Climate change poses existential challenges to our societies. Public authorities are on the front line of meeting people’s needs for protection. However, the superimposition of climatic hazards is forcing national and European decision-makers to rethink their approaches to civil security and defence with an emphasis on local and international solidarity. This is a necessary change if we are to respond to the crises of today and tomorrow.
By Geoffrey Comte
Although France has a great diversity of landscapes and climates, its regions are not all equally vulnerable to climate change. This natural richness brings with it a wide range of hazards from mainland France to the French overseas territories, requiring the implementation of both national and local adaptation policies. In February, the Australian company XDI, a leader in climate risk analysis, published a global ranking of the regions whose buildings and infrastructures are most exposed to extreme events. It revealed that eight French regions were among the most vulnerable 10%, including Hauts-de-France, Occitanie, and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.1 France has just experienced one of the most intense summers in its history, with heat peaks of over 40 degrees. In 2022, 72,000 hectares of forest were burned. The South of the country turned into an inferno. These same fires are now gradually climbing northwards. By 2050, half of the forests and moors in mainland France will be exposed to a high level of fire hazards.2 Marine submersion and erosion jointly threaten the coasts from Dunkirk to Le Havre. French Guiana, Réunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique are overexposed to cyclones and fires. According to IPCC projections, temperatures in France are set to rise by an average between +0.6 °C and +1.3 °C by 2025, compared with the reference period between 1976 and 2005.3 This increase suggests that there will be considerable pressure on the capacity of civil protection services, whose response conditions have already been disrupted by the pandemic and recent climatic events.
The state and local authorities are on the front lines of emergency management, adaptation, and the reduction of the effects of climate disruption. Their actions respond to the imperatives of risk anticipation through modelling and prospecting; prevention in order to limit the vulnerability of people, infrastructures, and ecosystems; and crisis management by orchestrating intervention methods and rescue systems. The national ecosystem of players is particularly dense, ranging from mayors to bodies specialising in climate challenges, such as ADEME and Météo-France. Local authorities coordinate their actions through planning instruments such as the Schémas de Cohérence Territoriale (SCOT) at the multi-communal level and the Schémas Régionaux d’Aménagement et de Développement Durable du Territoire (SRADDET) at the regional level.
In France, civil protection personnel were at the strength of 252,700 in 2021, including 41,800 professional firefighters, 197,800 volunteers, and 13,200 military personnel. However, the simultaneity of crises has revealed that both equipment and manpower are inadequate. In June 2023, the Ministry of Interior published a report on adapting civil protection to the challenges of climate change by 2050. To combat fire, the ministry wants to decompartmentalise skills by creating a general interministerial strategy guide, as well as boosting the number of volunteers during the summer months. The worsening fire hazard prompted the government to increase both equipment and the number of personnel in 2023, with an 11% increase from the previous year. As far as flooding is concerned, the plan provides for the creation of a database to be shared by all crisis management stakeholders. The Ministry of the Interior plans to « join a solidarity network (at European level) for heavy CBRN operational resources in order to pool costs. »4 It is also calling for the creation of a « Civil Security ‘Innovation Lab’ that will initiate research and development into innovations and new technologies (e.g. development of exoskeletons, links with connected cities, etc.) », as well as for recourse to the private sector to work on “on a tool to acculturate the population to risks, and to anticipate them using new technologies.. »5
In battle order
Climate disruption and the return of high-intensity conflicts mark a point of no return for army corps, which have become essential links in the emergency response chain. In 2019, the massive mobilisation of 3,000 reservists to extinguish the fires in Australia represented an unprecedented event since World War II. Since 1984, the Ministry of the Armed Forces (MINARM) and the Ministry of the Interior have been jointly leading the fight against fire through Operation Hephaestus. This summer operation mobilised 160 soldiers, three helicopters, and 50 vehicles to fight forest fires in the South of France. Since the summer of 2023, the operation has covered the whole of mainland France.
At the same time, the theatres of external intervention are changing.6 In the Caribbean, the climate vulnerability of overseas populations and the social tensions surrounding the preservation of Amazonia are both sources of turbulence for the Armed Forces in French Guiana (FAG) and the West Indies (FAA). In West and Central Africa, climatic hazards such as desertification in the Sahel and rising sea levels in coastal towns are exacerbating insecurity; this is occurring at a time when French military presence is being fiercely contested in these regions. In East Africa, the shadow of water conflicts between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia hangs over the French base in Djibouti. The effects of the war in Ukraine have also exacerbated Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, weaving a de facto link between climate, security, and energy at the heart of French military doctrines and strategies.
