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

RELEASE: Amid European Heat Wave, International Military Network Releases Report Warning of Security Risks of Climate Change in the Balkans

By Elsa Barron

July 25, 2022 —  In the midst of one of Europe’s most punishing heat waves in recent memory, the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS Expert Group) today launched a new Climate Security Snapshot focused on the Balkans. The snapshot builds on findings from the Climate Security Risk Index (CSRI), a tool developed by Expert Group member The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. It is the second in a series of papers comprising the third annual World Climate and Security Report (WCSR).

The report warns that the Balkans face serious climate security risks. Intensifying climate change impacts such as drought, heatwaves (as witnessed this summer), and tropical storms may heighten existing post-conflict tensions, threaten Europe’s broader climate goals, and increase the region’s susceptibility to influence from the Russian and Chinese governments. Additionally, climate-induced migration flows from the Middle East and Africa through the region may be exploited by far right extremists. The ongoing conflict in neighboring Ukraine only further heightens these concerns.

According to the CSRI, when compared to other regions of Europe, the Balkans face some of the most severe climate risks. Globally, climate risks in the Balkans fall slightly below average, and its resilience falls almost exactly in the middle of the global standard (though it is a standard which is dropping due to accelerating climate change). All nations in the region except Albania at least slightly outperform in resilience when compared to risk. However, those relative measures do not minimize the region’s significant vulnerability to increasing climate disasters, especially when compared to other parts of Europe, not least given a recent history of ethnic and sectarian conflict, which studies have shown increases the likelihood of climate-driven conflict. 

Additionally, the report asserts that engaged climate security action—at a scale commensurate to the rapidly-increasing risks—can offer positive opportunities for post-conflict peacebuilding and cooperation in the Balkans, and can build a strong framework of human security for the region. Such efforts will be critical to continuing to mitigate and adapt to climate change and build peace, security, and climate resilience.

This climate security snapshot follows the release of the first report in the WCSR 2022 series, Decarbonized Defense: The Need for Clean Military Power in the Age of Climate Change. Future components of the series will include climate security snapshots in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Sahel as well as a report on climate security adaptation practices and gaps among NATO militaries.

Direct inquiries to: Andrew Facini, afacini@csrisks.org

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. 

New French Climate & Defense Strategy Foreshadows a Wave of Climate Security Plans in Europe

By Elsa Barron

This April, the French Ministry for the Armed Forces released its Climate & Defence Strategy. The strategy closely followed the release of the EU’s Strategic Compass in March which set a demand to EU’s member states to elaborate national climate and defense strategies prior to 2024. France’s Climate & Defence strategy is thus the first of many European climate and defense strategies to follow. The document recommends four main areas of action for the Ministry of the Armed Forces: developing knowledge and foresight, engaging in adaptation, pursuing mitigation, and increasing cooperation. IMCCS spoke with Dr. Nicolas Regaud, Senior Advisor for Climate to the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, who guided the task force in developing this strategy. 

Elsa Barron: What are some of the most significant climate security threats that France is facing and what is required from the military in order to adapt to climate impacts?

Dr. Nicolas Regaud: Climate change presents many challenges for France, both on the mainland and overseas. Our Ministry is facing the full spectrum of extreme climate events, from flooding to drought to cyclones. Involved on every continent, we are engaged in various theaters– from the Arctic to the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific– that are experiencing new environmental operating constraints that are directly linked to climate change. In order to respond to these new conditions, adaptation is required.  

Climate adaptation also means increased involvement in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations in France and abroad. We have a particular responsibility in regions such as the Caribbean, Indian, and Pacific oceans as they are vulnerable to climate impacts and are areas where France has capacities to respond to disasters when many other nations do not. France’s permanent position in the UN Security Council gives us another source of responsibility to respond to climate risks. This is particularly important given the potential that climate change has to exacerbate internal country and regional tensions. 

Finally, climate adaptation surrounding infrastructure resilience is costly and takes time. We have elaborated and tested a methodology to investigate infrastructure vulnerabilities and now it is important to implement it. The earlier we engage, the better. 

Elsa Barron: The Climate & Defence strategy points out that the French Ministry for the Armed Forces has been committed to green defense for the last 15 years. Over that period, what best practices have emerged around climate mitigation and adaptation?

Dr. Nicolas Regaud: France’s military real estate is very large– spanning approximately 2,750 square kilometers. We have a large domain to protect, and conscious environmental protection is necessary for a multiplicity of reasons. As public actors, the Ministry has a commitment to responsibly manage its resources. It is also important to preserve these environments as a method of carbon sequestration. Currently, a plan is underway to measure the capability of military real estate to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change and its associated risks. There is also an action plan in place to preserve biodiversity on these lands, which is linked to climate change. All of these efforts contribute to saving the only planet we have. 

Another area of development over the past fifteen years has surrounded the Ministry’s energy consumption, which is divided into two categories: infrastructure and operations. Energy consumed by infrastructure represents around 25% of global energy consumption and operations (land, sea, air, etc) represent the other 75% of energy use. In the infrastructure category, the Ministry has seen success over the past fifteen years in renovations and energy transformations to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2010, we have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 33% in the infrastructure sector. Our next objective is to reach 50% emissions reduction by 2030. Our success demonstrates that we know how to proceed to reduce energy consumption– the technology is there. We just need to engage more deeply in the transition. 

Greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the operations category remain a challenge. Moving forward, we need to invest in innovation, research, and development. Currently, the Ministry is engaged in several energy projects, including the development of hybrid tactical vehicles, with results forthcoming in three years. These projects are not only a process of reducing our carbon footprint or dependency on fossil fuels, but also a way to improve our resilience and operational advantages. 

Elsa Barron: The strategy emphasizes inter ministerial consultation and collaboration. What steps are required to move from plans to action in implementing cross-sectoral climate security solutions?

Dr. Nicolas Regaud: In addressing the security risks presented by climate change, we cannot act alone and it is important for climate experts to contribute to the work of other departments. In 2007, France launched a governmental action plan, “le Grenelle de l’Environment,” in favor of the protection of the environment. The plan required that each government ministry have a designated representative for sustainable development. At the Ministry for the Armed Forces, this high civil servant is in charge of implementing a big part of the Ministry’s green defense work. When it comes to climate change, which is an even larger challenge, we have to  establish links on these matters with other departments such as the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and Innovation, the Ministry for the Ecological Transition, the Ministry for Overseas France, and others. In building these partnerships, it is important to communicate our mission and strategy and find synergies where we can collaborate and receive support from other Ministries. 

It is also important to galvanize support in other areas like science, research, and the private sector. In the realm of science, Météo-France, our meteorological service, is critical for supporting climate change modeling. They could help us develop risk mapping. We also engage with NGOs and think tanks. For example, since 2016 we have worked with the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), an IMCCS Consortium Member, in order to manage an observatory on defense and climate change. It is important for us to support research across a diversity of fields to understand the impact of climate change on countries, their societies, and international tensions. Our approach to this research is to start with knowledge and anticipation and then translate that information into more efficient adaptation. We also have the ambition to collaborate with the private sector, which is innovative in many ways, not just in the area of green technology but also in climate adaptation. It is important for us to work hand in hand toward a common goal. 

Within the Ministry for the Armed Forces, we are continuing to break down silos. Actors engaged in adaptation need to know each other better and share their experiences. We will build up, progressively, a common knowledge base and a common memory in order to help all actors work together more efficiently. The next step is to cooperate with actors outside of the Ministry, and finally, to collaborate with other governments internationally.

Elsa Barron: How does this strategy relate to larger EU and NATO conversations about climate change and security? How can nations boost international cooperation on these shared challenges?

Dr. Nicolas Regaud: NATO and the EU have both released significant climate planning documents over the past year. NATO released their Climate Change and Security Action Plan in June 2021 and the EU released a Climate Change and Defence Roadmap in November 2020. We were the first in the EU to develop a specific climate strategy, but we know that many additional strategies will follow. These strategies will help to establish and fuel cooperation at every level including operations, doctrine, education, and more. The planned NATO Climate Change and Security Center of Excellence will also be an important driver of collaboration by providing a place to share experience and establish best practices. France is looking forward to playing its part in this Center’s work. 

In addition to these international frameworks, France has found success in mobilizing international collaborations through conferences and joint studies around the challenges of climate change and security. One such joint study focused on the implication of climate change on defense in the South Pacific across three different domains– maritime security, infrastructure resilience, and HADR operations. France conducted this study with its partners of the South Pacific Defence Ministers’ Meeting (SPDMM) and the recommendations were approved directly by the respective national ministers in 2019. There is now a task force to implement the measures developed. This successful process provides a model for fostering international cooperation in understanding and responding to climate security challenges. Last November at the Paris Peace Forum, France initiated a joint ministerial declaration and roadmap called “Climate Change and the Armed Forces,” joined by 26 countries, including 19 European countries, the US, Canada, and Japan. It is important to continue fostering international cooperation between armed forces across the world in order to cope with such a major challenge as climate change.

An Interview with CS2P Co-Founder, Sofia Kabbej, on “Questions of Climate Security & Peace”

By Elsa Barron

The Climate Security & Peace Project (CS2P) is a team of “young researchers, professionals and students from diverse fields and backgrounds,” and aims to build knowledge on the links between climate and environmental challenges and threats to human security, peace, and international stability. CS2P has worked closely in collaboration with the French Institute of International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), a consortium member of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS). Through a new initiative, CS2P created a three-part video series titled “Questions of Climate Security & Peace” with the support of NGO CliMates and the EU Commission. To learn more about this project and the three climate security case studies it addresses, the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) asked CS2P co-founder Sofia Kabbej to answer a few questions on the project.

Event: Center for Climate and Security Director to Speak to U.S. Congress Today on Climate Change Threats

UPDATE (7/15/2020): A recorded video of the event can now be found here.

At 3pm EST today, the Center for Climate and Security’s Director, the Hon. John Conger, will speak to the U.S. House Democratic Caucus National Security Task Force about climate change threats to security, in the wake of a new report from the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Mr. Conger’s comments will build from two major publications from the Center for Climate and Security that influenced the select committee’s work. The first, titled “A Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change,” highlights the potentially severe-to-catastrophic security threats of climate change even at plausible lower emissions scenarios, and the second, titled “A Climate Security Plan for America: A Presidential Plan for Combating the Security Risks of Climate Change,” proposes a comprehensive federal plan for addressing climate security threats, in terms of both prevention/ mitigation and preparation/ adaptation. Click here for the livestream, once the event begins.