Géopolitique, Réseau, Énergie, Environnement, Nature
Armed Forces and Climate Change in a Time of High-Intensity: Reflections on Engagement in “Environmental” Operations
Issue #2


Issue #2


Angélique Palle , Adrien Estève , Florian Opillard

21x29,7cm - 91 pages Issue #2, September 2022


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned a page on confrontation in the 21st century by putting high-intensity conflict between two modern armies back on the table. This prospect of high-intensity conflict is the target of the latest French military programming laws 1 and the operational preparation of armed forces 2 . Beyond combat aspects and their effects on military personnel and civilian populations, the matter of logistics — both material and energy — is also central to this conflict. It is especially on the Russian side in an international context of growing energy consumption by military equipment 3 , but also because Russian GDP is dependent on its energy exports 4 . At the same time that supply chains and their weaknesses are being widely discussed, European Union states are attempting to extend their economic sanctions to the energy sphere. Environmental discourse with strategic aims has also emerged in the political and media spheres, most notably in the form of arguments favoring energy sufficiency that rest on moral values of solidarity with the state and the Ukrainian population.

 This intersection of the ecology and military fields is happening within a double context of evolving use of armed forces by governments in the face of climate change’s initial effects and global environmental change 5 more broadly. On an international scale, this evolution is especially visible in the response by public authorities to environmental disasters which more and more often includes a military response. In 2019, in the largest mobilization since the Second World War, Australia deployed three thousand reservists to help fight dry season wildfires and evacuate civilians 6 . That same year, Russia also mobilized its armed forces to fight wildfires in Siberia 7 while two thousand troops in the Canadian military were deployed to respond to significant flooding 8 . These environmental disaster response missions are in addition to armed forces increasing their “humanitarian” interventions since the 2000s 9 . Recent military deployments by nearly all NATO and EU states to help manage the Covid-19 health crisis 10 are also part of this dynamic. With interactions between humans and certain animal species facilitated by the extension of human activities and living spaces into areas which have traditionally been ecological niches for wild species, the emergence of new diseases with pandemic potential is considered to be one of the effects of these global environmental changes 11 . If the response to certain environmental disasters has traditionally been among the missions of armed forces, the increasing number of these environmental missions raises questions about these forces’ future role and missions as well as the strategic trade-offs they will make between the various demands made by political powers.

For example, an analysis of French military involvement in missions related to extreme environmental events shows that, although these missions have been a regular occurrence for the past 10 years, their scale has changed according to political priorities. Small-scale intervention (mobilizing fewer than 400 personnel) therefore has tended to receive fewer resources since 2015 and the launch of Operation Sentinelle, that was developed to counter the terrorist threat and which has around 10,000 personnel permanently mobilized (this number varies according to the periods considered).

The intersection of the ecology and military fields is therefore distinguished by the simultaneous influence of high-intensity logistical needs for accessing resources as well as a political need for intervention in responding to extreme events stemming from climate change. Will it be necessary in the medium-term to balance combat missions — which are currently the primary focus of armed forces — and an increase in missions supporting public authorities in the context of environmental disasters? Armed forces with international projection capabilities are already warning governments about the incompatibility of certain combinations of engagements. This article explores the conditions and consequences of this military involvement in the environmental field by proposing three levels of analysis. The first part examines the international dimension of this engagement and the way in which discourse and military approaches toward climate and environmental security are constructed in international arenas. The second part, focused on a national perspective, addresses the use of armed forces within the national territory in the French case and considers both its practical aspects and the political use made by governments. Finally, the article’s third part explores the perception that the population and the military personnel have of these environmental missions.

Discourse And Military Approaches Toward Climate And Environmental Security In International Arenas

If the war in Ukraine has affirmed the interest of armed forces in energy and climate challenges, it is important to remember that environmental and climate conditions are age-old elements of military strategy. Topography, access to vital resources, and even the role of meteorological circumstances in the way battles play out demonstrate the historical links between military actions and environment. Likewise, scientific and military research has been conducted on the use of nature as a weapon, thereby contributing to the development of a catastrophist discourse on the environment. Nevertheless, if military concern about the environment and climate is not new, we can see renewed interest starting with the end of the Cold War in a context that was marked by major organizational reforms of the defense sector and new ecological transition needs. Beginning in the 1980s, and increasing throughout the 1990s, military staff and central administrations gave more thought to environmental matters, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom. More recently, national military strategies for sustainable development, the development of environmental geostrategy, and attempts to anticipate climate risks attest to increasing awareness of the environment and climate by the defense community.

