climate change politics

Why the army should declare a climate emergency

A few weeks ago I was visiting family on a British Army estate. They’ve moved around a lot, so this is the fifth or sixth Army home we’ve stayed in. While some have been worse than others, there’s a definite pattern: Army homes seem to be chronically inefficient, unattractive and poorly maintained.

There are 101 reasons for this, including some fairly disastrous outsourcing to private companies. Perhaps most importantly, there’s no incentive to improve Army homes. Families don’t get a choice about where they stay, so there’s no point in complaining. They won’t put any of their own money into improvements if they get moved on in a couple of years, and the Army don’t pay the utility bills and have no interest in renovating. But it means that Army housing often has leaky windows, inadequate insulation and a high carbon footprint.

I’ve been mulling this over, and then reading Climate Change and the Nation State last week has confirmed it: there’s an opportunity here. It’s not for right now, as they have other things on their plate. But at some point in the near future, the Army should declare a climate emergency. They will have to fall in with Britain’s net zero 2050 plans anyway, but it could move faster and make a nation-leading contribution to Britain’s climate action. Getting its own houses in order is only the start.

The main reason why the military should declare a climate emergency is that climate change is a massive risk to future stability. The latest World Economic Forum Global Risk Report lists the top five most likely global risks, and all five are environmental in nature. The US military knows this already, and rightly sees climate change as a threat multiplier, with the potential to trigger or exacerbate conflict in many different ways. The whole point of the military is to protect the state and its citizens from threat. Climate change is one of the biggest we face.

In fact, as Anatol Lieven writes, “barring a full-scale nuclear exchange between the great powers, no security threat in the world today comes anywhere near to matching the threat posed by climate change to existing states; nor is the damage being done by most states to each other remotely comparable to the damage already being done by climate change.”

Climate change will also make life much harder for the armed forces. The fire service knows that climate change will mean more wildfires, an increased burden on their resources and greater risk to their personnel. And so the fire service has been a leader on climate in many parts of the country. They have an interest in reducing the worst effects of climate change, and are ready to lead by example.

The military should be exactly the same. They will have to deal with the emergencies of extreme weather and floods, with an escalation of conflict around the world, and potential unrest at home. They can help to reduce the pressure now, with a concerted programme to reduce their own footprint and that of their staff and suppliers.

It might help with the crisis in Army recruitment too. As the head of the Army noted last year, they need to be “on the right side of the environmental argument, especially in the eyes of our next generation of recruits who increasingly make career decisions based on a prospective employer’s environmental credentials.”

As Lieven points out, the influence of the military in the climate debate could be considerable, and have a ripple effect well beyond the emissions they are directly responsible for. The military has a “potential role as a bridge to those sections of the population that instinctively reject action against climate change.” People who might not listen to an environmentalist or Green Party politician might respect the word of a soldier. And the military is one of the last refuges for the language of sacrifice, duty and the greater good. While those ideas have been misused many times, they surely have a role in a society that has swung too far into selfish individualism.

Whether or not you like the patriotism that the military inspires, it could be helpful in addressing climate change. Imagine the military supporting energy security through efficiency and renewable energy. Imagine them reducing their own carbon footprint, radically renovating their buildings, running bases on solar power, and taking delivery of their first electric vehicles. Imagine them rewilding and reforesting their unused land – like this project to restore the mudflats and grasslands on the Army’s Thorney Island base. Imagine the armed forces as spokepersons for an energy transition, for tree planting, for adaptation and for peace through climate action.

“To protect the nation,” says the British Army website, “we step forward and meet every challenge.”

Come on then.


  1. US military housing is now managed by the private sector. They may even own the homes though I find it hard to believe a private company can own land on a military base.
    The upkeep isn’t so great and the maintenance folks never seem to be in a hurry to arrive or resolve an issue. Even in officers housing!

    I have heard of the US military using solar or testing solar. The cost to transport a gallon of gasoline to the front line to run generators is exorbitant. Why waste transport resources on fuel when you can make your own electricity?
    We can only hope they get with the program!

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