Expert Speak War Fare
Published on May 17, 2021
Security risks associated with the consequences of climate change will have a direct impact on the way the armed forces anticipate, prepare, operate and contribute to climate change.
Defence diplomacy and environmental security: Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and beyond This article is part of GP-ORF series — From Alpha Century to Viral World: The Raisina Young Fellows Speak.

The strategic implications of climate change for international security have been well documented by academics, multilateral organisations and state institutions over the last twenty years. Formal debates on the complex relationship between environmental degradation, climate change and international security were first initiated by the United Kingdom at the United Nations (UN) Security Council in 2007<1>. In 2008, the Solana Report on Climate Change and International Security, written by the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, was presented to the European Council<2>. Countries like the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, the UK and the Netherlands have included climate change in their national defence strategies<3>. This evolution has, however, not resulted in any significant change in international cooperation in the area.

As rivalries between countries grow and multilateralism weakens, the need for international cooperation to overcome such global challenges has never been more pressing. France’s experience in the Indo-Pacific showcases avenues of cooperation in environmental security and provides lessons for all.

What governments must do in the defence sector

In the last 20 years, growing attention has been paid to widescale climate changes that could impact global geopolitical stability. Defence actors have started to incorporate climate change into their strategies, emphasizing that climate change multiplies the burdens on a country’s political, economic and resource bases. It also acts as a “threat multiplier”<4>, by amplifying critical situations and increasing inter-country contestation over common or shared resources. Therefore, security risks associated with the consequences of climate change will have a direct impact on the way the armed forces anticipate, prepare, operate and contribute to climate change. Defence ministries will need to focus on three main areas to plan for the coming challenges — adapting equipment and personnel, preparing for more involvement of military forces, and developing strategic foresight.

Defence actors have started to incorporate climate change into their strategies, emphasizing that climate change multiplies the burdens on a country’s political, economic and resource bases.

First, the defence ministries will have to modernise and adapt equipment and personnel to changing environmental conditions. In Western countries, defence ministries are already working on this issue and are considering the physical effects that operating in a warmer climate will have for missions, doctrines, critical infrastructures, operations and equipment<5>. The US was a frontrunner in planning for climate change effects on the military — the Naval War College releasing the ‘Global Climate Change: Implications for the United States Navy’ report in 1990<6>. Beyond adapting to climate change, defence ministries will also have a role to play in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, France is developing dual technology innovations related to materials and energy consumption to favour the use of eco-friendly military equipment to limit their environmental impact<7>. Other countries, such as Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom<8>, have also started to develop ‘green’ defence strategies for sustainable development.

Second, defence ministries must prepare for an increased pressure on military forces to respond to security crises due to climate change. Many countries are already anticipating a rise in the military’s involvement in the management of climate-related emergencies in close cooperation with civil actors. For instance, the Australian government sought assistance from the Australian Defence Force in dealing with the 2020 bushfires, provoking significant debate on the role of security forces in responding to natural disasters<9>. Providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) may soon become a more crucial part of militaries’ operational missions. Navies may also increasingly be solicited for constabulary missions — fighting against illicit trafficking, fishing, pollution — and surveillance and reconnaissance operations.

Third, beyond immediate reactions to urgent needs, defence ministries must prepare for and anticipate the consequences of climate change. Governments will have to develop strategic foresight, in close cooperation with civil society, think tanks, the scientific community and industry. Defence ministries should leverage research and technology to enhance knowledge capabilities and the capacities for risk assessment. This will bring new forms of cooperation in areas such as the adaptation of coastal military infrastructures, preservation and sustainable exploitation of overseas ecosystems, improvement of cyclone early warning, improvement of shoreline surveys, maritime surveillance coverage and military health.

These activities call for greater cooperation and coordination between states, and the exchange of best practices and anticipation of emergent capabilities, but it remains limited. Nevertheless, there is scope for environmental security to be placed at the heart of multilateralism, as France’s experience in implementing its environmental security policy in the Indo-Pacific shows.

French defence diplomacy and environmental security

Although the concept of environmental security is relatively new, France has long been cooperating in this space with its main strategic partners, mainly in the Indo-Pacific.

