Every Region of Canada is Vulnerable to Climate Insecurity 

An Interview with Will Greaves



“To the extent that there’s anybody to blame, it’s us, the Europeans, and the other high carbon emitting people in this world. So, my sympathy and my thoughts are with the Europeans, but I hope that they treat it as none of us have yet treated it—a real wake up call.” 

Last year, you published a piece on Canada’s failure to treat climate as a security threat. You highlighted that the two most recent defence strategies barely mentioned climate. Why do you think the securitization of climate change is difficult for Canada and what is the value in securitizing climate change? To what extent do you think progress has been made in the past few years?

We impede our ability to securitize climate change, or to understand and treat climate change as a security threat, in part because it imposes really challenging tradeoffs on us from a public policy perspective. It runs the risk of producing haves and have-nots, and unequal outcomes. There’s a way in which our political economy has informed different national identities. There is no single Canadian national identity and some of the different national identities in this country are in tension with the idea of treating climate change as a security threat. Many different issues have coalesced, making it more challenging for us than for other post-industrialized countries to appropriately understand the climate issue and enact policy.

All of that exists separately from the question of whether securitization of climate is a good thing and what it would accomplish in terms of making ourselves more secure against extreme weather events and climate-related phenomena. It’s an important question, but it does exist separately from the question of why Canada hasn’t been able to do this.

I’ve questioned whether securitization of climate change is the best way to produce a more robust political response. There are good arguments that exist about the limits of securitization, and why treating things as a threat is not a panacea, especially in a moment when democratic institutions are under severe strain in much of the democratic world. I think that we would be very foolish to do anything that risks undermining democratic integrity within Canada.

Climate change impacts do threaten us—they threaten our core national interests and wellbeing. We can’t just mind-over-matter our way out of the material impacts of climate change. The language and rhetoric are part of the discussion, but it really shouldn’t obscure what I think are the core security risks associated with climate change, which are going to harm us whether we call them a threat or not. We don’t stand to lose as much from attempting to use that rhetoric to produce a better response, as we might stand to lose by not taking advantage of a potential strategic tool available to try and produce a better response.

Climate change has been described as a threat multiplier. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on what is meant by the climate security Nexus, and how climate change has amplified both traditional and non-traditional security threats in Canada?

We’ve been talking and thinking about climate change and security for a long time, not necessarily in a Canadian context, but more broadly within Western academia. The way in which climate change was taken up in that scholarship and research on climate insecurity—what we call the climate security Nexus—was extremely limited. One of the most prominent ways in which the security implications of climate change has been understood is using this language of a threat multiplier. Based on decades of research, we have a good understanding of the kinds of factors that produce the conditions for large-scale, violent conflict. Large-scale, violent conflict doesn’t come out of a vacuum, there are strong indicators where in the world violence is likely to occur at a larger scale.

Early on, climate insecurity research investigated the ways in which environmental and climate changes could exacerbate processes that lead to war and violent conflict. What it found was that climate change is unlikely to be the cause of violent conflict in and of itself. Nonetheless, environmental and climate change exacerbate the underlying factors that we know lead to conflict. This has generally been the way in which climate security research and policymaking has been undertaken—looking at how changing environmental conditions increase the likelihood that security threats will be occurring more frequently or severely.

I think that’s very important work and we shouldn’t be rejecting it wholesale, but framing climate change principally as a threat multiplier or understanding its primary security impact as being through the lens of violence is really limiting. We need to broaden this conception away from violence to understand the other dimensions of human life and human society. What the threat multiplier framework risks obscuring are a lot of “human security impacts” related to climate change. Human beings don’t always resort to violence first. In fact, we typically don’t resort to violence first. We have other tools available to us. When there’s still a state or a government that has a reasonably high level of capacity, that still has functioning police and security services, violence may not be the primary thing that threatens people.

When we talk about threat multiplication and climate change, we’re not typically talking about coastal erosion, or freshwater contamination, or the degradation of food systems. Typically speaking though, those kinds of phenomena, which are deeply connected to climate change, are lost in a climate insecurity framework that stresses the idea of multiplying existing threats. That’s just not the entirety of the insecurities that I would argue we should understand as being connected to climate change.

The number of domestic disaster relief deployments by the CAF have increased since 2010. According to DND, requests for CAF assistance in responding to disasters, or major emergency situations, should only be made after the province or territory has exhausted all the capabilities. However, recent research published by Dr. Christian Leuprecht and Dr. Peter Kasurak has shown that the provincial requests for assistance are being made and approved by the federal government before provincial resources have been exhausted. In your opinion, how manageable is this in terms of CAF resources and readiness?

The role of the Canadian Armed Forces in responding to climate-related extreme weather events and other kinds of climate-related environmental disasters within Canada has increased vastly in the last two decades. It’s not an exponential upward increase, but it’s getting close. It is happening in a landscape where the CAF is struggling in areas like recruitment and retention, leadership, internal culture, and modernization of force and material capabilities. The CAF is under a lot of strain at a time when we’re not participating in a major armed conflict internationally. We’ve deployed more to Eastern Europe, but it’s not a combat operation.

What I think we need to be mindful of is twofold. On the one hand, you don’t want to overstrain the CAF in a way that breaks the force or undermines its capacity to perform core functions. The CAF can only do so much. They’re being asked to do more with functionally the same, or less in some instances. The other thing to note is that the scale of many of the domestic deployments is getting larger as the scale of environmental catastrophes are increasing. We need to be prepared for that. Right now, the best tool that the Government of Canada has to respond on short notice is the CAF, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Many scholars focusing on this issue have argued that Canada should really be investing in a civilian body of some sort, whose primary function is to respond to these kinds of situations and thus relieve the burden from the Forces.

Where did the provinces fit into that? It’s a tough call because there’s so much variation involved. Prince Edward Island is never going to have its own autonomous environmental disaster response capability. That’s probably true of all the smaller provinces. It would be prudent for the larger provinces, particularly the ones that are more disaster prone. Discussion around and implementation of these capabilities should happen at the provincial level. B.C has the wildfire service, but a more robust civilian disaster response core is probably more logical as a provincial organization.

In the past months we’ve seen heat waves, forest fires, flash flooding, and other natural disasters all across the world. How do our security partners and allies respond to these emergencies? What are some examples of successful responses? Are there any lessons here that Canada should be paying particular attention to?

The Europeans are currently getting a taste of the kind of extreme weather that Canada and the United States have experienced in the last 12 months. This isn’t the first climate exacerbated extreme weather period that Europe has had, yet what we have seen, not unlike North America, is a grossly insufficient investment in the adaptation and capabilities necessary to respond in these circumstances.

That can be explained in lots of different ways. What I think we have seen across most of the Global North is a failure to take this seriously. We have failed to change the way in which we make choices around some pretty mundane areas—the way we build our cities, hard infrastructure, etc. The state of Western European infrastructure is grossly inadequate for the current challenges and temperatures—never mind the severe environment of the future.

Thousands of people died in Europe in 2003 during a heat wave. In the intervening two decades, has the investment been made in the necessary infrastructure? Urban greening? Construction of local cooling centres? Designing houses for better ventilation? These are all things that 20 years of public policy could have turned the needle on. Our focus has been elsewhere. Europe has made strides on the climate file, but it’s been more around the area of decarbonizing their energy mix. We need to be mitigating the root causes of climate change. I think we need to be doing far more in terms of GHG reductions across all aspects of our society. However, it’s beyond foolish to suggest that we can focus on mitigation to the exclusion of adaptation at this point—we’re decades too late for that. We need to be adapting, and adaptation at its core means doing things differently to suit the new environment that we find ourselves in. I remain deeply skeptical that the modest changes we’ve made are remotely sufficient to qualify as appropriate adaptation for our new climate.

Our European allies and partners are getting a bad taste of the same rotten meal that we’re all eating. They shouldn’t be surprised. Nor should we. To the extent that there’s anybody to blame, it’s us, the Europeans, and the other high carbon emitting people in this world. So, my sympathy and my thoughts are with the Europeans, but I hope that they treat it as none of us have yet treated it—a real wake up call.

The current heatwave in Europe is interesting for exposing the mix of both conventional and unconventional security threats that climate change produces. The primary security issue generated by the heatwave in Western Europe pertains to the human security of the people who live in that part of the world. Thousands of people will die from extreme heat unnecessarily in the coming days. However, there are other, more conventional security implications as well. The heat in parts of England and France are so extreme that airport runways can’t be used because the asphalt is melting. Many airfields have been ordered closed. A significant part of the British and French Air Forces couldn’t take to the skies right now if they needed to. I don’t think there’s any likelihood of an air attack on Western Europe in these coming days, but this would be a moment of vulnerability for any potential adversary to take advantage of.

Sea level rise is another security concern. Just about every naval facility in the world is in a climate vulnerable area. The operational effectiveness of the world’s navies is in question based on whether their bases will be able to adapt to maintain operational readiness. there are a complex and challenging mix of the conventional and the unconventional at stake.

Another question is what parts of Canada will be most vulnerable to climate impacts? Every region of Canada faces climate related insecurity. It does vary. There’s no question the western provinces are different from the Atlantic provinces. Sea level rise in one place will be wildfires or drought in others. There’s variation because we’re a continent-sized country, but every region is threatened.

What I think is a little bit more interesting than thinking in terms of regions is to think of the different types of communities that Canadians live in, which really fall into two broad categories. The first are relatively dense, relatively service intensive urban areas. Then you have relatively small, isolated, and underserviced rural and northern communities. What we see is a complete divergence in the kinds of policies that need to be implemented to protect people living in those two types of communities. For cities, which is where the majority of the Canadian public lives, we’re talking about things like floodwater management, rainfall management, urban greening, the production of an urban canopy to help lower temperatures, etc. We’re talking about the decarbonization of transportation systems. We need to get cars off the road, not only because of the of the mitigation piece or the release of GHG emissions, but because cars are these hot engines that we fill our cities with by the thousands, and they produce a huge amount of heat and pollution. In those urban communities, Canadians are never going to be self-reliant in terms of food or energy production.

For those smaller, more isolated communities, it looks very different. Those are folks who need to be self-sufficient if disaster strikes. Those are communities that need to have the highest level of autonomy that can be economically feasible for them in terms of resilience. Small numbers of people located far distances from larger numbers of people, in an increasingly climate stressed world, must be able to survive in their communities without external assistance for days or weeks. Most small and remote communities don’t currently have that level of resilience. I think we need to be working much harder and making bigger investments to make those rural communities, which in some ways are more vulnerable to disastrous impacts.


Will Greaves is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Victoria. His research examines global security theory and politics with respect to climate change, resource extraction, and Indigenous peoples; Canadian foreign policy and Canada-US relations; and the politics of the circumpolar Arctic. Professor Greaves is the author of more than twenty peer-reviewed articles and book chapters and has co-edited two books: One Arctic: The Arctic Council and Circumpolar Governance and Breaking Through: Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic. His monograph on Arctic security and climate change is forthcoming from University of Toronto Press. He is a Coordinator of the North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network (www.naadsn.ca), and has received research funding from the Department of National Defence, Global Affairs Canada, UVic, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.