Waging war on climate change

The quickening pace of global warming poses a threat to US national security, says a leading, federally-funded military research organisation

The quickening pace of global warming poses a threat to US national security, says a leading, federally-funded military research organisation. The report, National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change, published in May, was written by the 16 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals who make up the Military Advisory Board at the Center for Naval Analyses.

It identified climate change-induced drought in the Middle East and Africa as a source of conflict over food and water, and increased regional and ethnic tensions. It warns of the potential instability caused by the movement of refugees from coastal regions under threat from rising sea levels, such as eastern India, Bangladesh and the Mekong delta in Vietnam. It points to the damage an increase in extreme weather events could cause to naval ports and military bases.

It updates the board’s 2007 report, which was the first major study to link climate change and what is known in establishment-politico speak as ‘national security’. Since then, the scientific certainty about global warming has become overwhelming. In 2007, the board described climate change as a “threat multiplier”, which could exacerbate existing sources of global disruption. This year’s report ratchets up the urgency, adding that the effects of climate change will be a “catalyst for conflict” in vulnerable regions of the world. (Coral Davenport, New York Times, 13 May)

Unlike previous national security concerns, the report says, climate change could create multiple, longstanding crises, taking place simultaneously. The world can expect “more poverty, more forced migrations, higher unemployment”, and those conditions are “ripe” for extremists. (Renee Lewis, Al Jazeera, 14 May) One example it gives is the expansion of the Sahara desert through Mali. This is killing off crops, causing widespread starvation. The report says that this process may have contributed to the rise of armed, (right-wing) political Islamic forces in that African country in 2012.

The threat is not only recognised on the international level. Earlier in May the White House published a climate assessment report, which said that Norfolk, Virginia, is one of the cities most at risk from rising sea levels. It is where the world’s largest naval base is located, along with a nuclear submarine construction yard.

The Military Advisory Board makes the point that extreme weather events are made worse by rising sea levels, and will increase calls for military assistance. Yet, flooding could hamper the military’s ability to respond. Admiral Donald L Pilling, former vice chief of naval operations, said in the report that ships might have to be moved further north to avoid hurricanes, and maintenance schedules will be disrupted. He added that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 cost the navy billions of dollars-worth of repairs to its base in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published in October 2013, said that sea levels could rise by up to a metre by 2100 as a result of the global warming being driven by greenhouse gas emissions. That estimate has already been updated – by the IPCC itself, and in the Quaternary Science Reviews: Expert Assessment of Sea-Level Rise by AD2100 and AD2300 – to up to twice as much by the end of this century. A one-metre rise would cause most of Miami, Fort Myers, the Everglades and the Florida Keys to disappear.

Commenting on the Military Advisory Board’s report, John Conger, the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary of defence for installations and environment, said: “The department certainly agrees that climate change is having an impact on national security, whether by increasing global instability, by opening the Arctic or by increasing sea level and storm surge near our coastal installations”. He added ominously: “We are actively integrating climate considerations across the full spectrum of our activities to ensure a ready and resilient force”. (New York Times, 13 May)

In March, the Pentagon published its own, quadrennial, defence review which is also quoted in Coral Davenport’s article: “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradations, political instability and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence”. Of course, these reports see the world through the distorted lens of the armed forces. So, although they make the connection between global warming and the rise of poverty, and political and social upheaval, their inevitable reaction is to call for a military response.

It all looks like a concerted campaign by military tops – with their friends in weapons manufacture, private security and logistics corporations waiting in the wings. No doubt, linking global warming with national security will be used at the highest level as a bargaining chip (or a gun to the head) to demand ever more military spending. Declaring war on the effects of climate change, however, is utter madness. It can only result in an accelerating spiral of instability and conflict. Only a world based on international solidarity, where the world’s resources are planned democratically, could avert such a cataclysmic scenario. That requires the socialist transformation of society on a global scale.

While US armed forces may be mobilised on occasion to shore up flood defences and help with logistical operations at a time of disaster, their strategic aim is to defend ‘national security’, which really means the interests of US capitalism. What is certain is that the huge expenditure required to strengthen and to maintain Conger’s ‘resilient force’ will not be diverted to efforts to halt and reverse global warming, or to tackle its far-reaching economic and social consequences. They will not even be used in the short term for measures to mitigate its most severe, immediate effects.

The people most at risk from the effects of global warming are the world’s poorest – in the areas identified by the Military Advisory Board. Abject poverty and desperation, oppression and disenfranchisement, are fertile ground for the rise of terrorist groups. But that is not the Pentagon’s only target. Its vague formulation, “other forms of violence”, could include a new round of uprisings along the lines of Tunisia and Egypt (2010/11), strikes which impact on US corporations, or protests against pro-US regimes, some of which are extremely reactionary. Any of them could be characterised as a threat to ‘national security’.

Moreover, why should that logic apply only to other countries? One of the key roles of the security forces when Hurricane Katrina devastated the poorest, predominantly African American, districts of New Orleans was to protect big-business property. And they were on standby in case of an open revolt against the horrific conditions people faced. Such a scenario could unfold in the future, especially as the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen, and where working-class, poor and discriminated against communities are increasingly marginalised.

While the military reports reflect the fear of US capitalism (and other imperialist powers), they also reflect the hypocrisy of its leaders. The governments of the US and Britain waged an illegal war on Iraq in 2003, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. That fuelled the growth of armed, right-wing, sectarian forces throughout the Middle East and Africa. Meanwhile, the harsh neoliberal economic and social policies forced on the world by the major powers are driving the dire poverty and desperation of millions of people. When these are combined with the endemic corruption of the political elite in neo-colonial countries – often put in place, and backed up, by the imperialist powers – it is a volatile mix. They combine to create the conditions driving people into the arms of reactionary groups.

The reports by the Pentagon and the Military Advisory Board follow those from the IPCC and other agencies. They are a stark global warning: climate change is happening, its effects are already being felt, and the world’s largest armed force is tooling up. The capitalist world just got even more dangerous. In more ways than one, things are really hotting up.

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June 2014