In March 2022, the adoption of the strategic compass by the EU Council prompted MINARM to propose the Climate & Defence strategy the following month. This is a strong commitment to green defence in the face of the challenges of climate security. Moreover, innovation remains a key point with the support of DGA and AID.7 By 2025, the hybridisation of armoured vehicles, based on the Griffon model, should be in place before being extended to all armoured vehicles. The Rapid Hydrone electronic drone showed that hydrogen fuel cells could outperform conventional batteries, thereby reducing energy consumption. MINARM has also turned its attention to nature-based solutions, such as the Kivi Kuaka project, which studies the behaviour of migratory birds in the face of natural disasters. An innovative warning system has been developed to better anticipate climate crises in the Pacific.
A tense political sequence
The Borne government is currently drawing up the new French Energy and Climate Strategy (SFEC), which should ensure carbon neutrality by 2050, updating the national direction for mitigating and adapting to climate disruption. The end of 2023 and the following year should see the third version of the national low-carbon strategy (SNBC), the third update of the multiannual energy programme (PPE), the national climate change adaptation plan (PNACC), and the five-year energy–climate programming law (LPEC) (which has been postponed many times).8 In October 2023, the 2024 Finance Bill sent a positive signal – of the better sizing of national capacities in the face of climate change. The budget for civil protection equipment is increasing, and so are the portfolios of investments geared towards the challenges of adaptation. A new budget of €500 million is earmarked for « reforestation and downstream forestry. »9 As a result of the previous budget bill, the Green Fund grants subsidies to local authorities for more environmentally friendly investments. It now has a total of €2.5 billion in commitment appropriations and €1.1 billion in payment appropriations.
However, political reality is gaining on government ambitions. The start of the new parliamentary term has been severely disrupted by debates on immigration, full employment, and digital technologies, all of which have inflamed partisan tensions. Legislation and plans to tackle climate change, therefore, seem to have taken a back seat due to their divisive and often non-binding nature.10 The LPEC was due to come into being last July and be debated and adopted in the autumn – a scenario that has become unlikely.
The European level appears to be the key link in the future of civil protection, particularly in the event of a breakdown in capacity. Recent disasters in North Africa, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine have highlighted the importance of the European Civil Protection Mechanism (ECPM), which has been used more than 200 times since its launch in October 2001. In the summer of 2022, the rescEU protocol enabled 12 canadairs to be deployed to extinguish the blaze in the south of France. By 2029, the European Commission wants to double these airborne capabilities while also aiming to share knowledge via its Copernicus emergency satellite mapping service. Europe also sees itself as a cradle of security innovation. Its Horizon 2020 programme funded the Improving Resilience to Emergencies through Advanced Cyber Technologies (I-REACT) project to the tune of around €5,940,000. This is an operational solution for integrating and modelling information from European services and elsewhere to facilitate decision-making in emergency situations.
The EU could become the standard bearer for new forms of governance in the field of civil security as we approach the 2024 edition of the European Humanitarian Forum, which is starting in March. This is a godsend for strengthening solidarity among countries affected by crises; donors; international partners; EU institutions; and member states.
1 Le Gentil Aude, « Changement climatique, la particularité française », La Tribune, 8 Oct. 2023
2 Fédération nationale des sapeurs-pompiers, Dérèglement climatique : la France en proie aux flammes. Un modèle de sécurité civile résilient mais à renforcer, 2022.
3 Direction générale de la sécurité civile et de la gestion de crises, Adaptation de la Sécurité civile face aux défis climatiques à l’horizon 2050, Paris, Ministère de l’Intérieur et des Outre-mer, mars 2023.
6 Marine de Guglielmo Weber, Yente Thienpont et Julia Tasse, Note de réflexion prospective et stratégique, changements climatiques et foyers de conflits dans le monde, Paris, Observatoire Défense et Climat, IRIS & Direction générale des relations internationales et de la stratégie, mai 2023.
7 Ministères des Armées, Stratégie Climat et défense, Paris, avril 2022.
8 Robert Colas, Ecological planning: the expected announcements on the French Energy and Climate Strategy (SFEC), https://www.citepa.org/fr/2023_09_a08/ , 24 September 2023.
9 Poree Sacha, Adaptation: le projet loi de finances 2024 concrétise des avancées mais reste loin du compte, https://www.i4ce.org/adaptation-plf-2024-concretise-des-avancees-mais-reste-loin-du-compte-climat/ , 5 October 2023.
10 Goar Matthieu and Mouterde Pierre, « Il n’y a plus de bande passante »: l’avenir incertain de la loi de programmation sur l’énergie et le climat », Le Monde.fr, 13 Sept. 2023