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Climate change has implications for defence

Military often the best option for rescue and stability after a disaster 

by Cameron Ross

Times Columnist
November 24, 2012

Canadians are an extraordinary bunch. Nowhere else on the planet will strangers have a riveting conversation about the weather within five minutes of meeting.

Regardless of our province, we seem to lay claim to the phrase, "if you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes."

Be careful what you wish for.

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.

There is no doubt that Canada is being affected by climate change. In 2012, we have seen records crumble over heat (Maritimes and Ontario), drought (Prairies and B.C.) and snowfall accumulation (B.C.). Amazing scientific revelations of Arctic weather changes appear with increasing frequency.

The focus has been on the environmental here and now and not the longer-term security impact.

Appreciating that the primary responsibility of government is to provide for the security of Canadians, University of B.C.'s Margaret Purdy explains that one of the reasons climate change is not considered a real security threat is "because security officials are preoccupied with today's headline-grabbing files, not strategic issues."

Terrorism, Iran and the South China seas might be the security flavours of the month; climate change is not.

In the international discussion around climate change, the term "militarization" is increasingly prevalent. While environmentalists, upon hearing the term, might flick the off-switch, the reality is that the military is the only national institution with the flexibility and resources to come to the assistance of civil authorities in times of great need. B.C. fires, Manitoba floods and Quebec ice storms are obvious examples from the past.

National Defence takes these environmental threats seriously. Its January 2009 report, The Future Security Environment 2008-2030, deduces in a comprehensive chapter on climate: "Climate change will result in increasingly violent weather patterns, drought and natural disasters that will call for military support to assist 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.

Purdy adds that "an enormous gap separate[s] Canada and its closest international partners when it comes to taking climate change-security linkages seriously." The U.K. government, on the other hand, said in 2008: "Climate change is potentially the greatest challenge to global stability and security, and therefore to national security."

The U.K. believes so strongly in this that it has implemented a program to send officials overseas to promote discussion. One of these officials, Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the U.K. government climate and energy security envoy, has visited Canada frequently.

At a 2010 School of Public Policy address in Calgary, he spoke of climate change as a national-security concern and its potential of being a "threat multiplier." In fact, climate change and its implications on security are part of the U.K. national security strategy.

While not the instigator of a conflict, changes to the climate will exacerbate the various threats. Loss of food, water and habitat will cause regional chaos. Likely mass migrations of millions of people seeking safer, sustainable havens will cause regional strife.

The Canadian conscience will want our "away team" of military relief and aid to deploy at a time when those scarce resources may be desperately needed domestically. It is clear that when it comes to the environment and change, the past will be minuscule com-pared to the future.

In the context of developing a national security strategy, Lt.-Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser for two U.S. presidents (Gerald Ford and George H.W.

Bush) recently said: "Today's decision-makers are burdened by institutions and organizational habits of mind that were built for the Cold War, not for the 21st century."

During that Cold War, there was one opponent - the Soviets, who were reasonably predictable. Mother Nature is far from that.

One would hope our decision-makers are not frozen in the one-threat Cold War mentality; things are going to heat up.

Retired Maj.-Gen. Cameron Ross is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and an executive fellow of the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.


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