War and Warming
On the Climate Fears of the Security State
By Nathan Albright
On June 5th, 2019, senior intelligence analyst Rod Schoonover spoke before a House Intelligence hearing on National Security and Climate Change. “The Earth’s climate is unequivocally undergoing a long-term warming trend as established by decades of scientific measurements from multiple independent lines of evidence,” said Schoonover. “We expect that climate change will affect US national security interests through multiple, concurrent, and compounded ways. Global often diffuse perturbations are almost certain to ripple across political, social, economic, and human security domains worldwide. These include economic damage, threats to human health, energy security, and food security. We expect no country to be immune to the effects of climate change for 20 years.” Shortly after delivering his remarks, Schoonover resigned his position and wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times in which he revealed that the Trump administration had tried to censor his remarks, telling him in a private memo to excise large sections of his talk and suggesting edits for the rest. The administration’s condescending and sarcastic notes on Schoonover’s testimony, which can be read in the unclassified document released by the Center for Climate and Security, include the assertion that “a consensus of peer reviewed literature has nothing to do with truth.”
The Trump administration’s campaign to suppress information about climate change is widely known (while researching for this article I continually found links which a few years ago led to government documents about climate change but now redirected me to error messages and blank pages), but what may come as a surprise to many readers is the forceful pushback this administration has received from the Pentagon. Just a few months before the House Intelligence Hearing, fifty-eight former US military and national security officials signed a letter to the President imploring him to recognize the grave “threat to US national security” posed by climate change. “It is dangerous to have national security analysis conform to politics,” reads the letter endorsed by military generals, intelligence experts, and chiefs of staff whose tenures stretch across the past four administrations, “climate change is real, it is happening now, it is driven by humans, and it is accelerating.”
In just the past three years, countless senior officials from the Intelligence Community (IC) and Department of Defense (DOD) have voiced growing concerns about the security implications of a changing climate, including former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Bill Moran, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General David L. Goldfein, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Stephen Wilson, Army Vice Chief of Staff, General James McConville, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, General Joseph Lengyel, Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, Secretary of the Air Force, Heather A. Wilson, and Commander of United States European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti. In Schoonover’s Op-Ed for the New York Times, he explained the Pentagon’s widespread concern: “Two words that national security professionals abhor are uncertainty and surprise, and there’s no question that the changing climate promises ample amounts of both.”
The link between climate science and the military stretches back at least as far as the 1950’s, long before climate change was politicized. Oceanographer Roger Revelle, one of the first scientists to conduct research on global warming, oversaw nuclear testing on the Bikini Islands in his early career as a Naval Officer, and later secured funding for climate research by expressing concerns to congress about the Soviet capacity to weaponize the weather. Other experts in climate science echoed Revelle’s concerns about falling behind the Soviets and reiterated the connection to nuclear weapons in the 1959 founding document of the National Institute for Atmospheric Research, writing, “man’s activities in consuming fossil fuels during the past hundred years, and in detonating nuclear weapons during the past decade have been on a scale sufficient to make it worthwhile to examine the effects these activities have had upon the atmosphere.”
More recently, while climate change has been debated as a partisan issue in Washington, nonpartisan security experts at the DOD have quietly researched and written volumes on climate change and its implications for global security. In the words of Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, “the only department in … Washington that is clearly and completely seized with the idea that climate change is real is the Department of Defense.”
This is at least in part due to the threats to military infrastructure. The January 2019 DOD Report on Effects of a Changing Climate lists 79 military installations at risk of serious disruptions to operations in the near future due to drought (for instance, at Joint Base Anacostia Bolling in D.C. and Pearl Harbor, HI), desertification (at the central US drone command center, Creech Air Force base in Nevada), wildfires (at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California), thawing permafrost (at training centers in Greeley, Alaska), and flooding (at Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia). “It is relevant to point out,” the authors of the report note, “that ‘future’ in this analysis means only 20 years in the future.” In a recent interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting, former Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus warned, “everything you read, all the science that you see is that we have underestimated the speed at which this is going to happen… If we don’t do something to reverse or slow the sea level rise, the largest navy base in the world, Norfolk, will go underwater. It will disappear. And it will disappear within the lifetimes of people alive today.”
