HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA - Journalist and political scientist Thomas Ricks, paraphrasing the poet Allen Ginsberg, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine 11 years ago, "I see the best minds of my generation studying counterinsurgency."
Another analyst assessing the growing awareness of the threat of climate change today might be inclined to write, "I see the best minds of my generation studying natural disaster response."
Military and political leaders from around the world gathered November 19-21 for an annual meeting in eastern Canada known as the Halifax International Security Forum. As it was a year ago, China was high on the minds of the participants, but a new topic also captured much of the attention - climate change and how to deal with the increasingly severe natural disasters that accompany it.
The issue was more than theoretical. As the national security chiefs and theorists met on the Atlantic seaboard, military units were being deployed on Canada's Pacific coast to cope with record-breaking rainfall and flooding that drove thousands from their homes and isolated the region's largest city, Vancouver.
Flooding from hurricane
The flooding offered a stark reminder for those who attended the last in-person Halifax forum in 2019, when Canadian troops were still helping clean up from a hurricane that brought lasting damage to Halifax, including the collapse of a construction crane that lodged against a high rise and took months to remove.
Canada's new defense minister, Anita Anand, delivered the opening lecture at this year's forum, which included a panel dedicated to natural disasters, "Fires and Landslides and Droughts, Oh My!" In her remarks, Anand recited a list of recent events in which Canadian forces had been deployed to cope with natural disasters and the coronavirus pandemic.
Onno Eichelsheim, the Dutch defense chief and a general in the Netherlands Armed Forces, spoke passionately as member of the natural disasters panel about the ways in which climate change threatens the Netherlands, a country highly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
A U.S. Senate delegation consisting of Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., James Risch, R-Idaho, Tim Kaine, D-Va., Chris Coons, D-Del., Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks at the Halifax International Security Forum. (Jay Heisler/VOA)
"Natural disaster response is already here," Eichelsheim told VOA afterward. "It's something our military are used to doing, if you look at our Caribbean element of our kingdom." The Netherlands embraces three Caribbean islands - Aruba, Curacao, and Saint Maarten.
"Our military is ready" for natural disaster deployments, Eichelsheim added. "We equip them, we train them. ... Probably, we will start doing this more and more and more. The question is, do we have the capacity to do this?"
U.S. Senator Jim Risch, a former commander of the Idaho National Guard, said in an interview that the ability and willingness to use the military to respond to natural disasters varies from country to country.
"Every government is different. Their agencies are different. Some may be very used to doing responses to emergencies and some may not," he said. "Our U.S. system, our federal military is not as engaged in that as defending the country, whereas the national guards are."
Space Force role
Nevertheless, the newest branch of the U.S. military, the Space Force, or USSF, sees a role for itself in monitoring for and responding to natural disasters, which are growing in frequency and severity as the world's climate warms.
"The USSF collaborates globally with partners to develop technology, share data, and provide warning of potential disaster," said a statement provided by a Space Force spokesperson in response to questions from VOA. "We are especially focused on developing an architecture for Space Based Environmental Monitoring to support the Department of the Air Force's strategy for the Arctic region."
Defense One technology editor Patrick Tucker said in an interview that world leaders are coming to appreciate that climate change will be a large part of their future security calculations, alongside such issues as new technologies, supply chain management and the rise of China.
"I do think it's good that people are beginning to understand that climate change is going to be a factor in virtually every national security discussion," Tucker said.