While the elimination of weapons of mass destruction produced during the Cold War has put the issue of the defense sector’s environmental footprint on the table, energy efficiency issues have also contributed to greater military investment in the environmental field. Besides the economic interests for reducing energy costs are added strategic challenges, as heavy losses when transporting and delivering fuel to theaters of operation are prompting military staff to find other resources, particularly through projects focusing on the use of solar energy and insulation 12 . We can therefore observe a progressive greening of armed forces as they attempt to reduce their ecological footprint for these economic and strategic reasons — but also to show their commitment to the fight against the ecological and climate crisis. Initial concerns about protecting the environment in the event of armed conflict have therefore transformed into economic, strategic, and symbolic challenges that armed forces can no longer escape.

At the international level, this military approach towards the environment competes with other ways of thinking about climate security. In keeping with Matt McDonald 13 , we can identify three discourses. The first, which we are outlining in this contribution, is based on a national understanding of security and focuses on the impacts of climate change on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. This discourse justifies unilateral and military solutions to the climate problem to the detriment of more global, negotiated solutions and gives priority to the protection of national populations to the detriment of global ecosystems. The second discourse views climate security as international and focuses on the effects of climate disruption on the international system as a whole. It justifies negotiated international solutions for increasing efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, with international organizations presented as the most legitimate institutions to coordinate these policies. The third discourse focuses on the notion of human security and the effects of climate change on the well-being of populations. It justifies implementing programs which involve a number of diverse actors (international organizations, states, civil society representatives, businesses) with the goal of reducing the climate vulnerability of certain regions.

If, for a time, the human security discourse may have dominated international environment and security policies (notably with the concept of environmental security in the 1990s), since the early 2020s we have seen the rise of a national/territorial approach to climate security in international relations. On 13 December 2021, the United Nations Security Council, which since 2007 has organized several debates, both open and closed, on climate and security, tried for the first time to pass a resolution on the need to put in place strategies to prevent conflicts resulting from climate change. Regional security organizations such as NATO or the European Union have also produced strategies whose aim is to anticipate the operational and strategic implications of climate change. In November 2020, the External Action Service of the European Union published its first “Climate Change and Defense” roadmap , which states that “missions and operations will increasingly have to operate in an environment affected or influenced by climate change”. In 2021, in its “Climate Change and Security Action Plan”, NATO asserts that “Climate change is one of the defining challenges of our times. It is a threat multiplier that impacts Allied security, both in the Euro-Atlantic area and in the Alliance’s broader neighbourhood.”

Environmental Missions Within National Territory: Practical Implementation, Policy Implementation

In France, military intervention within the national territory remains strictly regulated by law. Aside from a state of siege or a state of war, which are two extraordinary legal circumstances, the armed forces can only be used for law enforcement missions under very specific conditions, classified as a “state of necessity”, including in the context of the state of health emergency. This state of necessity occurs “when resources available to civil authorities are deemed non-existent, insufficient, unsuitable or unavailable” 14 . It is therefore systematically in support of civil resources that those of the military are made available to public authorities, who must also make the request. The decision to declare that the Ministry of the Interior’s resources are non-existent, insufficient, unsuitable, or unavailable results from a dialogue between civil authorities and the armed forces, in what the law describes as “civil-military cooperation”. In fact, the French armed forces are regularly called upon to provide both human and material resources to civil authorities, particularly in the event of natural disasters.

