Download the full How to Transform Defence for Sustainable Human Safety 10 Talking Points for a Difficult Conversation‘ booklet [PDF]

Download the Summary for 10 Talking Points [PDF]


The Transform Defence project wants to see sustainable human safety put at the heart of fit-for-purpose 21st century foreign, defence, security and international development policy-making.

It argues that we must question the limits of 20th-century national self-interest if we are to fully address the single greatest threat to our collective survival – runaway climate change.

But as we are warned of ‘Code Red for Humanity’ with the 6th mass extinction underway, the most socially and economically damaging threat to our collective global safety – climate change – is but a poor relation when set alongside other ‘conventional’ threats.  

Military spend to public climate spend is 6:1

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2020, globally, public climate finance was $321bn (CPI) while military spending was $1981bn (SIPRI).

That is a 6:1 ratio of military spending to public climate finance.

The foreign and defence policies of nations around the world are preoccupied with a plethora of adversarial threats on land, air, sea and space; nuclear weapons; hypersonic missiles; cyber warfare; AI and killer robots. National budget allocations reflect this, from battlefield to nuclear wasteland; from outer space to cyberspace.

As we write this, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still underway. The combined military spending of the ever-expanding NATO bloc of 30 nations was not enough to deter Putin (indeed, he says this was a reason for the invasion); nuclear weapons use is seemingly back on the agenda; military budgets will now increase; and ever more as depleted stocks on all sides (Russia, Ukraine, NATO) will get replenished.

And we have yet to know the emissions burden of this conflict.

It is insane.

The bulk of military spending is by G20 nations. They account for 87% of annual $2 trillion global military spending. Russia vs NATO, the West vs China, Iran vs the West and Israel, Saudi Arabia vs Iran – whatever the geopolitics, they’re all locked into fossil fuel dependent hardware like tanks, warships and fighter jets, guzzling enormous amount of fossil fuels in operation. For example, F-35, the most advanced and most expensive fighter jet currently on sale, drinks nearly 6000 litres of fuel per flight hour. The Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the US and the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world. In the UK, the MoD, by its own admission, is the single largest contributor to GHG emissions within the central government, responsible for more than half of the total.

Foreign and defence policy–making is stuck in the 19th/20th century frame

How is that our leaders are able to direct such incredible political energy, tax-payers money and fossil fuels (for gas-guzzling military hardware) into war and potential conflict (Russia/Ukraine, the West/China) while climate chaos is actually playing out, pandemic still with us and  profound global inequality widespread?

The answer is clear: foreign and defence policy-making of all stripes is stuck in the national or regional mindset, sometimes fatally stuck in the past. All of this is a pity, since rising sea levels, drought, coronavirus or nuclear radiation don’t care for your passports or borders or how big your geopolitical punch. 

But these numbers fill in the picture.

  • (Pre-Ukraine) At $2 trillion p/a, global military spending is twice what it was at the peak of the Cold War.
  • Climate Finance shortfalls: poorer nations expected to face up to $75 billion six-year shortfall in climate finance (2020-2025, Oxfam).
  • WHO is profoundly underfunded given its remit and less than 16% of WHO’s finances are guaranteed.
  • SDGs face a dire funding gap of something in the order of $2.5 trillion annually.
  • Conflict prevention, peace-building and peacekeeping all remain underfunded.
  • The world would experience 560 disasters each year by 2030, or 1.5 disasters per day (UNDRR); “setting humanity on a spiral to self-destruction,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed warned.

To put some of this in perspective, $2 trillion lifetime cost of F-35s could have funded any one of the following

  • International climate finance (for climate-vulnerable developing countries) for 20 years
  • UN disaster response for the next 400 years
  • UN disaster risk reduction for the next 4,000 years
  • Global biodiversity conservation at $100bn per annum for the next 20 years
  • WHO funding at $2bn per annum for the next 1,000 years
  • WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for 2,963 years
  • Global pandemic surveillance and control at $8bn per annum for the next 250 years

How do we turn this madness round?