But threats to infrastructure are only the beginning of concerns expressed by top US security officials, who frequently refer to climate change as a “threat-multiplier.” Reviewing publicly available Pentagon documents from the past few years reveals an overwhelming list of concerns surrounding the climate crisis from Intelligence and Defense officials. Climate disruptions already documented include an increase in soldiers falling ill or dying from heat stroke during training exercises, difficulties executing military operations, as well as a reduction in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions because of more “no-go flight days.” Concerns for the near and medium term future are considerably more drastic, including: expanded ranges for diseases and disease vectors; overwhelming humanitarian situations from concurrent natural disasters; large regions becoming uninhabitable from drought or unbearable heat; opening of new territories like the arctic (when asked what inspired a revision of the DOD’s Arctic Strategy in 2014, then Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer said, “the damn thing melted.”); conflict with Russia and China over resources newly exposed by melt; broader widespread resource conflicts; inter-state tensions over unilateral attempts to engineer the climate; and increased potential for extreme, sudden shifts in the climate.
In 2016, then Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, detailed these risks in a report titled Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change. While “climate-change related disruptions are well underway,” he wrote, “over 20 years, the net effects of climate change on the patterns of global human movement and statelessness could be dramatic, perhaps unprecedented. If unanticipated, they could overwhelm government infrastructure and resources.” He warned that the world could be facing “large-scale political instability” linked to climate change, and that, “in the most dramatic cases, state authority may collapse partially or entirely.”
In August, 2019 the Army War College released its own analysis of these risks, lamenting the “often rancorous and politically charged” nature of climate change discourse, and found that “as an organization that is, by law, non-partisan, the Department of Defense is precariously unprepared for the national security implications of climate change induced global security challenges.” The study, titled Implications of Climate Change for the US Army, warns that “the effects of a warming climate with more extreme weather are astonishingly far-reaching,” and delves deeper into the “climate change complications in just one country,” Bangladesh. The authors remind us that Bangladesh, a country with eight times the population of Syria where recent drought conditions sparked a civil war with international consequences, exists as the result of a war between India and Pakistan, two major military powers which now possess nuclear capabilities. “As seas rise and huge areas of Bangladesh become uninhabitable, where will tens of millions of displaced Bangladeshis go? How will this large-scale displacement affect global security in a region with nearly 40% of the world’s population and several antagonistic nuclear powers?”
The Army War College’s example gets to the heart of the Pentagon’s climate fears: human migration. In his 2017 book Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, investigative journalist Todd Miller details the explosion of government fears over migration that has taken place in the past few decades. “There were 16 border fences when the Berlin wall fell in 1988,” Miller writes, “now there are more than 70 across the globe,” including, “Turkey’s new ‘smart border’ with Syria, which [has] a tower every 1,000 feet with a three-language alarm system and ‘automated firing zones’ supported by hovering zeppelin drones.”
Miller suggests that an article in The Atlantic from 1994, The Coming Anarchy has had an outsized influence on shaping government migration policy over this period. The essay by Robert Kaplan is, as Miller puts it, “a bizarre mixture of rancid Malthusian nativism and cutting-edge forecast of ecological collapse,” in which Kaplan describes with equal parts horror and disdain “hordes” of wandering, unemployed youth in West African shantytowns and other parts of the Global South as they join gangs and destabilize regions with no regard for rule of law. “There are far too many millions” Kaplan warns, looking towards the approaching 21st century, “whose raw energies and desires will overwhelm the visions of the elites, remaking the future into something frighteningly new.” Kaplan’s grim vision of the future was quickly embraced as prophecy at the highest level of US government, faxed by the undersecretary of state Tim Wirth to every U.S. embassy worldwide, and praised by President Clinton who called Kaplan a “[beacon] for new sensitivity to environmental security.” That same year, Miller notes, “the US Army Corps of Engineers was using rust-colored landing mats from the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars to build the first border wall in Nogales, Arizona,” part of the Clinton administration’s new “Prevention Through Deterrence” immigration policy. The following year, Border Patrol agents carried out “mock mass-migration scenarios in Arizona where agents erected cyclone fence corrals into which they ‘herded’ people for emergency processing, then loaded them onto bus convoys that transported them to mass detention centers.”
