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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Defence Minister Peter McKay and Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk approach the submarine HMCS Cornerbrook on Aug. 19, 2009. (ANDY CLARK/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Defence Minister Peter McKay and Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk approach the submarine HMCS Cornerbrook on Aug. 19, 2009. (ANDY CLARK/Reuters)

Military girds for climate-change battles Add to ...

A navy planner says the Canadian Forces must be ready to be called to the front lines in the battle against the effects of climate change.

A recently published article by Lieutenant-Commander Ray Snook of the Defence Department's directorate of maritime strategy says the military may have to step in if conflicts flare over dwindling supplies of food and water.

"There will be a clear need for peace support operations too, and being called upon to intervene overseas and to help prevent or to resolve conflicts may occur more frequently," he wrote in the summer issue of the Canadian Naval Review.

"Canada has a proud history of responding to these demands and in guaranteeing the physical security required to stabilize and reconstruct."

Some people - including U.S. President Barack Obama - have warned climate change could lead to violence if essential supplies run low. They see access to fresh water as one likely trigger.

Countries struck by natural disasters or extreme weather events may also seek military help, Lt.-Cmdr. Snook says, just as Haiti did after a powerful earthquake in January.

"Several reputable think-tanks and senior military officials have drawn the conclusion that increasingly Western armed forces will be called upon to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief missions," he wrote.

"As the only government organization with the ability to undertake such missions on a significant scale, the public will expect nothing less."

But he warns more than one call for help at a time could strain military resources.

Meanwhile, Lt.-Cmdr. Snook considers Britain's military and the U.S. Navy to be the top thinkers when it comes to the ways in which climate change will affect national security. Canada's Defence Department is trying to catch up to its American and British counterparts, he says.

"Within DND, although the discussion, debate and action are embryonic, there is growing recognition that the threat is real and more needs to be done," he wrote.

"Climate change has the potential to be a global threat of unparalleled magnitude and requires early, aggressive action in order to overcome its effects."

The department declined further comment on Lt.-Cmdr. Snook's article.

Douglas Bland, a retired lieutenant-colonel who chairs defence management studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says the military has been doing climate-related work on a smaller scale for some time.

Troops helped during the Red River floods in Manitoba in 1997 and when a major ice storm hit parts of eastern Ontario and Quebec in 1998. They once memorably traded their weapons for shovels to help dig out parts of snowed-in Toronto.

Mr. Bland says the military is probably more concerned about protecting the northern borders as melting sea ice opens up Arctic waterways than it is about deploying to other areas hard hit by climate change.

"In many respects, our national sea boundaries are changing before our eyes," he said.

"And that calls up needs for the armed forces to be re-oriented and re-built in some ways, and expanded perhaps to take over the fact that they now have to guard and protect larger pieces of property.

"And people are working on those areas. Whether they're very interested on the effects of global warming on wheat farming in Saskatchewan, I don't think so."

Besides being asked to deploy more often, Lt.-Cmdr. Snook's article touches on other areas in which climate change might affect the military - including some potential opportunities for improvement.

Going green could keep troops in hot spots out of harm's way. Using less energy could make it safer for troops in places like Afghanistan, Lt.-Cmdr. Snook says. Convoys that haul fuel to soldiers in the field are big targets for insurgents, so fewer trips could cut the risk.

The article reveals the military is looking at how well its bases can hold up to changes in the climate.

A rise in the sea level would swamp most of Halifax's waterfront, and Lt.-Cmdr. Snook says the flooding would probably affect the naval facilities north of the city's downtown core.

The officer also lays out how the military can help reduce greenhouse gases.

The Defence Department owns more buildings than any other government department. He says those buildings use a lot of energy and the department should determine if they can be made more efficient.

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