Hell or High Water? Exploring how navies understand and respond to climate change in the United States, Britain, and Australia

  • Robert Cullum

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines naval responses to climate change in the United States, Britain, and Australia. Deploying a comparative case-study methodology, it asks how and why do these three navies understand and respond to climate change in the way that they do? Climate change’s physical manifestations will have impacts in social, political, economic, and security fields and it is a central assumption of this thesis that, more than any other type of military organisation, navies will be at the forefront of climate’s impacts and effects. This is due to their physical basing in marginal terrain, their operating environments, and their engagement with the world in terms of the politics of force and of assistance. Despite this, my research demonstrates that all three navies have generally been slow to act and have done so only partially, while varying significantly in the range and scale of their responses to climate change. I argue that naval responses are ultimately the product of the navies’ respective organisational cultures. Organisational culture is the force shaping the way each navy perceives the world and its role within it, and thus fundamentally structures each overall climate response. I make two novel conceptual contributions to advance this argument. Firstly, I suggest that climate change responses are the product of three interacting forces united in a climate trinity: politics, science, and organisational culture, with organisational culture, in each case, the predominant force. Secondly, I describe each case-study’s response using a climate taxonomy, consisting of hardening, greening, fighting, and relieving categories. This taxonomy permits analytical profiling and cross-comparison both in a scholarly sense and for those wishing to understand where military responses to climate change are strong and where they are lacking. The thesis thus makes contributions which are both academically novel and relevant to policymakers. I offer a contribution to three distinct academic literatures: firstly, I help to broaden the discussion about climate change and security by noting the important role played by militaries in creating and sustaining the climate-security field. Secondly, I contribute to the literature on organisational culture, by determining that it still holds explanatory power in the military context outside the realm of ‘traditional’ military activities like doctrinal development or warfighting. Finally, I also contribute to the literature on navies, by finding that, even in the face of a novel and exotic challenge, they remain committed to their classical, culturally-derived seapower ideals.
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorJan Růžička (Supervisor) & Kamila Stullerova (Supervisor)

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