The French armed forces’ action is permanent within the national territory through Operation Héphaïstos (for fighting against forest fires), as well as regular in its assistance to populations affected by natural disasters (such as Cyclone Xynthia in 2010 and periodically for Cévenol episodes of heavy rainfall). Even if the amount of human and material resources has been decreasing — especially since 2015 due to the transfer of troops to Operation Sentinelle — the majority of these engagements remain multi-year. One is particularly interesting to analyze, specifically the handling of the crisis related to Hurricane Irma in the Antilles in 2017 on the island of Saint-Martin. According to one of the managing officers, the military response to this crisis was “structured as an external operation” 15 . Human and material military reinforcements were sent from mainland France, 7,000 soldiers were mobilized, and the armed forces were tasked with “ensuring the continuity of the state” in conditions that were unprecedented within the national territory for a climate event. This military contribution to the fight against extreme climate events is changing the way the armed forces views the environmental issue, if for no other reason than because it is beginning to affect operational capabilities. The American armed forces have even published an analysis of their bases’ exposure to environmental risks related to climate change (US Department of Defense 2019) 16 . This document also includes information on disaster support opportunities and associated military training. Since 2016, the French armed forces have carried out the same types of analysis as part of a “Climate Defense” observatory entrusted to the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

This evolution of military approaches to the environmental issue includes a health aspect 17 . Keeping in line with one part of the research field on global environmental change 18 , the armed forces are beginning to connect these two areas. The French military presence in Africa has further reinforced this connection, and the French Defence Health Service (SSA) is increasingly vigilant about the risk of epidemics among troops serving overseas, for which it is developing specific tools 19 . The SSA has played an active role in managing these epidemics on the ground, particularly in 2015 during the Ebola outbreak 20 . These missions expand the armed forces’ societal role in France. To the armed forces’ combat-specific capabilities — “overseas operations” and protecting the national territory against terrorism — must also be added protecting the population against other types of threats, including environmental threats, which generally takes the form of logistical assistance to civil services. In this context, military intervention within the national territory shows the presence of the state while rebuilding the symbolic and concrete conditions of normality following a disaster, as evidenced by Operation Irma. For its part, Operation Resilience, which was launched on 25 March 2020 to confront the Covid crisis, relied on the dual capital of, on the one hand, the armed forces’ regular interventions within the national territory as well as abroad during environmental disasters (Figure 2), and, on the other hand, its technical and medical expertise, which had already been proven, mainly outside the national territory, within a context of epidemiological crisis.

Military Missions With An Environmental Dimension: Perception Of Military Personnel, Perception Of Populations

In the medium-term, will it be necessary to choose between combat missions — which are currently the armed forces’ core activity — and an increase in missions to support public authorities in cases of environmental disaster? International armed forces are already warning governments about the incompatible nature of certain combinations of engagement. In the United States, the Military Advisory Board of the Center for Naval Analyses, which brings together senior officials from the American armed forces, anticipates an increase in military engagement within the national territory in response to extreme events stemming from climate change 21 . In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, contingents from the American armed forces were sent to New Orleans to support the National Guard. These senior American officials nevertheless caution U.S. decision-makers that although they believe that the use of the National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers could occur within national territory without jeopardizing U.S. operations and pre-positioning abroad, a significant mobilization of other Army forces would have consequences for U.S. projection capability.

The French armed forces are anticipating these issues and decisions. Certain situations already suggest this, such as the Irma operation, which was launched at the same time as a unit rotation of Barkhane and rose questions of equipment allocation 22 . In the words of one army colonel, “In 2017, if there had been no major exterior intervention (which was not the case, as France was engaged in Operation Barkhane in the Sahel), there would have been no capacity problem. Conversely, with many more external interventions during the same period, the contribution would have been even smaller” 23 . More recently, the substantial involvement of the Defense Health Service (SSA) in managing the Covid-19 crisis within the national territory to support the civilian health service, while also maintaining support to operational forces, has taken a particularly heavy toll on personnel against a backdrop of troop reductions implemented several years ago by military programming laws 24 . This over-investment of SSA personnel in the Covid crisis contributed to increased vigilance on leadership’s part concerning the state of its personnel, and in particular regarding health care workers’ perception of their responsibilities in managing the health crisis. Concerns over eroding “militarism” of personnel, reinforced by increasing difficulties in recruiting health care workers for the public hospital system, have highlighted the potential challenges posed by a growing reliance on the military within the national territory for environmental or health reasons, particularly in the event of parallel involvement in a high-intensity conflict. 

