Climate Change and the French Armed Forces

A French soldier participating in Operation Barkhane looks out over the desert in northern Niger. Courtesy of Thomas Goisque / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

With climate security gaining ground as a topic of global discussion, the French armed forces are developing their own approach to climate change at the national level.

As shown by the recent failure of the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution on the security implications of climate change and on the need to develop conflict-prevention strategies, with one veto (Russia), one vote against (India) and one abstention (China), climate security appears to be a somewhat controversial topic in international relations. Indeed, this vote reveals an existing political divide between countries that clearly recognise climate security as a legitimate issue and those that tend to contest its relevance. It also comes as a setback considering the strong and regular acknowledgements of the security implications of climate change made during UN Security Council debates since 2007, as well as by the most prominent defence officials from the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. For its part, France is clearly among the proponents of the issue, having championed the idea of a UN climate security envoy at the beginning of 2021.

On 12 November 2021, the French minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, declared at the Paris Peace Forum that ‘the armed forces must be committed to the fight against climate change’ and launched a new ministerial initiative called ‘The Armed Forces Against Climate Change’. This shows how climate change remains a concern for the French armed forces six years after the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, where the organisation of a ‘defence and climate’ event before the conference stimulated the emergence of the issue within the ministry and the armed forces. Not that there were no previous acknowledgements of the security implications in France’s security doctrine (as shown by the 2008 White Paper); but COP21 represented a turning point in the ‘climatisation’ of security narratives in the defence sector, as well as for new international initiatives on the matter.

The climatisation of security has led to a need for the military to develop its own climate expertise in order to anticipate the security implications of climate change

The concept of climatisation shows how climate change has become a dominant topic in global politics, and how this has led to the reframing of policy narratives through a climatic lens. Different policy areas are affected by this new trend, including development and health, but also security. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the UN Security Council, where climate security debates are becoming more and more frequent – even if there is some pushback from Russia, India and China. Climatisation is also leading to the growing involvement of new actors in climate governance, who bring their own perspective and understanding of the issue to both national and international debates. Previous studies show, for example, how philanthropic foundations engage in international climate debates, and the ‘Climate Pledge’ initiative co-founded by Amazon shows the attractive power of the issue for the private sector. In the case of the French armed forces, the process of climatisation is leading to the reframing of traditional security concerns in climate terms. The study of these climatised narratives and their use in France’s contemporary strategic doctrine and discussions show that the military tends to present itself as a valuable institution for the management of climate crises.

However, the climatisation of security has led to a need for the military to develop its own climate expertise in order to anticipate the security implications of climate change. Global and complex, climate change is also a long-term process, and the armed forces expect indicators and guidance to organise their actions and prioritise certain issues. Although the prediction of extreme weather events and meteorological forecasts were always a substantial part of the work of military planners, there was until recently no clear authority on climate matters. Established in 2016, the Observatory for Climate Change Impacts on Defence and Security fulfilled this mission, with the goal of raising awareness on the security implications of climate change among both the civil and military components of the ministry. It also informed the position of the French armed forces on climate security through a series of publications addressing new challenges in some regions of the world, such as the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific.

Moreover, in line with the emergence of the concept of ‘threat multiplier’ in the US and at the UN to qualify the security implications of climate change, the French military doctrine does not consider that climate change generates new security issues, but rather that it indirectly fuels existing political, economic and social tensions. The climatisation of security therefore applies to very traditional security issues, among them migration. In the 2017 Defence and National Security Strategic Review, a paragraph presents the ‘most fragile regions in the world’ – with a specific focus on the Sahel (Niger, Mauritania, Mali and Chad) and South Asia (Bangladesh) – where extreme weather events are likely to have an impact on ‘migratory movements’. This climatisation of the narrative on migration presents a remarkable continuity since the 2008 White Paper, and has been reinforced by the increased climatisation of migration in other areas of global climate governance.

The French military doctrine does not consider that climate change generates new security issues, but rather that it indirectly fuels existing political, economic and social tensions

The second important climatised issue in the French strategic doctrine is terrorism. In the context of France’s military operations in the Sahel, there has been a growing interest in the security implications of climate change in the region. In the aftermath of France’s largest military operation abroad, Operation Barkhane, launched in 2014 in the Sahel region, the Ministry of the Armed Forces showed an interest in prospective work on how climate change may fuel existing local tensions. On the occasion of an extraordinary summit of the G5 Sahel in 2017, the Observatory’s Fourth Bulletin mentions the need for more development initiatives to prevent climate-induced poverty, which could in turn lead to a reinforcement of terrorist groups. The 13th report also highlights the relationship between climate change and terrorism in the Sahel region, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso. The climatisation of issues such as illegal fisheries and terrorism comes from the ability to present them as climate risks through the identification of a clear causal chain. A 2018 prospective scenario on the Sahel also identifies a probable rise of ‘Islamic terrorism’ by 2030.

The study of climatisation sheds light on the cultural and political aspects of climate security. Indeed, the French military seems to establish a link between climate change and security mostly in regions where its armed forces are traditionally involved, such as the Sahel. It also shows how climate change is almost exclusively associated with security phenomena that are perceived to be among the most salient in France, such as terrorism and migration.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Adrien Estève

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