The defense industry has an essential role in mitigating climate change

Both the effects of climate change and the global tensions it drives, directly affect the defense and security industry.  At the recent World Defense Show 2024, General Tom Middendorf, Chairman of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, delivered a compelling address on the imperative of climate-proofing defense organizations and capabilities.

Sustainability measures have become part of every industry in terms of production, but climate change presents far greater challenges to the defense industry and requires more wide-ranging solutions, with its inherent threats to global security.

General Tom Middendorf, Chairman of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, spoke to a select audience at the recent World Defense Show 2024, about the pressing need to understand and mitigate the devastating effects of climate change, outlining four key reasons why environmental sustainability is crucial for the defense sector: global trends and resource scarcity; climate change as a risk multiplier; resilience against severe weather events; and changing policies and legislation.

Middendorf began by highlighting four competing global trends that are creating an increasing gap between demand and supply. He said: “We have experienced a growing world population, almost doubling in size during this century, leading to a doubling in demand for water, for food and for resources. Meanwhile we are already experiencing a decreasing availability of a widening range of those resources.”

He explained how two additional trends increase the difficulty of bridging that growing gap. “The first is climate change, leading to sea level rise, desertification and increasing vulnerability to flooding. Climate change reduces the global livable and arable space and effects our ability to meet those growing demands.”

This is exacerbated by a second trend – “the geopolitical move from globalization to a more fragmenting world, which affects the multilateral mechanisms that we have and makes it harder to find global solutions to global problems,” he explained.

Middendorf stressed the unsustainability of current resource consumption patterns and advocated for innovation in resource efficiency and circularity to mitigate future conflicts arising from resource scarcity. He said: “It’s clear that we cannot bridge that gap by producing more in the way we are doing now. It’s clear that competing harder over access to resources is not a sustainable solution. It’s also clear that we need to reduce our resource dependency through innovation on circularity, and the use of alternative less scarce materials, because if we don’t bridge that gap, we will only deplete our resources more rapidly, resulting in severe supply chain disruptions, and we will only see more global competition potentially leading to conflicts.”

On a regional level, Middendorf cited climate change as a risk multiplier, underscoring how it exacerbates existing tensions and drives instability globally, something he had faced firsthand. He said: “I’ve been involved in more than 20 crisis areas all over the world. In Afghanistan, I experienced how water scarcity led to tensions among farmers and how that was exploited by extremists. In Iraq I saw how water was used as an instrument of power, with the occupation of the Mosul dam. In Somalia, Sudan and Mali, the increasing droughts drove people away from their homelands, driving them into despair and into the hands of extremist organizations. I saw how climate change in itself may not directly lead to conflict, but how it acts as a driving force of local and regional instability.”

He emphasized the need to address water stress, drought-induced migration particularly in Africa, and vulnerability to flooding in densely populated regions. He said: “Look especially to Southeast Asia, home of almost two billion people, often living in mega cities located at rivers and coastal areas. This is also the factory of the world. With most of our supply lines running through these areas it’s like a ticking bomb. One can only imagine the disastrous and disruptive potential effects of rising sea levels and intensifying rain periods to these urbanized areas.”

Middendorf highlighted the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, stressing the importance of protecting assets and infrastructure, saying: “Every year we witness new records being set. Last year we had 66 natural disasters with more than US$1 billion damage each. Overall, the damage was $350 billion with 95,000 victims all over the world, which probably doesn’t include the second order effects.”

“Globally only one third of those costs were covered by insurance. The US alone had 28 of these disasters with US$93 billion in damages and the trend is going up, making it increasingly difficult to insure these kinds of risks. This makes protection of our assets, of our hubs, of our supply chains, and of our vital infrastructure, also a crucial element of sustainability. Next to the need to protect fighting infrastructure, defense organizations can also expect an increasing demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.”

Middendorf acknowledged the global shift towards net-zero emissions and the integration of climate considerations into defense policymaking. He emphasized the need for defense organizations to reduce their carbon footprint while maintaining operational effectiveness. He said: “Defense is the largest emitter of CO2 in any country and has a responsibility to take. At the same time, however, there is a genuine concern that moving to net zero affects the effectiveness of operational units. It is therefore crucial to develop sustainability in such a way that it also contributes to operational effectiveness and this can be achieved through a focus on self-sufficiency.

“The more operational units can generate their own energy, their own water, print their own spare parts, use remote diagnostics, etcetera, the more autonomous they can become and the more we can reduce the enormous logistical supply chains that we have now.”

To address these global challenges, Middendorf proposed a three-pronged approach to defense energy transition. The first is adaptation of peacetime facilities, implementing civil best practices and technologies in non-operational settings, such as harbours, airports and barracks.

He suggested that the second level should focus on light and medium operational capabilities where civil technologies can be used and integrated into new military concepts. He explained: “This is about adapting our current force and about being a smart integrator of new technologies that support self-sufficiency. Defense could create living labs with defense industries for experimentation and fielding of these kind of concepts.”

The final area is the energy intensive high-end capabilities, such as naval vessels, air fighters and heavy combat vehicles, where technology is not as advanced. He suggested that the industry needs to invest in research and development for energy-efficient platforms and equipment, with built in self-sufficiency.

He gave examples: “We can for instance use 3D printing to produce spare parts on the spot. In deployed areas we can use robotics for a range of logistical functions, even up to conducting remote surgery. We can use remote diagnostics and augmented reality for our maintenance systems for battle damage repairs, thereby reducing the need to deploy large logistical units into mission areas. There is a whole new range of options appearing, but they do require us to be open minded.”

Middendorf also stressed the importance of public-private cooperation in advancing energy transition efforts, noting the civil sector’s leadership in innovation, and pointing out that the defense sector has some catching up to do, saying: “If we want to futureproof our military forces and our businesses it’s crucial that we build climate resilience in a public-private effort. We need to become the quickest to adapt.”

Addressing such an elite and influential audience of government and industry leaders at the World Defense Show. Middendorf’s presentation sounded a rallying cry for the defense sector to embrace sustainability and climate resilience as an essential component for safeguarding global security.

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