The increased presence of armed forces in public spaces since the beginning of Operation Sentinelle in 2015 was reinforced by Operation Résilience in 2020 and a revision towards high-intensity operational readiness. If this continuous mobilization of armed forces has largely contributed to putting the military at the center of the public debate, how does the French population perceive the evolution of military missions? Recent data indicates that, compared to other sovereign bodies, armed forces do not suffer from the lack of institutional trust that affects the French population’s relationship to traditional political mediation organizations and the workings of representative democracy, which has become more generalized over the last thirty years 25 . For instance, the annual political trust survey conducted by CEVIPOF shows that three quarters of the French population (75%) express trust in the military 26 . In parallel with this data, we can see that environmental concerns are becoming increasingly important among the youngest generations, as they foresee having to face crises in the coming decades 27 . If only 28% of those aged 65 or older are concerned by the consequences of climate change, that figure stands at 41% of 18–24-year-olds and 44% of 25–34-year-olds. Finally, those surveyed in this study consider environmental reasons as a legitimate reason for military intervention within the national territory. While 84% of the French population supports military intervention for security reasons, the figure is 71% for an environmental crisis, 67% for a health crisis, and only 50% for a social crisis 28 . With environmental disasters ranking second among legitimate reasons for intervention, they are therefore central to representations of armed forces that are equipped and mandated to assist and rescue populations.

Conclusion. From Responding To Environmental Crises To High-Intensity: Anticipating And Choosing Battles

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has turned a new page on the climate issue by bringing together two major trends for 21st century militaries: the return of high intensity armed conflicts and the integration of armed forces in climate security policies currently being developed on an international scale. These two trends raise questions of political and strategic choices.

Armed forces involvement in responding to climate crises, and the positive perception of populations, position them as important actors in the way societies adapt to climate change. At the same time, faced with disasters where the military is increasingly used as a last resort, and even as the allocated resources to this type of mission have been reduced 29 , government responses must anticipate prioritizing missions in the event of a high-intensity engagement. This anticipation has effects on the operational preparedness of forces in terms of training, acquisition and use of equipment, and pre-positioning.

Meanwhile, the threefold imperative to reduce the military’s ecological footprint, contribute to environmental crisis management to support civilian authorities, and maintain operational effectiveness against an enemy that may be “on the same level” requires political choices within a very short timeframe that will have long-term effects on a strategic environment that is difficult to anticipate. In fact, weapons programs, which determine the equipment that will be available to armed forces, have a time lag of about 40 years. Recruitment policies, for their part, have a time lag of about fifteen years for certain specialties (e.g., the Defense Health Service). This intersection between the military and ecological spheres makes it particularly difficult to make decisions, since this requires making trade-offs in a highly uncertain context.


