO’s Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic – or DIANA – which supports the development and adaptation of dual-use emerging technologies to critical security and defense challenges.  As the IMCCS Expert Group’s new report, Decarbonized Defense, noted, both of these initiatives could play an important role in clean energy and climate adaptation technologies.

Overall, NATO moved the ball down the field on climate security in the 2022 summit, but there is much more to do if the alliance is to truly prepare its member countries for the climate security threats that are already here, much less the even more intensified effects expected in the next few decades. Going forward, the alliance should focus its efforts in three areas: 

1) Showcase Operational Effectiveness: NATO should continue to identify and promote climate mitigation and adaptation opportunities that will increase military effectiveness. This approach will be key to bringing along countries in the alliance that are more skeptical of climate action;

2) Share Best Practices: Many countries within the alliance are already pursuing clean energy technologies and new adaptation strategies. The new Climate Security Center of Excellence, led by Canada, can play an important role in convening member states to exchange ideas and information, and train a new generation of NATO leaders in best practices for integrating climate considerations; 

3) Emphasize Transparency: NATO should release a version of the methodology for measuring emissions and share its process with NATO partners around the world. It should also publish metrics for measuring its progress across its climate agenda. 

The past year has underscored the critical importance and relevance of NATO, as the alliance has come together in the face of unwarranted Russian aggression against Ukraine. At the same time, both the Russian invasion and the summer heatwave have demonstrated the serious security risks of continuing dependence on fossil fuels, and the threats posed by climate change. Ensuring NATO is fit for purpose in the coming decades requires a continued and deepened commitment to keeping climate change front and center in the alliance’s strategies and plans.