“Storm” Troopers: a call to arms against the effects of climate change
By Steve Macbeth, Visiting Defence Fellow at the CIDP
In Strong Secure Engaged (SSE), Canada’s National Defence Policy, climate change is recognized as a driver of international conflict and instability but the document falls short of declaring it a direct threat to national security. Elizabeth May, leader of the national Green Party, has recently been critiqued for utilizing “war” as a metaphor for the struggle with climate change and yet this idea of climate as the “ enemy” is becoming more common. Recently, Canada’s head of Joint Operations, LGen Michael Rouleau, described Hurricane Dorian as a “shared adversary of the population of Nova Scotia and the CAF.” Considering the threat to the person and property of Canadian citizens, and the sacrifices that may be required to meet the challenges of climate change, perhaps Mrs. May is not far off with her metaphor. This emergent reality will require a deliberate whole of government action plan that resources both prevention and protection for the Canadian population. Presently, this election has seen all of the major parties declare positions to the prevention portion of the climate equation, but none have discussed specifically resourcing those elements that are mandated, ready and capable to protect Canadians when disaster strikes. Climate change may be the biggest existential threat that Canadians presently face.
With increased emphasis on resourcing response to climate events, the Canadian Armed Forces will soon need to make some hard choices on commitments to traditional readiness and the ability to support domestic climate scenarios. The spring of 2019 saw more Canadian troops deployed domestically to combat natural disasters than deployed around the world. Floods across Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick saw 2,500 soldiers integrated with provincial emergency response, and within the last month another 700 soldiers were deployed to Halifax to assist in the recovery from Hurricane Dorian. Between 2010 and 2019, 25 deployments in support of Op LENTUS, the code name given to CAF support to domestic natural disasters, have occurred. These deployments come at a cost of personnel ready to be dedicated to international commitments, meeting Canada’s military engagement goals, or personnel recovering from a deployment.
Harjat Sajjan, the Minister of National Defence, commenting on flood relief in New Brunswick stated: “With the impact of climate change, if we see that it’s even getting worse, we’ll have do a re-evaluation of the numbers [of Soldiers] that we have. It [the challenge] is real.” Canada is in the midst of expanding its regular force to 71,000 full time personnel, but these positions are for specific skill sets adapted to emerging warfare domains like cyber and space that did not previously exist. Soldiers in Infantry Battalions and Engineering Regiments, those that are regularly called upon to fill sandbags and fight fires, are not part of the regular force expansion plan and in fact may be targeted for reduction as the Canadian Military adjust their requirements for 21st century warfare. Adding to this pressure is the very real danger of fatiguing the regular force members that are counted upon to train full-time, deploy to conflict zones, and are also the first-responders to domestic crises. These troops often remain in place from the first notification to the last sandbag recovered, and continual unexpected deployments put a strain on families and CAF members. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Johnathan Vance, relayed his concern when he commented on climate shift and the pressure on the force : “If you think of the average year in the life of a soldier, they might be away six months doing an operation outside of Canada, come home, during that reconstitution period — the period of time that they’re with their family, and sort of getting back into swing of things back home — they could be called out again in their thousands to be dealing with the effects of climate change.”
The scope and scale of the issue should drive decision makers to action. The Fort McMurry fires, the New Brunswick ice storm, the floods witnessed in both western and eastern Canada, and the increased regularity of extreme storm fronts are the new and consistent reality. Risk to life and property is increasing, and Canada should provide robust policy, prepare and equip its armed forces for the no-fail task of protecting Canadians at home against climate events while maintaining the capacity to meet its international commitments. It may not be the “war” that defence planners anticipated, but it is the war we will have to win. Let’s hope Canadian leaders do not mobilize too late.