Assessing Canada’s Climate Change Response & Challenges to Military Readiness

An Interview with John Conger

What are some of the most urgent security challenges being generated or exacerbated by the impacts of climate change?

There are a range of developments underway now that are going to come to fruition in the next ten to twenty years—becoming even worse later this century. We are gliding towards an increasingly difficult situation. Climate change is disrupting the delicate equilibrium we are used to. The environment in which we have all lived, operated, built our defence, and economies within has been thrown off-kilter. Even if the world went to zero emissions tomorrow, we would still have to endure twenty or thirty years of terrible climate events because of the emissions already in the atmosphere. Resiliency is our only choice.

Generally, countries and societies with resources are better able to adjust to changes in our environment. Regions that already struggle with economic or societal problems—where government capacity is already challenged—will find managing these additional stressors difficult and are more prone to instability and conflict because of climate change. Some pressures for vulnerable regions include food insecurity, water scarcity, sea level rise, economic displacement, drought, wildfire, flooding, and extreme weather. It depends what part of the world we are looking at—a lot of these phenomena are already occurring.

Billion-dollar disasters have been growing in number and in cost. Those stresses push people over the edge. In the near-term conflict and instability will probably be concentrated predominantly in Northern Africa and the Middle East, but also Southeast Asia and Central America.

What are the security implications of an open Northwest Passage as a result of climate change? Do you see threats, opportunities—both?

The Northwest Passage represents opportunity and vulnerability. It is going to be a completely new environment. Policymakers will need to decide how they will posture in the Arctic when the passage opens.

As the Northwest Passage thaws and the route opens up, it is important to ask what Russia is doing. Russia has responded by moving troops farther north to rebuild military infrastructure. They see an opportunity to exert influence over a trade route, but they also recognise a vulnerability because that northern border has never needed protection. Nobody was going to access it—nobody was going to get there—now it is a vulnerability that must be considered in a new context. There will certainly be opportunities for intelligence collection.

To what extent do extreme weather events have the capacity to disrupt military operations and readiness?

When you have wildfires that rip across training areas, that has an impact. When you have droughts and cannot use live fire munitions, that is a climate constraint on the ability to train adequately. When troops must be diverted to respond to floods and wildfires, they are doing something that they did not train for. Now they will require more training again to prepare for warfighting missions.

I helped write a report called A Climate Security Plan for Canada, where we found that, in both Canada and the U.S, militaries are responding to natural disasters because they are the only apparatuses that can. In both contexts, similar land areas have been affected, but the Canadian military is much smaller, therefore it has a disproportionate impact and is more of a drain on the Canadian military compared to the larger American military. The Minister of Defence at the time openly stated that there must be a reassessment of force structure to grow to deal with the demands driven by natural disasters. There are operational and readiness impacts because of the demands of forces and training, which are caused by climate change.

Most of the bases for basic training in the U.S are in the South. On black flag days—days which are 32 °C, troops cannot be asked to go out and exert themselves, due to the risk of heat stress, etc. In places like Fort Benning in Southern Georgia, there are approximately eighty or so black flag days a year. Looking to 2050, we can expect that number to rise to about one hundred and twenty. At what point will these kinds of limitations severely impact our ability to train our troops? Do we move training farther north—do we move it inside? What was fine and worked yesterday is no longer fine today, and certainly will not be fine tomorrow.

How well is Canada anticipating climate security risks and how effective has our approach been so far in developing a security strategy to address the risks of climate change?

There is value in comparing U.S and Canadian contexts here. In the U.S, we have had polarized debate over climate change—arguing over whether it is even real. Non-scientists argue with non-scientists over a scientific consensus which scientists themselves are not arguing about. This has led to a degree of paralysis when it comes to drafting a climate policy. This paralysis did not occur in the national security context, however, because those very people who are so skeptical of climate change trusted the military’s opinion. When military leadership stressed that we should prepare for climate change, that failing to address it leaves us with a blind spot, people listened. As such, security was one of the areas in which we have seen significant progress.

In Canada, it has been different. Consensus over the science has been clear. There are carbon policies in place, as well as a whole host of initiatives articulated as part of government policy. The security establishments recognized the threat but was not required to lead and did not have to prepare in the same way. The response has been to lower emissions, which is important to do but is not directly responsive to the specific challenges. Lowering emissions does not help you prepare for bigger storms, help you bypass training challenges, make naval bases more resilient. An initiative like this address long-term, but not short-term challenges.

DND is starting to think through these issues much more directly. Studies have been undertaken on climate and security and efforts are underway to integrate research findings into Canada’s national security posture. Furthermore, Canada has volunteered to host the NATO Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security, which is aspirational at this stage, but an important step, nonetheless. Canada is starting to focus on short-term impacts and how to cope with them in a newer way.

As we wrestle with the impacts of climate change it is important to recognize that everybody sees it through their own lens. The U.S and Canada will each have different climate policies due to our unique geographies and pre-existing national security concerns. For everybody though, the world is changing, and we all must figure out how we will adapt.

John Conger is Director Emeritus of the Center for Climate and Security, Senior Advisor to the Council on Strategic Risks, and Senior US Advisor to the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS).

Mr. Conger previously served as Director and Senior Policy Advisor with the Center for Climate and Security, and as the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).  As principal deputy comptroller, he assisted the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) in the performance of his or her duties, provided advice to the Secretary of Defense on all budgetary and financial matters, including the development and execution of the DoD’s annual budget of over $500 billion, and oversaw the DoD’s efforts to achieve audit readiness.