Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Whack-a-Mole: U.S. Army Style

Imagine a world in which virtually every region looks like today’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Sudan.  A world where the likes of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Qaddafi and Kim Jong-il are working their mischief everywhere all at once.

Impossible?  Not so, say the U.S. Armed Forces.  In fact, very, very likely.  It’s like the arcade game Whack-a-Mole, where the little creatures keep popping up with ever greater frequency.  Only in this game, the moles are whacking you.

When it's a game, it's pretty fun
Like me, you were counting on a nice “peace dividend” with the hoped-for wind down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, right?  Maybe Libya and the Arab world would settle down peaceably.  Maybe the pirates in the Horn of Africa, dictators on the Korean peninsula and jihadists with nuclear ambitions would permit us to get our own house in order?

Don’t count on it, say the generals.  Just the opposite:  Every region of the world is likely to be drawn into greater conflict – and pretty much all at once.

And who’s the villain behind this dour outlook?  Global jihadism?  Nuclear proliferation? Peak oil? Dr. Strangelove?  No, no, no and no.  The common thread that worries our military leaders turns out to be that most ignorable warning of scientists and environmentalists – global climate change.

Influx of North African refugees strains Italy's capacities
The generals warn us that climate change now threatens our nation’s security.  “On the simplest level, it has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today. The consequences will likely foster political instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of governments to cope.”

The warning comes from the Military Advisory Board, a blue-ribbon panel of eleven of the country’s most senior and accomplished officers from all branches of the armed services.  The Board’s report (download it here), titled Security and Climate, highlights the ways in which climate change multiplies existing threats, creating the conditions for extremism and terrorism, resulting in “multiple chronic conditions occurring globally within the same time frame.”

In this Whack-a-Mole game, all the moles pop their heads up at about the same time.

You’re wondering:  Did all our fighting men suddenly become radical environmentalists?  Not at all.  Take Vice Admiral Richard Truly, a space shuttle commander and NASA administrator:  “I wasn’t convinced by a person or any interest group—it was the data that got me.  As I looked at it on my own, I couldn’t come to any other conclusion. Once I got past that point, I was utterly convinced of this connection between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change.  And  I  was  convinced  that   if  we didn’t  do  something  about this,  we  would  be  in deep trouble.”

Or take the blunt practicality of former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan: “We seem to be standing by and, frankly, asking for perfectness in science.  People are saying they want to be convinced, perfectly.  We never have 100 percent certainty.  If you wait till you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

Something bad?  What do these fighting men have in mind?  Here are a few of the perils that the officers see in connection with climate change:

Major global losses of arable land due to drought, flooding, desertification, sea level rise and failing rivers…
… leading to devastating shortages of food and water …
… igniting resource conflicts over ever-scarcer water and farmland …
… and driving waves of human migration across national boundaries…
… aggravating existing tribal, national and sectarian hostilities …
… and placing unbearable stresses on weakened governments …
… thereby creating breeding grounds for extremist elements …
… or justifying the rise of authoritarian states.

Regional tinderboxes include the Middle East, where the scarcity of water has become as important to the future as the abundance of oil …
… the African continent, where climate is driving conflicts over water and farmland in the face of advancing deserts …
South Asia, where glacier-fed rivers are failing even as rising sea levels are destroying once-fertile deltas and contaminating once-fresh aquifers  
Southern Europe – itself suffering from severe water shortages – which is increasingly preoccupied with defending its borders from waves of environmental refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, and …
… portions of the Americas and the Caribbean, where violent storms and rising sea levels are threatening many coastal and island communities.

Here's a simple graphic summarizing the linkage the officers see between greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of American lives...

The Board notes that the U.S. Armed Services will surely be dragged into crises created by these conditions, either for humanitarian purposes or to prevent chaos and war which could threaten our nation’s security.  However, our own military bases – Norfolk, Pensacola, Diego Garcia, Guam, Long Beach and many more – will likely be inundated by the same climatic forces our greenhouse gases have unleashed.  Our Navy will be tasked with patrolling the previously frozen Arctic coastlines.  Our Coast Guard will have its hands full helping American seaside communities face the advancing waves. 
As the generals see it, at the very time when global climatic forces demand our active presence to save and defend ourselves and our friends, those same forces will severely limit our military capabilities.

A pretty bleak picture, no?  But the generals think there are things we can do to head off the worst of these outcomes.  Two, in particular, stand out.  First, we must now commit to multinational efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our country and the world.  It’s a global problem, and it needs a global solution.  Second – and these are soldiers, not nuns, speaking – we need to seriously help less developed countries adapt to climate impacts, especially in Africa. Aid may be costly, but it’s not in the same league as the cost of a failed state like Afghanistan or Somalia.

Sounds expensive, right?  General Anthony Zinni, former Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command, put it this way, with all the delicacy you’d expect from a top Marine:  “We will pay for this one way or another.  We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.  Or we will pay the price later in military terms.  And that will involve human lives.”

Thank God for straight-talking soldiers.  Are the politicians listening?  Are we listening?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. This is a really interesting report, especially considering the source. We can grow accustomed to hearing from certain places, but the US military is definitely not one you hear about much on the topic of climate change.