In 2002, the French defence ministry began to tackle environmental issues in the areas of military procurement and implementation of operational capabilities, based on the national strategy for sustainable development<10>. Its first environmental action plan was published in 2007, but the focus was exclusively on the modernisation of military equipment<11>. It was only in the 2008 edition of the French White Paper that global warming and its consequences were first included in national security strategy<12>. The prospect of hosting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in 2015 (Conference of Parties – 21) created a new momentum, and in 2011, the French Institute for Strategic Research, affiliated to the defence ministry, published its first report specifically dedicated to the security implications of climate change<13>. In 2016, the defence ministry launched the Observatory of Climate Change Impacts on Defence and Security (OCCIDS) in cooperation with the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs to support robust climate change research and ensure that security requirements inform future climate research priorities<14>. The French Defence Strategy in the Indo-Pacific<15>, published in 2019 by the defence ministry, identified cooperation towards environmental security as one of the country’s main priorities in the region.

Although the concept of environmental security is relatively new, France has long been cooperating in this space with its main strategic partners, mainly in the Indo-Pacific.

With several overseas territories throughout the Indo-Pacific (Mayotte, La Reunion, the French Southern and Antarctic territories, New Caledonia, Wallis & Futuna, and French Polynesia), France is compelled to closely deal with the impacts of climate change. France often mobilises its military to support local security forces and international agencies in providing emergency aid during natural disasters. In the South Pacific, the FRANZ agreement between France (FR), Australia (AN) and New Zealand (Z), signed in 1992, stipulates military cooperation related to HADR<16>. In addition, the OCCIDS’s work since its inception has enabled France to gradually integrate the concept of environmental security in its bilateral and multilateral dialogues; the French defence ministry has organised several conferences with strategic partners in Southeast Asia, notably with Vietnam and Indonesia<17>. In 2018, the ministry coordinated a study with its partners at the South Pacific Defence Ministers’ Meeting (SPDMM) on the ‘Implications of Climate Change on Defence and Security in the South Pacific by 2030’<18>. At the 2019 SPDMM in Fiji, participants adopted concrete guidelines to address the challenges identified in the report. The French defence ministry also supports scientific programmes that aim to anticipate the occurrence of extreme climatic events or the displacement of fishing resources in the Pacific, in partnership with the SPDMM<19>. For example, the “Kivi Kuaka” Program, launched in 2017, is an early warning alert system for cyclones, aimed at providing an accurate observation of migratory birds. Such critical information, complementary to satellite data, contributes to preparing people and armed forces for climate-induced natural catastrophes<20>. France is also an aspiring member of the US Indo-Pacific Command’s Pacific Environment Security Forum, which explores environmental security solutions in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the Indian Ocean, France and Australia conducted between 2018 and 2020 a joint project to map environmental risks in the region to propose bilateral and multilateral preventive actions<21>. The study is planned to be presented at the launch of the two-year French presidency of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in 2021.

Prospects for regional cooperation

As a vocal proponent of multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific<22>, France must demonstrate international leadership through regional engagement and develop high-level local climate security plans. It must systematically include its vision of environmental security in all bilateral and multilateral dialogues, and encourage putting the topic on the agenda of Indian Ocean regional organisations, such as the IONS and the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

In addition, the ODISS showcases how combining research and real-world experience can help gain policy attention, as illustrated by the inclusion of the environmental security issue in France’s defence policy for the Indo-Pacific. Similar initiatives could be replicated by regional organisations to strengthen data collection for robust and actionable assessment of climate risks. Such projects will benefit regional organisations and their member states, increasing their capacities in assessing and managing climate-security risks, especially in the maritime domain.

The European Union (EU) could also increase its involvement in this field, mainly by funding projects. Since 2012 and the creation of its Green Diplomacy Network — an informal group of environment experts within the foreign ministries of member states — the EU has started to develop its own climate diplomacy to shape international cooperation on mitigation and adaptation to climate change<23>. For instance, the European Defence College offers participants an opportunity to work on global climate change scenarios and the related risks for peace and international security; and in November 2020, the External European Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service and combined foreign and defence ministry, published the “EU Climate Change and Defence Roadmap,”<24> identifying actions in capability development and international cooperation. Nevertheless, a comprehensive approach to climate security requires policy coordination, which is sometimes missing in the EU<25>. For instance, there is a lack of cooperation on climate security issues within the EEAS, especially in terms of thematic versus geographical expertise. While discussions are underway within the EU for the adoption of a regional strategy for the Indo-Pacific, France should seize this opportunity to place environmental security at the heart of the EU’s external policies.

A comprehensive approach to climate security requires policy coordination, which is sometimes missing in the EU.

