Climate Change and National Security

15 January 2013

It is fair to say that our planet is warming, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Arctic, where the sea ice cover was at a record low during the summer of 2012 – arguably a direct result of climate change. Methane is being released from melting permafrost, which exacerbates the warming effects in the Arctic Ocean Basin. We are seeing increased intensity of storms and the impacts of rising sea level on low-lying coastal areas where most of the world’s population is located. One only has to look at the recent storm Sandy which slammed into New York this fall for a precursor of the intensity of storms.
Climate change will directly impact Canada’s territory in ways we have never considered; it is a serious threat to national security. That said, ‘Job One’ of the Canadian Forces is the defense of Canada.
A major issue for the future of the planet is the levels of CO2 which has increased in the atmosphere. The world’s oceans are absorbing this atmospheric CO2, becoming more acidic, and killing off phytoplankton which produce oxygen. If the Gulf Stream, driven by sinking cold arctic water slowed because of warming arctic waters, what does this mean for global trade, global finance? These are big, complex atmospheric and ocean systems and the scientific community really does not know how they will interact, and how the positive feedback loops will affect us in the long term. We simply do not have the time data or the scientific understanding based upon actual field research to predict how increased CO2 will change anything.
In an earlier FrontLine Defence article on Canada Command and climate change, (Issue 4, 2010) I touched on this subject and its importance to Canada. At the time, I quoted Cleo Paskal who authored the book Global Warring. She concluded that “Environmental change is a wildcard in the current high-stakes game of geopolitics.” Two years have passed since that article, and the real implications of climate change are becoming irrefutable, both in Canada and around the world.

These climate change issues need to be considered in a national security context, otherwise it is not possible to develop a whole of government approach to National Security issues and be ready for an uncertain future. With shrinking budgets, we have to get this right. For example, procurement decisions taken today on equipment that has a 40 year life span need to encompass the impacts of climate change – and the operating environment will potentially have a profound effect on today’s decisions. Therefore, it is critical that we look at the needs assessment with an eye to climate change and its impact on Canada in a broad context.

Such discussion and debate needs to occur across all levels of government and also involve the private sector. It is not solely a scientific issue.

This was the theme of a recent Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute article (fall 2012) by leading strategic thinker, Major General (retired) Cameron Ross, entitled Climate Change Implications for National Security. He wrote in the CDFAI Dispatch: “Much has been written about climate change, especially about its causes. The Canadian scholars and scientists authoring this climate work are world-class; however, what is missing in the discourse are the implications to Canada’s national security.”

He goes on to say: “National Defense takes threats seriously. Its January 2009 report, The Future Security Environment 2008 to 2030, deduces in a comprehensive chapter on climate: ‘Deduction 11; climate change will result in increasingly violent weather patterns, drought and natural resources that will call for military support to victims around the world, ranging from humanitarian relief to full-scale stability operations.’ Surprisingly, two years later, the government’s Canada First Defence Strategy fails to mention the term climate change or discuss its long-term implications.”

In the last issue of this magazine, retired Navy Captain Ian Parker, in a thoughtful article entitled The Need for a National Security Policy and Strategy, held that: “Canada needs to be realistic and take a top-down approach to developing an affordable defense policy and defense structure matching resources with government policy rather than play the normal self-indulgent wasteful Canadian game of ‘cut, reorganize, and redistribute and shave the ice cube’.” Parker held that we need to look broadly at vital national interests which are directly tied to Canada’s peace and security and which threaten to put Canada at risk. Clearly, climate change is a subject that impacts Canada’s vital national interest, however, discussion on this subject is clearly lacking. Climate change is predicted to have a great impact in the longer-term and yet has not entered Canadian strategic thinking, at least in open source policy ­documents.

Does Canada take these threats seriously? MGen Ross reminds us of comments made by Margaret Purdy, former Associate Deputy Minister of National Defence and current UBC professor, that there is ‘an enormous gap separate(ing) Canada and its closest international partners when it comes to taking climate change – security linkages seriously.’

“The UK government on the other hand, in 2008 said ‘Climate change is potentially the greatest challenge to global stability and security, and therefore to national security.’ Ross also calls to mind a 2010 school of public policy address made in Calgary by Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti [the UK government climate and energy security envoy], where he spoke of climate change as a “national security concern and its potential of being a threat multiplier.” In fact, as Ross points out, “climate change and its implications on security is a part of their National Security Strategy.”

Canada, could become a mecca in the northern hemisphere for climate change refugees, as is predicted in internationally-renowned Canadian Dr. Gwynne Dyer’s 2008 book Climate Wars. The time has come to look carefully and closely at the implications of climate change to the national security environment.

The time for action is now. The Canadian Forces Canadian Joint Operations Command has a key role in strategic thinking around these difficult and complex issues which will impact Canada. We cannot be left behind as our NATO and NORAD partners are working diligently on the subject of climate change.

As MGen Ross indicated: “What is clear is that when it comes to the environment and change, the past will be miniscule compared to the future.” As a nation, Canada needs to look carefully and develop a mechanism and framework for dialogue and discussion on the important issues of how climate change will affect our country across all levels of government, academia and the private sector. We need to be able to horizon scan to the future to ensure that our national security policy and strategy is realistic. As Ian Parker stated “a top-down approach” is necessary. This will require leadership, continued support and funding. This vehicle for thinking around climate change could become our most important defence tool – the ability to predict change on an uncertain planet.

The Canadian Forces strategic planners have never shied away from a problem. In a time of shrinking government and defense budgets, Canada and Canadians, like the planet, will need to ‘warm’ to the concept of climate change being here to stay. On a changing planet, the only constant is change.

Joe Spears, Maritime Counsel with Straith Litigation Chambers and the Principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group is a frequent commentator on arctic, climate change and ocean issues. He has a background in oceanography and Arctic scientific field work. He can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com
© FrontLine Defence 2013