How to Transform Defence for Sustainable Human Safety: 10 Talking Points for a Difficult Conversation is an attempt to offer up a framework that tries to envision how we get a much better deal for the world’s citizens from the abject failure of past and current foreign and defence policies that sees us stagger from one war to the next; the world carved up according to spheres of influence; stupid narrow mindsets prevailing over catastrophic climate change and more than 6 million dead due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is an attempt to think through the ‘how, what and why’ of a difficult conversation – the move from 19th and 20th century framing of foreign and defence policy such that it really is fit for purpose in a 21st and 22nd century climate changed world, all the time fully recognising that every person, community, society, nation, region needs protection from aggressors and terrorists and it is the job of government to defend its citizens from such threats.  

But change it must. And we offer it up as 10 talking points that form a basic narrative. The first and the last are almost the toughest and the need for new doctrines arguably the most important.

  • Changing the mindset – tough but necessary
  • Upgrade the language: move from ‘defence’ to ‘sustainable human safety’
  • Demand real ‘defence and security’ value for money
  • Tackle the defence industry pig-trough
  • New ‘doctrines’ needed: carbon neutral peace and defence; non-offensive defence
  • Empower the only game in town – the UN
  • Consider concrete proposals for deep equitable cuts to military budgets
  • Transforming defence is a win-win for the green economy
  • Everyone is a stakeholder
  • Vote with your eyes wide open: empathy vs the ‘dark triad’

Those who have framed our world have not led us to a good place

Those who enable gross inequality and poverty; those who profit from climate chaos; who threw millions of vulnerable people under the Covid-19 vaccine apartheid bus; those who fund and enable warfare they not only led us to the cliff edge, they are pushing us over.

Why? Because they are safe from the havoc they knowingly create: they have their parachutes – wealth and isolation from society.

Phenomenal efforts have gone into rethinking our economies such that we can move from fossil fuel reliant to sustainable, clean and green energy. It’s a monumental, difficult task, across myriad industries and areas of human activity.

We need to square the circle and do the same for foreign and defence policy thinking. Just as de-coupling modern society from its addiction to fossil fuels is hard, so moving away from old-school geopolitical rivalry will be too (as will be the war profiteering, by the way).

One thing is for sure − transformation of foreign and defence policy cannot fail people and planet any more than the hugely costly abject failures of recent invasions − Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Ukraine are some of the conflicts of just the first two decades of the 21st century. Or the wilful political ignorance of a century worth of deadly climate warnings by a culpable oil industry. Or, indeed, the warnings of pandemic that were also utterly sidelined. And to look to the not-so-recent past, we have two world wars and, before that, the colonial atrocities of the 18th-20th centuries. We, people and planet, deserve way, way more from our leaders than that sorry tale of loss, pain and waste.

“People who don’t understand the importance of co-operation and disarmament shouldn’t go into politics…there should be no place for such people in politics. But they’re very much there… in the defence industry and politics.”

Mikhail Gorbachev

Purpose & Audience

The purpose of this publication is to start as many conversations as possible in as many fora as possible whether you know nothing, something or a lot about international relations or foreign and defence policymaking.

We have been working on this topic for a few years now and the more we read and the more we write, the clearer it is to us that – for myriad reasons – there is next to no meaningful public or political discussion about the absolute lack of leadership vision on how nations re-imagine international relations in the era of climate chaos, pandemic and now, again, the use of nuclear weapons in war.

It’s not unlike discussing how we get to zero-carbon future without discussing growth, or god forbid, capitalism. So it is with foreign and defence policy in the era of climate chaos.

We are not from the international relations discipline, rather the international development structural campaigning sector. This is why we seek to not only describe the problem but also offer some practical routes forward.

As we are now in the eye of several entangled storms – climate change, pandemic, wars and rampant inequality – we hope we can draw some attention to this hugely important topic from civil society and advocacy organisations; public figures and opinion formers; UN departments; governments with an open enough mind to hear us out; Green New Deal advocates.

While we work on specific calls such as an IPCC Special Report into the role of the global military on climate change; concrete proposals for cuts to military budgets to help plug SDGs and climate finance gaps and a high-level UN debate on Carbon Neutral Peace and Defence, these are all but steps along the way to something bigger.

How we transform defence for sustainable human safety is the debate we need to start – and sooner rather than later. Climate chaos demands absolutely every aspect of human life and activity must be reassessed. Defence is no different and on this, our leaders need to ‘up their game’ to say the least.