Climate change is also a matter of national and international security: An interview with Tom Middendorp

By: JASON Magazine

The concept of climate security dates from the late 1980’s. It has put a focus on the growing security threats that are – either directly or indirectly – a result of climate change. There are numerous examples: rising sea that put economic regions at risk, droughts that lead to large migration flows, natural disasters that grow in their intensity and destruction. Over the years, many actors have tried to understand these challenges and come up with solutions to mitigate the destabilizing effects.

Military and national security communities are increasingly aware of climate security. This has, among similar initiatives, led to the formation of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS). Tom Middendorp, retired Chief of Defence (Commandant der Strijdkrachten) of the Netherlands is the chair of the IMCCS. He talked with JASON Magazine about his responsibilities within the IMCCS, the current strategies to make military missions more environment-friendly and his ambitions to work together with younger generations.

Mr. Middendorp, thanks for doing this interview. You have had a long career at the Ministry of Defence. During that time, at what moments did you personally experience the effects of climate change in your work?

‘In hindsight, I witnessed the impact of changing climate on our missions over and over again, without being aware of it at that moment. Only three years ago, I started to connect the dots and recognised the risk multiplying effect of climate change. Take for instance my deployment as a task force commander in the Uruzgan province, Afghanistan in 2009. Water scarcity caused many frictions between local farmers which the Taliban used to gain control over the local population. Once we realised that and helped to negotiate a solution, the tensions dropped and we could offer them an alternative to the Taliban rule. 

The same happened in Somalia in 2010. Piracy was a big security challenge, especially in the Gulf of Aden in the northern part of Somalia. At that time I was head of operations for the Ministry of Defence and our Navy participated in both EU and NATO counter-piracy operations. We caught many pirates, but I realised that we were fighting the symptoms of a deeper problem. These pirates were local farmers and fishermen who were driven into the hands of organised crime and extremism because the droughts and overfishing had depleted their traditional sources of income. Piracy was their only way out to sustain their family.’ 

These examples highlight the interplay of climate change and security issues, specifically water scarcity. Are there other categories that you look at when it comes to climate security?

‘Climate change is not only about rising temperatures, it is also about changing weather patterns that are becoming more extreme. In many regions we witness longer periods of droughts combined with short periods of heavy rainfall and floods. To use some pressing statistics, two-thirds of the human population live in cities, and two-thirds of those cities are located along rivers and coast lines. Just imagine the potential impact of rising sea levels and these changing weather patterns. Especially in delta countries like Bangladesh, these changes can lead to regional instability and large migration flows. 

Changing weather patterns also result in an increasing number of natural disasters. Every year we witness new records on wild fires, hurricanes, floods and high temperatures. As a result, we can expect an increasing call for military support to deal with disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, since the military is best equipped to assist local enforcements and humanitarian assistance agencies on such a short notice. 

There are also geopolitical consequences of climate change to consider. The melting of the Arctic region opens up a new geopolitical arena, offering access to natural resources and new trade routes. Many countries claim access to those resources and large economic and military interests are at stake, potentially leading to friction and tensions at the Northern border of the NATO Alliance.’ 

You have been among the first military professionals to highlight the relationship between climate change and security. What explains the hesitation from militaries to deal with the topic of climate security?

‘Climate change is not just a security issue and many in the military therefore regard it as an issue for other organisations and departments. Defence organisations tend to focus on hard, clearly defined security threats and less on the soft indirect root causes. Over the last fifteen to twenty years, the military had to deal with a widening range of threats, from counter-insurgency to hybrid threats and fighting extremism. In those missions we learned that we need to be part of a more comprehensive answer to achieve sustainable peace, and address root causes of conflict. For Dutch military operations, this resulted in the so-called 3D-approach, combining the strengths of Defence, Diplomacy and Development agencies. 

So the times are changing and military organisations increasingly realise that they can’t deal with these threats alone. They need to be part of a wider, more comprehensive, answer. Increasingly, they also recognise the security impact of our changing climate. To me, climate change is the biggest game changer of this century and I am very concerned about its impact on our societies and our security. I share this concern with a rapidly growing group of senior security experts from all over the world. We have joined forces in the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) which I chair. Our goal is to create awareness in the security sector about the fact that climate change is also a matter of international security and that the military should be a partner in dealing with it.’ 

In your view, what role should the military play when it comes to climate security?

‘To answer that question, it is important to first focus on where our security interests are. Many of these are located in the so-called ring of instability around Europe, in particular the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region. The countries and regions where our security interests are located, are at the same time the countries that are hit hardest by the effects of climate change, which potentially leads to further destabilisation and conflicts. Whether we like it or not, climate change is also a matter of national security. 

The military needs to take this more seriously, starting with a better assessment of the security effects of climate change; this improves our early warning system. Military professionals will also need to adapt their forces and capabilities on areas like energy transition, protection of critical infrastructure and extreme climate trainings. On conflict prevention, the military could help improve climate resilience of security institutions in fragile countries.

