Crisis response in a changing climate

Reservists from 7 Battalion, The Rifles Reinforcing a Dam During Flooding, photo by Cpl Richard Cave LBPPA/Defence Images

Cpl Richard Cave LBPPA/Defence Images CC BY-NC 2.0

Researchers identified climate change challenges likely to emerge and propose five concrete policy actions that the UK Ministry of Defence could take to mitigate the impact of climate change on crisis response situations.

What is the issue?

Climate change is likely to have a significant impact on defence and security as climate-related hazards like droughts, floods, wildfires and food shortages can uproot communities, cause humanitarian crises and increase the chance of armed conflict.

A range of initiatives are under way in the UK government and internationally to mitigate the causes of climate change and to adapt to current and future consequences.

How did we help?

To help inform its 2021 Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) asked researchers from RAND Europe and the University of Exeter to identify the implications of climate change for defence logistics in crisis response situations. Namely, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and military aid to the civil authorities (MACA).

Researchers conducted the study through the Global Strategic Partnership (GSP), building on existing GSP research on climate change and its relevance for defence. The project team further analysed the impact of climate change on crisis response through a literature review and extensive consultation with experts from across the Armed Forces, the MOD, other Government departments and academia.

The analysis allowed researchers to identify challenges likely to emerge and the opportunities and policy actions that could be taken by the MOD to mitigate the impact of climate change. The study proposes five concrete recommendations for future action.

What did we find?

Strategic-level challenges

  • With projections for an increased number and frequency of HADR and MACA operations in future, coordination between the MOD, other government departments, allies and partners, local authorities, industry and wider society is likely to become more complex and more urgent.
  • The UK is likely to face concurrent operations at home and abroad, which are bound to stretch resources and the readiness to address other contingencies.
  • Existing resource constraints, such as funding, people, skills and equipment, are likely to become exacerbated by the pressures of climate change.
  • Command and control could deteriorate in climate-degraded areas, posing challenges for coordination of efforts, including with other agencies.

Operational-level challenges

  • Greater quantities of supplies required, such as medical technology, civil engineering, reconstruction and clean-up, food and fresh water, will likely generate greater costs and place pressure on finite stores, with consequences for readiness.
  • Deteriorating climatic and environmental conditions may make accessibility of points of embarkation and disembarkation very difficult or impossible, while also prompting insecurity that threatens UK forces.
  • The wider effects of climate change on defence infrastructure are likely to disrupt supply chains.
  • Some of the UK’s defence equipment may not be fit to operate in climate-degraded environments.
  • Local responses to crises may be incapacitated as extreme weather events become more intense, frequent and damaging.

Tactical-level challenges

  • Harsh environments may erode or destroy critical supplies or critical infrastructure, requiring alternative solutions to be found.
  • Water contamination may increase the need for drinking water supply, posing additional supply challenges for both the local population and the military.
  • Crop destruction as a result of climate-related hazards may disrupt food supply chains, affecting food costs and resulting in food shortages in some places.

What can be done?

To ensure greater effectiveness of crisis response, the MOD should:

  1. Create a generalisable plan for delivery of HADR operations and combine relevant doctrine publications into a single HADR doctrine.
  2. Strengthen the role and network of liaison officers in key organisations involved in HADR response across the UK government, as well as exchange officers placed in other national governments.
  3. Explore and understand the costs and benefits of setting up enabling contracts for HADR/MACA operations.
  4. Design a roadmap for enhancing the resilience of defence infrastructure for the future.
  5. Set up education and training courses with specific climate change content for junior and senior defence staff and/or incorporate this content into existing teaching.