Exploring the implications of climate change for UK defence and security

A Merlin helicopter comes in to drop off a Remover 3.1 mast during a snowy morning whilst on a helicopter flight trial at JADTEU, RAF Brize Norton, photo by 1st SAC David Turnbull/Royal Air Force Open Government License

A Merlin helicopter comes in to drop off a Remover 3.1 mast during a snowy morning whilst on a helicopter flight trial at JADTEU, RAF Brize Norton

1st SAC Dave Turnbull/Royal Air Force (Open Government License)

Climate change could impact defence and security in a variety of ways. To help policymakers understand this threat in a UK context, researchers examined the effects of climate change on the UK MOD's Defence Lines of Development, covering concepts and doctrine, training, personnel, infrastructure, equipment, and much more. A core output of the study was a conceptual framework to support decision makers in identifying strategic opportunities associated with climate change to inform policy development.

What is the issue?

The effects of climate change are likely to be far reaching in the years to come, impacting many aspects of modern life, including defence and security. As floods, droughts, storms and other extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent in the future, there is a growing recognition that climate change could increase existing threats to international peace and security.

To help prepare for these challenges, it will be important for governments to understand how climate change could impact military activities and what appropriate risk mitigation and adaptation actions will be needed to respond.

How did we help?

Researchers from RAND Europe and the University of Exeter, working as part of the Global Strategic Partnership, were asked by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to identify the strategic implications of climate change for MOD activities to 2035.

Building on recent research in this area, this study offers fresh insights into the challenges of climate change in the UK context, and offers a set of recommendations to support the MOD in developing an approach for assessing and responding to them.

What did we find?

While climate change could lead to a number of wider security implications, our study focuses specifically on the strategic implications of climate change for UK MOD activities in relation to the Defence Lines of Development:

  • Concepts and Doctrine

    Concepts and doctrine do not consistently acknowledge climate change as a security driver or incorporate climate change as part of national security threat assessments.

  • Training

    Climate events could reduce the accessibility of training sites, while health and safety issues could arise from flooding and high temperatures during training exercises. Strategic exercises such as wargames will also likely need to build in climate-related issues such as multiple simultaneous large-scale disasters.

  • Personnel

    Personnel may have to operate in climate affected conditions more frequently, affecting physical and psychological well-being. Climate change can also affect infectious disease transmission, increasing the need for medical assistance, vaccinations and personal protective equipment.

  • Infrastructure

    Military infrastructure in the UK and overseas may become increasingly vulnerable to climate events – particularly in the case of coastal infrastructure – and degradation of civilian infrastructure (e.g. energy grids, water systems) may also indirectly disrupt MOD activities.

  • Equipment

    Rising temperatures and other climate-related developments could impede the performance of equipment. Access to critical supply chain inputs, such as raw materials, may also be impeded by extreme weather events which could, in turn, increase violent conflict.

  • Information

    Building a narrative to highlight how the MOD is addressing climate change could become increasingly important, both for securing buy-in from key decision-makers and to prevent the UK from being viewed as lagging behind adversaries in this area.

  • Organisation

    As various actors will be involved in responding to climate change, the responsive role and remit of the Armed Forces will need to be discussed in relation to the police as well as a specialised civilian force or volunteer local civilian services.

  • Interoperability

    Climate change is likely to increase the need for collaborative decision making, resource-sharing and communication across climate change stakeholders including UK government departments, emergency services, civil society organisations and NATO partners.

  • Logistics

    As temperatures rise, there could be a growing demand for critical supplies, as well as increased energy requirements to keep personnel cooler. Delivery of logistics support could become more difficult due to a lack of infrastructure or equipment capacity to access disaster-struck areas.

A core output of this study was a conceptual framework designed to support decision makers in understanding and responding to climate change. It can be used to help map a broad range of impacts of climate change in relation to the MOD’s policy objectives, and to help identify strategic opportunities associated with climate change to inform policy development.

Conceptual framework

  • Step 1

    Assess the state of knowledge on climate change
  • Step 2

    Characterise the context, drivers, and goals of UK Government policy on climate change
  • Step 3

    Identify challenges and opportunities presented by climate change for the MOD
  • Step 4

    Prioritise challenges and opportunities for further action
  • Step 5

    Identify policy actions to address challenges and opportunities
  • Step 6

    Engage in monitoring and evaluation activities

What do we recommend?

Looking to 2035, the MOD could play a key role in developing robust policy and programming on climate change. This study identified six high-level recommendations to support the MOD in developing an approach to address climate-related issues:

  1. Create a tool that enables the MOD to develop robust policy in response to climate change.
  2. Use resources across government, civil society, emergency services and industry to coordinate on climate change related issues.
  3. Provide leadership on climate change issues at the strategic, operational and tactical levels.
  4. Assess the resilience of Defence Estate infrastructure relative to the future operating environment.
  5. Increase the capacity and resilience of equipment relative to the future operating environment.
  6. Leverage research and innovation to mitigate risk.