Militaries in the Eye of Climate Change

Militaries in the Eye of Climate Change

By Dialogo
August 30, 2012

On the same morning that South Florida was remembering the mayhem stirred by hurricane Andrew on August 24, 1992, participants at the Environmental Variability and Sustainability, Challenges for Military Resiliency and Readiness conference in Miami, were returning to their countries, throughout our hemisphere.

During three days of intense brainstorming, these men and women – military, defense and civilian leaders from over 20 nations – engaged in productive discussions, trying to find ways of improving their collective capacities in preparation for events such as Andrew, that tossed around airplanes at the U.S. Air Force Base in Homestead, or the treacherous blizzard that killed 45 Chilean soldiers in 2005, during a march in the foothill of the Antuco Volcano.

Organized by the Energy Division of the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the event included presentations, panels and open discussions on the impact that climate change and energy sustainability issues have in the military around the world, and how to prepare for what seem to be inevitable realities.

“In SOUTHCOM we have begun to incorporate environmental and energy into our military planning processes,” said Col. Steve Williamson, Command Engineer, during a visit to the National Everglades Park, which is undergoing a restoration program headed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Col. Williamson and other presenters at the conference, such as Timothy K. Bridges, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Air Force for Environment and Occupational Health, stressed on the fact that military planners around the world should not turn their backs to environmental variability because it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict.

This concern was echoed by several participants who spoke about what their countries’ military forces are doing, from planting trees and teaching their soldiers to protect the rivers, jungles and mountains where they exercise and operate, to comprehensive programs that encompass building green installations, and the use of technology to reduce the footprint of the military in our shared planet.

In Colombia, for example, where 70 percent of the military operate in direct contact with nature, ecological considerations are an integral part of the planning of each operation. “Our Soldiers must protect the environment while also contributing to the improvement of the communities where they operate. That’s why in our military planning we have to follow environmental procedures, along with our most important concern, the respect to human rights and international humanitarian law,” said Colonel Oscar Murillo, director of Planning and Transformation, from the Colombian Joint Staff.

In his presentation, Col. Murillo also underscored the deep scars that the armed conflict with the FARC and ELN guerrillas have left in Colombia’s natural habitat. In many cases, these terrorist groups operate in protected natural areas that are also inhabited by indigenous populations, he explained. “That’s why when the Army has to operate in those places we work in coordination with the Air Force to determine the best way to proceed. For instance, I remember one case when, because of the specific conditions, we decided to carry out a precision bombardment to minimize the impact on the environment and maximize the damage to the enemy.”

During the conference, it also became apparent that Chile is at the forefront of the efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and adapt to it. The country, that sent representatives both from the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces, has an overarching government strategy that involves the military in evaluating damages, monitoring climate change and creating a national registry of glaciers to determine the amount of fresh water accumulated in them, among many other activities.

Among the participants to SOUTHCOM’s environmental conference, Lieutenant Aldon Jasper, with the Trinidad & Tobago Coast Guard, said that one of the first battles they face is in the culture arena. “The Caribbean still doesn’t completely understand the full effect of climate change, in particular, how it links to national security.” Lt. Jasper added that his plan and that of his colleagues attending the conference is to “talk to our high command about the importance of this in the planning of future operations.”

And according to SOUTHCOM’s Col. Williamson, that’s exactly the goal of conferences such as this one: start a hurricane of ideas and foster the exchange of information not only among branches of the military within each nation, but also among other government agencies and between countries. “I want to emphasize that continued engagements on these and other security issues will be key to minimizing risks over the next 10 years and beyond. We are committed to addressing these challenges with our partners in the region, and invite you all to join us in this effort,” he concluded.