Finally, more multinational cooperation will be needed in HADR. Existing institutional structures and the capabilities of many Asian militaries have not yet adapted to the requirements of HADR-oriented missions<26>. There is also a lack of coordination between military and civil actors involved in the management of regional crises. This calls for an expansion in the scope of existing maritime security cooperation, to include climate security-related programmes, capacity building and training on humanitarian norms. The Association of South-East Asian Nations could become a leader on this front, in partnership with Western countries.


Environmental security offers many avenues of cooperation, especially for defence ministries. However, the issue has not yet been put on the agenda of global governance, mainly because of the lack of political interest and funding within each state.

To become a core part of the international cooperation plan, environmental security issues cannot be the mandate of defence ministries alone. Focusing on only one specific kind of climate change impact, such as economic or human, will lead to other aspects being neglected. There is a strong need for the establishment of inter-ministerial coordination mechanisms — within a country and bilaterally.


<1>Overview of Security Council Meeting Reports, UN Security Council, 17 April 2007.

<2> Council of the European Union and European Commission, Climate Change and International Security, Luxembourg, EU Publications, 2008.

<3> Dan Smith et al., “Climate Security, Making it #Doable,The Hague, The Clingendael Institute, 2019.

<4>Climate change recognized as a ‘threat multiplier’, UN security council debates its impact on peace,UN News, 25 January 2019.

<5> Bastien Alex and Adrien Estève, “Defense stakeholders and climate change: A chronicle of a new strategic constraint in France and the United States,Revue internationale et stratégique, vol. 109, issue 1 (2018): 93-103; Louise van Schaik et al., Ready for Take-off? Military responses to climate change, The Hague, Clingendael, 2020.

<6> Daniel Abrahams, “From discourse to policy: US policy communities’ perceptions of and approaches to climate change and security,Conflict, security and development 19, no. 4 (2019): 323-345.

<7> Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy, Defence and Climate: France is Committed, Paris, Ministère des Armées, 2018.

<8> Kate Cox et al., A Changing Climate Exploring the Implications of Climate Change for UK Defence and Security, Cambridge, RAND Corporation, 2020.

<9> Matt McDonald, After the fires? Climate change and security in Australia,” Australian Journal of Political Science 56, no. 1 (2020): 1-18.

<10> Michel Asencio et al., Réflexion stratégique sur le changement climatique et les implications pour la défense, Paris, IRSEM, 2011.

<11>Sustainable Development Strategy,” Ministère des Armées, 5 December 2012.

<12> François Hollande, Le Livre Blanc. Défense et Sécurité nationale (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 2008).

<13> Asencio, “Réflexion stratégique sur le changement climatique et les implications pour la défense”

<14> Bastien and Estève, “Defense stakeholders and climate change”

<15> Ministère des Armées, France’s Defence Strategy in the Indo-Pacific, Paris, Ministère des Armées, 2019.

<16>The FRANZ Arrangement,Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 20 October 2014.

<17> “Defence and Climate: France is Committed”

<18> François Gemenne et al., Implications of Climate Change on Defence and Security in the South Pacific by 2030 (Paris: IRIS ,2019).

<19> “France’s Defence Strategy in the Indo-Pacific”

<20> Ministère des Armées, France and Security in the Indo-Pacific, Paris, Ministère des Armées, 2019.

<21> Anthony Bergin, “Australia and France collaborate to reduce environmental security risks,Asia and the Pacific Policy Society, 27 June 2019.

<22> “France’s Defence Strategy in the Indo-Pacific”; Frédéric Grare, “France, the other Indo-Pacific Power,Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 21 October 2020.

<23> Gerald Stang and Taylor Dimsdale, “The EU and Climate Security,Planetary Security Initiative, January 2017.

<24> European External Action Service, “Climate Change and Defence Roadmap,” Brussel, EEAS 1251 (9 November 2020).

<25> Niklas Bremberg, EU Foreign Policy and Security Policy on Climate-Related Security Risks, Stockholm, SIPRI Policy Brief, SIPRI, 2019.

<26> Evan Laksmana, “Climate Insecurities: Exploring the Strategic Implications for Asia-Pacific Armed Forces,” Asia Security Initiative Policy Series, Working Paper no. 13 (2011).

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Mlissa Levaillant

Mlissa Levaillant

Mlissa Levaillant is currently deputy director of studies and research at the French Institute of High Defence Studies attached to the Prime Ministers Office. She ...

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