Foreign Affairs

Countries pledge to increase defense spending in an unstable world, while striving to achieve zero carbon. Sam Sachdeva reports how politicians and military officials think conflicting goals can be married

As the swordplay in the Indo-Pacific grows, so does the list of nations seeking to bolster their military might.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to raise his country’s defense spending to 2% of GDP – a commitment also made by Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles – while others have spoken of increasing instead than to reduce their resources.

These commitments not only have a financial cost, but also an environmental one.

The US military would emit more carbon than Denmark or Portugal. UK group Scientists for Global Responsibility has estimated that global forces could be responsible for up to 6% of global emissions – a sizeable figure in the fight to keep global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius.

This is a conflict acknowledged by Defense Minister Peeni Henare when he addressed a special session of the Shangri-La Dialogue on “green defence” and climate security.

“There is an uncomfortable tension between the role of the military in responding to the effects of climate change and the recognition that the military themselves often have a significant carbon footprint,” Henare said, noting that the majority of Defense Force emissions New Zealand came from its operations. .

“We know he can’t just stop flying, sailing and driving heavily armored vehicles. However, the military should do what they can to reduce their emissions.

Kiwi forces already had to adapt to the impacts of increasingly severe weather in the Pacific and beyond, said Henare, the Defense Technology Agency studying the effects of changing seasonal patterns and cyclone paths.

“The New Zealand Defense Force is one of the few armed forces in the world that regularly operates in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic region. Already an environment of extremes, the impacts of climate change will make activities in the region even more complex.

“We cannot afford to sit idly by and watch the future of our future generations descend into uncertainty. We cannot disappoint them before they have even had a chance.
– Mariya Ahmed Didi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives

Testimonies from nations on the frontlines of climate change are sadly an all too common feature of international forums, and Maldives Defense Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi moved many with her account of the Asian archipelago’s sensitivity to rising tides. .

With 99.7% of the Maldives consisting of water, more than 70% of the country’s infrastructure and half of its urban areas are located within 100 meters of the sea, Didi said.

“It’s just the length of a football field that separates us from the ocean.”

The deep and symbiotic connection with the sea of ​​small island states was threatened by ocean acidification, land degradation and other effects of climate change, which in turn “undermine centuries-old socio-political structures and impoverish our communities and societies. , less resilient and more porous to malevolent ideologies and malevolent actors”.

“We have evidence indicating that social cohesion and dynamics as a result of cultural migration and relocation are severely disrupted and undermine society [creates] breeding ground for violent extremism,” Didi said.

Describing climate change as an existential crisis, she called on countries to do more to alleviate the level of hopelessness experienced by small island states.

“We cannot afford to sit idly by and watch the future of our future generations descend into uncertainty. We cannot disappoint them before they have even had a chance.

It is not just the impact of climate on conflict, but of conflict on climate, that must be considered, said German politician Dr Tobias Lindner.

“From this perspective, the real threat is really a vicious circle,” said the German Minister of State for the Federal Foreign Office, highlighting the effect of the invasion of Ukraine.

“Whether it’s the bombing of oil refineries or chemical facilities, Russia’s scorched earth policy, nuclear power plant near misses…Russia’s war threatens to cause environmental damage to the tune of trillions of euros.”

New military equipment must be built to be both durable and highly adaptable as new climate-friendly technologies are developed, said Admiral Sir Ben Key, head of the Royal Navy. Photo: IISS

Political buy-in is one thing, but there also seems to be acceptance, if not buy-in, by military leaders of the need for climate action.

Admiral Sir Ben Key, head of the Royal Navy, said the threat posed by climate change “far outweighs in gravity any threat man could make to his fellow human beings around the world” – with a reputational and moral argument for action.

“At a lecture I was challenged by one of the young sailors serving in the Royal Navy today, that in fact if we don’t take it seriously, then those who join us to serve will see that our values ​​as an organization – whether as a navy, air force, army, or as defense more broadly – ​​don’t align with theirs, and they won’t stay.

The military couldn’t stand and rely on fossil fuels while the rest of the world turned to biofuels and other energy sources, Key said, comparing it to “trying to drive a Land Rover that’s 50 years old while everyone has an electric car”.

A potential obstacle to tracking climate innovation is the length of time many armed forces have been dependent on military hardware: take the NZ Defense Force, which flies Hercules aircraft now in their sixth decade of existence.

Key said the military should approach their purchases with the intent to “last as long as possible, but doing [gear] as adaptable as possible to adopt emerging technologies” – even if it would come at an additional cost.

“The projects that we build today for the Royal Navy need to have open architecture systems, and I’m not necessarily talking about that in a computing sense, but in a machinery sense, so that when progress is made that we reduce our carbon footprint, we can make these changes more easily.

As one speaker pointed out, such forward-looking purchases might be out of reach for small nations that rely on second-hand equipment from large militaries.

“Just pass on your current abilities to me, we have to decide if it’s the right thing to do or not,” admitted Henare.

Real action or checkboxes?

Discussions of climate action weren’t just confined to the margins of Shangri-La.

In his main stage speech, Marles said Australia’s new government would put more emphasis on climate change, both from a national security and environmental perspective.

“The sea, which has long been a source of food, sustenance and culture, is turning into a source of anxiety and threat.”

Climate change also ranked second on the list of regional threats outlined by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (raised to the top of the bill by the Covid-19 pandemic).

This emphasis is not entirely without other motivations, given the anxiety sparked by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the Pacific, where climate change is paramount.

It will be welcomed by many in the region, including New Zealand. But there is still some way to go for the major powers to show that they are not just ticking boxes.

* Sam Sachdeva traveled to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation