By Elsa Barron
Lieutenant General Richard Nugee (ret.) recently joined the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) as a senior advisor. He is the Non-Executive Director for Climate Change and Sustainability for the UK Government.
Previously, he spent a year leading the Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach at the Ministry of Defence at the end of his 36-year military career. The following conversation reflects on his pivot toward climate security and his priorities and hopes for future action. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Elsa Barron: What led you to prioritize climate change toward the end of your military career?
Lt. Gen. Richard Nugee (ret.): I sat for four years on the executive committee of defense, and climate change wasn’t mentioned, sustainability wasn’t mentioned. I realized that actually, climate change was something that the UK military wasn’t really paying attention to. There were pockets of good practice. But broadly speaking, it wasn’t being considered on a daily basis, or on a yearly basis, or even on a review basis. And so I raised it as a subject and offered to do a report examining climate change and its effects on the military, and also the impact of the military on climate change.
There was a general feeling, and it’s very common military thinking, that we will adapt to whatever the environment is. At the end of the day, we’ll just deal with what comes, and I don’t think that is enough. When it comes to climate change, I think there are very significant opportunities for the military, but there are also circumstances that the military will find very difficult to navigate if they haven’t planned ahead. And so what I tried to do in the UK military was provoke a discussion and debate on the issue and present opportunities for action.
Barron: Are there elements of your on-the-ground experience throughout your career that have elevated your concern about climate change?
Nugee: One example is my experience as a battle group commander in southern Iraq. We didn’t have any air conditioning and we were living in the desert where generally, it’s a very dry heat averaging about 40-45 degrees Celsius, and you can mostly cope with that. But then things change for about two weeks of the year, they call it the cooker. For two weeks, the temperature rises to 50 to 55 degrees and the direction of the wind changes. Instead of coming off the dry deserts from the north, it comes from the south, and straight across the Gulf. As a result, you get 100% humidity at around 55 degrees Celsius and it’s almost unlivable.
What I saw was my soldiers literally trying to avoid doing anything because it was too hot. A lot of soldiers were in the hospital for short periods. A few of my soldiers went back to the UK with heatstroke. And this was them doing their jobs. And it struck me that we were unprepared. If that is an example of what climate change is going to do to certain parts of the world as they heat up, it is going to be very difficult.
There are other examples; in Afghanistan, the fact that the snow was melting faster than normal in the Hindu Kush, meant that there were floods coming down the valleys. Instead of a gentle trickle of water all year round, you get a huge flood and then you get nothing. And if you get nothing, you don’t have water for irrigation. What we found was that farmers were rapidly turning to the Taliban as a source of income. There was no ideology at all, a very high percentage of those joining the Taliban were fighting for money, they were fighting to put food on the table of their families because the Taliban paid them five dollars a day. I think it’s desperately sad that people would turn to the Taliban to fight when actually all they wanted was to have a job.
Barron: Climate change has long been underappreciated as a security threat. Yet even in just the past five years, the conversation has accelerated greatly within institutions like the UK MOD and NATO. What is your perspective on these developments?
Nugee: There’s a really good example of these issues being brought right to the forefront in Europe in the last year. That’s because Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has deliberately, in my view, weaponized energy. Why is that relevant to climate change? Because, actually, for once we have an alternative to gas, we have an alternative to oil, and that is renewable energy. By weaponizing energy, Putin has highlighted the energy security implications of reliance on oil and gas. And by doing that, he has, I hope, encouraged many to think of renewable energy as a viable and cheap alternative to fossil fuels. Europe ought to be doing everything it can to build up its energy security, and it’s now largely within our grasp.
NATO countries are beginning to take this more seriously. It’s all very well talking about it, it’s all very well having horizon scanning as to what’s happening, but that’s not enough. I think we need to act, we need to act as militaries to take advantage of technologies and persuade politicians to try and support others with access to fewer resources. We need to build a narrative that says it is in our interest to do so. I mean, I’m being very clear. This is about national security.
Barron: I’m curious, has there ever been a moment in your work when you’ve been surprised or challenged to change your perspective on something in light of the new challenges the world is facing?
Nugee: One thing which I suppose really surprised me was the huge flooding in Pakistan last year. It is, of course, not just climate change that has caused the floods in Pakistan. It’s a number of factors combined together. But actually, climate change has exacerbated the whole problem to the extent that a third of the country was underwater. Now, why is that a concern from a national security perspective? Because actually, what happened, and it happens in Bangladesh regularly with flooding, is that the military forces pick up the pieces and try and solve the problems that these floods cause. Well, if they are doing that, you have to ask, what are they not doing in terms of protecting their nation?
Barron: What are your hopes for the next generation of climate security leaders and what advice would you give them?
Nugee: So I think there are two elements to this. The first is to embrace the opportunities that combating climate change gives us in terms of new technologies and innovation. Why wouldn’t we want to embrace new technologies that are better for capabilities and also reduce emissions? Look through a sustainability lens on everything you do, and you will end up much more efficient and effective.
The second piece is to invest in climate resilience in countries abroad by providing training and supporting adaptation. This builds on the ability of our militaries to think strategically, which we’re usually quite good at. It is an opportunity to help countries cope with the effects of climate change, which ultimately builds up stability around the world- including in Europe.