In the years since Kaplan’s essay, a number of dystopian futures of a similar genre have been put forth by security experts and think tanks urging governments to brace themselves for the impacts of the climate crisis. Unlike scientific bodies such as the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which are extremely hesitant to venture too far into predictions of the future lest they be accused of a single miscalculation, those in the business of national security are quick to explore every foreseeable outcome of a crisis, lest they fail to be prepared for a single possibility. The combination of the unflinching gaze at the realities of the climate crisis and the utter lack of faith in humanity that marks these documents makes for a haunting read.
In 2003, a Pentagon think tank released a report called An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security. The report, which would later be the inspiration for the Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, considered a world in which a rapidly worsening climate crisis prompts wealthy nations like the US to “build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves,” a scenario which, “may lead to finger-pointing and blame, as the wealthier nations tend to use more energy and emit more greenhouse gasses such as CO2 into the atmosphere.” The authors end on a note of American exceptionalism, hypothesizing that “while the US itself will be relatively better off and with more adaptive capacity, it will find itself in a world where Europe will be struggling internally, large numbers of refugees washing up on its shores and Asia in serious crisis over food and water. Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life.”
In 2007, two Washington think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for New American Security, put together a more comprehensive set of predictions in a report ominously titled The Age of Consequences. The team that worked on the document was made up of several top Pentagon officials including former Chief of Staff to the President John Podesta, former National Security Advisor to the Vice President Leon Fuerth (both of whom would later sign the recent letter to Trump), former CIA Director James Woolsey, and a number of other “nationally recognized leaders in the fields of climate science, foreign policy, political science, oceanography, history, and national security.” The report looked at three warming scenarios “within the range of scientific plausibility,” from “expected” to “severe” to “catastrophic.” The “expected” scenario, which the authors define as “the least we ought to prepare for,” is based on a 1.3°C average global temperature increase by 2040, and involves “heightened internal and cross-border tensions caused by large-scale migrations; conflict sparked by resource scarcity,” and “increased disease proliferation.” The “severe” scenario describes a 2.6°C warmer world by 2040 in which “massive non-linear events in the global environment give rise to massive nonlinear societal events.” In the third, “catastrophic” scenario, the authors contemplate a world 5.6°C warmer by 2100:
“The scale of the potential consequences associated with climate change —particularly in more dire and distant scenarios —made it difficult to grasp the extent and magnitude of the possible changes ahead. Even among our creative and determined group of seasoned observers, it was extraordinarily challenging to contemplate revolutionary global change of this magnitude. Global temperature increases of more than 3°C and sea level rises measured in meters (a potential future examined in scenario three) pose such a dramatically new global paradigm that it is virtually impossible to contemplate all the aspects of national and international life that would be inevitably affected. As one participant noted, ‘unchecked climate change equals the world depicted by Mad Max, only hotter, with no beaches, and perhaps with even more chaos.’ While such a characterization may seem extreme, a careful and thorough examination of all the many potential consequences associated with global climate change is profoundly disquieting. The collapse and chaos associated with extreme climate change futures would destabilize virtually every aspect of modern life. The only comparable experience for many in the group was considering what the aftermath of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange might have entailed during the height of the Cold War.”
A more recent study, published by an Australian think tank in 2019, references The Age of Consequences and gives some updated context, noting that if we account for “long-term carbon-cycle feedbacks,” the commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement would lead to 5°C of warming by 2100. The paper, titled Existential Climate-Related Security Risk, opens by citing an Australian Senate report which found that climate change “threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development,” and warns that this threat is “near to mid-term.” The authors note that the World Bank considers 4°C of warming potentially “beyond adaptation.” “It is clear,” the report concludes, that to protect human civilization, “a massive global mobilization of resources is needed in the coming decade to build a zero-emissions industrial system and set in train the restoration of a safe climate. This would be akin in scale to the World War II emergency mobilization.”