  1. Law No. 2018-607 of July 13, 2018 on military programming for the years 2019 to 2025.
  2. Hearing with General Lecointre before the deputies of the Foreign Affairs Commission, January 19, 2020.
  3. This trend can be explained by the race for operational superiority of equipment, and particularly by the increasing use of digital equipment that needs to be supplied, and in some cases the reinforcement of armor. The French military estimates that the new SCORPION armament program will increase military equipment energy consumption by 30%.
  4. Russia’s energy exports to the European Union represent about 8.5% of its GDP.
  5. The notion of global change refers to all the effects of human activities on the environment on a global scale, beyond the simple question of climate (they include, for example, the question of biodiversity).
  6. Albeck-Ripka, L., I. Kwai, T. Fuller & J. Tarabay (2020), ‘It’s an Atomic Bomb’ : Australia Deploys Military as Fires Spread. New York Times.
  7. Nechepurenko, I. (2019), Russia Sends Military Planes to Fight Wildfires in Siberia. New York Times.
  8. CBC News (2019), 2,000 Military Personnel Supporting Volunteers in Ontario, Quebec, N.B. flood zones. The Canadian Press.
  9. Michael VanRooyen, Vincenzo Bollettino, Birthe Anders, The Military in Humanitarian Relief: Towards a New Normal?, Seminar, September 2018, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard University; Roland Marchal, “La militarisation de l’humanitaire : l’exemple somalien”, Cultures & Conflits [Online], 11, Fall 1993.
  10. Florian Opillard, Angélique Palle, and Léa Michelis, “Discourse and Strategic Use of the Military in France and Europe in the COVID-19 Crisis”, Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 111, no 3 (2020): 239-59.
  11. Fabrice Courtin, Philippe Msellati, and Pascal Handschumacher, ” La dynamique spatio-temporelle du virus Ebola dans l’espace CEDEAO: Les leçons géographiques d’une catastrophe épidémiologique,” Dynamiques environnementales, no. 36 (July 1, 2015): 28-57; Frédéric Keck, “Une sentinelle sanitaire aux frontières du vivant*: Les experts de la grippe aviaire à Hong Kong,” Terrain, no. 54 (March 15, 2010): 26-41,; Daniela Curseu et al, “Potential Impact of Climate Change on Pandemic Influenza Risk,” in Global Warming: Engineering Solutions, ed. by Ibrahim Dincer et al, Green Energy and Technology (Boston, MA: Springer US, 2010), 643-57.
  12. As an example, the U.S. Army lost 3,246 military personnel in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 in logistical operations consisting mostly of supplying oil (Robert Bateman, Green Machine, Earth Island Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Autumn 2013), pp. 23-26).
  13. Matt McDonald, Ecological Security: Climate Change and the Construction of Security, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
  14. Secretary General of Defense and National Security, Interministerial Inquiry on the Engagement of the Armed Forces on National Territory when Responding to Requisition from Civil Authority, No. 10100/SGDSN/PSE/PSN/NP, November 14, 2017.
  15. Interview with Lieutenant Colonel, Army, 2019.
  16. US Department of Defense, Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense, Janvier 2019.
  17. Courtin, F., P. Msellati, & P. Handschumacher (2015) “La dynamique spatio-temporelle du virus Ebola dans l’espace ECOEAO”. Dynamiques environnementales, pp. 28-57. http://dx.doi. org/10.4000/dynenviron.946.
  18. Keck, F. (2010), “Une Sentinelle Sanitaire aux Frontières du Vivant* “. Terrain 54, 1 January 2014. Available at https://doi.org/10.4000/terra in.13928. Accessed April 7, 2020.
  19. Meynard, J.-B. (2008), “Surveillance Epidémiologique en Temps Réel dans les Armées: Concepts, Réalités et Perspectives en France”. Revue d’Épidémiologie et de Santé Publique 56, pp. 11-20.
  20. Denux, V., et al. (2016), “Le Service de Santé des Armées: Des Savoir-faire Militaires au Service de la Gestion des Crises Sanitaires. Médecine 12, pp. 44-45.
  21. CNA Military Advisory Board, “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of climate change”, CNA military advisory board, May 2014.
  22. Interview, senior officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff, February 2020. Interview, senior officer, EMSOME, February 2019.
  23. Interview, Colonel, Army, 2021.
  24. Follow-up on the action of the Armed Forces Health Service during the health crisis Information Report No. 501 (2019-2020) by Mr. Jean-Marie BOCKELand Ms. Christine PRUNAUD, on behalf of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Armed Forces, filed on June 10, 2020; Interviews, SSA, February to June 2021. This reduction in personnel was halted by the last military programming law, but its effects will be visible for several years.
  25. The ANR ARMY project analyzes the military’s role in responding to the covid-19 crisis and the public’s reaction to it from a comparative perspective (France, Italy, United States, Germany, Switzerland). It conducted a qualitative survey with a panel of 3,000 people who were representative of the French population, which aimed to examine the perception of military intervention by the French during the covid crisis.
  26. CEVIPOF Baromètre de Confiance Politique, vague 13, December 2021 – January 2022.
  27. Muxel Anne, Opillard Florian and Palle Angélique, “L’armée, les Français et la crise sanitaire. Une enquête inédite”, IRSEM study, June 2022, p. 19.
  28. Ibid., p. 47.
  29. Information report No. 501 (2019-2020) by Mr. Jean-Marie BOCKEL and Ms. Christine PRUNAUD, on behalf of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed Forces, filed on June 10, 2020; Information report No. 702 (2014/2015) on behalf of the Finance Committee on civil security resources, the example of the civil security training and intervention unit No. 7 (UIISC7).