Given these challenges, there is a clear need for political action. Which actions require the highest priority from your perspective?

‘Since we have established the IMCCS, concerned military professionals from over forty countries have joined. Awareness, mapping the risks of climate security for all the regions around the world, is essential at this stage of our work. We hope to elaborate on this knowledge by publishing a climate security index that we will be updating over time. 

But that is not enough. The security community not only needs to recognise the game changing impact of climate change, they also need to evaluate their own role. We need to adapt and “climate-proof” our strategies, policies and capabilities. We have an unprecedented foresight of future risks and crises and we all know what the price can be if we don’t take that seriously. The COVID-crisis confronts us with our global vulnerability and shows us that we can’t let time slip through our fingers. We have a responsibility to adapt and be prepared.’ 

You have made clear that the military plays an important role in this green transition. However, it is also true that the military is a polluter itself as well. For instance, research shows that the US military is one of the largest climate polluters in history, emitting more CO2 than most countries. [1] How do you explain this discrepancy?

‘I think it is fair to say that the military is one of the major consumers of fossil fuel in any country and that our presence in mission areas creates a negative ecological footprint for the local communities. We extract much water from the ground and we need large fuel convoys to sustain our forces, often resulting in more water scarcity and increasing fuel prices for the local population.

To me, the energy transition provides an enormous opportunity for the military. New green technologies not only help to reduce CO2-emissions, they also enable us to reduce our logistical footprint and become more self-sustaining. By generating our own energy- and water supply, by 3D-printing our own spare parts, using enhanced connectivity to provide remote diagnostics and support, the military can drastically reduce the current logistical burden. Which not only makes our operations significantly cheaper, but also makes them more effective because it would free up forces that are currently employed to protect our logistical life-lines. These new operational advantages can only be achieved by embracing new innovations.’

What are other changes that Defence departments need to make in order to stay ahead?

‘Climate change presents us with new challenges on multiple levels. First of all, the military and intelligence services have an important task to warn of potential security risks in advance. If we accept that climate change will be an important root cause for conflict, it logically follows that intelligence services take this into account for their reports. 

Secondly, we need to improve our resilience. Our critical infrastructure needs to be protected against potential floods, our training areas are vulnerable to wildfires, and our soldiers need to be able to operate in all climate conditions. 

Thirdly we can help build resilience in fragile countries as a means of conflict prevention. The more these fragile countries, and its security institutions, are capable of dealing with the effects of climate change, the smaller the chances of these climate effects turning into friction and conflict.  

And finally there is the element of strategic adaptation. I already mentioned the opening of a new geopolitical arena in the arctic area, but there are more geopolitical effects to consider. For instance the impact of the energy transition. It is a crucial element in safeguarding our energy security and reducing emissions, but we shouldn’t ignore the effect it will have on oil and gas producing countries and regions that lose parts of their geopolitical advantages.’

Internationally, we see an increasing number of countries that are casting doubt on the relevancy and accuracy of climate change. Does this increasing doubt make it harder to raise awareness of climate change and climate security?

‘I do not agree with the framing of ‘increasing doubt’, I actually think it is declining. Scientific evidence is piling up and only becoming more alarming. And also in the field of defence, the EU and NATO are seriously considering policies to incorporate more sustainable thinking. What we do see is that the subject of climate change is quite politicised. It has long been seen as a ‘Green Party’ issue, far away from the security sector which has more support on the other side of the political spectrum. This is not helpful. Both security and climate change are whole-of-society issues that concern us all.  We therefore should depoliticise and depolarise these topics and the professional voice of the military can be helpful in achieving this. As security professionals, we can help bridge that gap by addressing the climate-security nexus and making sure everyone is involved.’

Young people have been at the forefront of raising awareness about climate change. How can they help with regards to the issue of climate security ?

‘I hope they will play an important role. It is about their future and their voice matters. In my capacity as the chairman of the IMCCS, I get invited to many occasions where our younger generation discusses the impact of climate change on their future. Recently, NATO organised the NATO Youth Summit and next month there will be a Youth for Climate Adaptation Summit. I think the youth feels the urgency of this theme, and I would encourage our young military professionals to pick this up from their security perspective. 

At the same time  we need to realise that it is the older generation who is responsible for making the right choices. We should not make it the problem of the next generation, it is our problem and we need adapt and prepare now. I do not want to look back in a few years and realise that this is the legacy I left behind to my children without doing anything about it myself.’

Personally, when is your mission accomplished?

‘My mission is accomplished when we also recognise climate change as a matter of national security and when the security sector takes its responsibility to adapt, prevent and be prepared for this new – possible existential – threat.’ 

[1] Lancaster University (June 20, 2019). More information can be found on:,U.S.%20military%20consumes%20more%20hydrocarbons%20than%20most,massive%20hidden%20impact%20on%20climate&text=Summary%3A,dioxide%20equivalent)%20than%20most%20countries.

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