Make no mistake, the most level-headed assessments of the climate crisis are predicting that the coming decades will see hundreds of millions of new climate refugees added to the tens of millions already displaced by the crisis. Once we accept the unavoidable, seismic changes that the climate crisis promises for the coming decades, we are faced with two worldviews. In the first, after coming to terms with the crisis, people work together and pool resources to support one another – a process that would require addressing massive disparities in wealth and power. The second, preferred by elites, involves a hardening of inequality in which those who already have excess upon excess decide to further horde resources and label anyone in need a “security threat” in order to justify elaborate, systematic violence. The vast majority of humanity would benefit from the first view while a small handful are currently profiting from the second, including the world’s largest weapons manufacturers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, nearly all of which help fund the think tanks envisioning a future that falls to pieces without them.
In Storming The Wall, Todd Miller travels with a number of climate refugees on their harrowing migration journeys. He finds that a “border in the anthropocene era” typically consists of “young unarmed farmers with failing harvests encountering expanding and highly privatized border regimes of surveillance, guns, and prisons.” In sharp contrast to the reports from security officials, he argues that countries should be taking in climate refugees in proportion to their historic responsibility for emissions – this would mean the US would take in 27% of refugees, the EU 25%, China 11%, and so on. “Instead,” he points out, “these are the places with the largest military budgets. And these are the countries that today are erecting towering border walls.” Meanwhile, those living in the 48 so-called “least developed countries,” are 5 times as likely to die from a climate-related disaster while accounting for less than 1% of global emissions. “The true climate war,” Miller writes, “is not between people in different communities fighting each other for scarce resources. It is between those in power and the grassroots; between a suicidal status quo and the hope for sustainable transformation. The militarized border is but one of many weapons deployed by those in power.” It’s only in this context that we can start to see what the seemingly opposed climate denial and climate obsession of elites have in common: both are about maintaining the status quo – either through insisting on an alternate reality or deploying military force in anticipation of threats to established power.
Miller tells the story of a small group who, overwhelmed by the growing impact of global warming in their lives, decide to walk over 1,000 miles on a “people’s pilgrimage” to the 2015 Paris Climate Summit. He follows two of the pilgrims, Yeb and A.G., brothers from the Philippines who, in 2013, saw Typhoon Haiyan devastate their home. A.G. narrowly survived the “category 6” storm that some described as a “260-kilometer-wide tornado,” and personally carried the corpses of 78 members of his community during recovery efforts. Yeb, who was a climate negotiator for the Philippines at the time, ended up losing his job after an emotional outburst at the Warsaw Climate Summit while he awaited word from his family. At the beginning of the 60-day journey, they said they were overwhelmed by the “really, really vicious” challenges the world faced, but as they walked they found comfort in each new person who offered some form of hospitality on their journey. It was interactions with “real people,” they said, who welcomed them and offered them beds, that gave them hope.
When they arrived in Paris, they found the city’s preparations for hosting the climate summit had been thrown into chaos by the now notorious November 13th terror attacks. That week, “the climate justice movement met the militarized counter-terror apparatus.” While the government invoked a state of emergency to ban all climate demonstrations outside the summit, Miller points out that nearby, Milipol, a military tech expo, was allowed to proceed as planned even though it involved over 24,000 attendees walking between vendors to learn about and handle weapons. The expo was filled with drones, armored cars, border walls, displays of “mannequins dressed in body armor, with gas masks and assault rifles,” and vendors warning against “people who pretend they are refugees.”
Miller writes that witnessing both Milipol and the people’s pilgrimage illuminated the difference between climate justice and climate security: “the innate belief in the goodness of others.” “What we most need is grassroots solidarity and cross border hospitality, even with all its messiness” said Yeb, “this movement must be strengthened and built despite our world leaders.” That week at the summit, where the Paris Climate Accord would be drafted, despite a government ban on public assembly, 11,000 people flooded the streets facing tear gas and police clubs, and over 600,000 others around the world marched in support. “Solidarity is not an option,” said Yeb, as he completed his journey and risked arrest joining the demonstrations for climate justice, “it is our only chance.”
Nathan Albright is a Cofounding Editor at the The Flood.