“Climate change and the future of security for the United States”
The Asia Institute
As I pen these words, I am tempted to double my dosage of anti-psychotic medication. After all, I wake up every morning to what seems to be a normal world. I have a cup of coffee with friends at Peet’s Coffee, I attend thoughtful seminars near K Street and then I read newspapers and books that describe what appears to be a normal and functional world. But when I go home at night and look at my email, all I see are dire reports about the death of the oceans, the rapidly increasing temperatures in Australia and the Artic, and the melting of the permafrost releasing carbon setting off a positive cycle that is anything but “positive.”
I am left scratching my head. Could it be that we face a security crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history and that, at the same time, the vast number of people who ride the Metro into Washington D.C. with me each morning, many of who work on “security,” are unable to conceive of a solution to this overwhelming crisis, and many of them treat the topic of global warming as a taboo subject not to be raised in polite company?
Part of the problem is that the shifts in our society, and in our civilization, that are necessary if we are to be able to identify climate change as the primary security threat for humanity, and respond, are so enormous that they overwhelm everyone. I include myself as one overwhelmed; I am not without sin and I am not qualified to cast the first stone.
But I will cast the first stone anyway.
Much of the battle against climate change has to do with values: frugality, conservation, and the pursuit of a spiritually meaningful life that does not compel us to use more than we absolutely need. We must return to that pre-consumer, pre-industrial, life. But we can only get there through the development of communities, by working with our hands. We will never get there with solar panels or smart cities.
The current threat of climate change cannot be responded with any specific technology or strategy. We must embrace the values of the Iroquois Nation. Like them, we must think about how our actions will impact those seven generations in the future. That shift in our culture, demanded by national security, will completely upend everything we have ever been taught about growth, development and success.
The essential question will be, If we are brave enough to march into battle, will we be brave enough to face the truth of climate change, and then speak about it with everyone.
What is the military’s role?
Although the primary response to climate change must start with a shift in our thinking and in our civilization, the military will be critical because we have so little time.
But if the military is to play a key role, that role cannot be simply a matter of fighter planes dropping seedlings, or infantry men planting trees when they are not training. No. We must have the bravery to completely transform the military, to change its very function. That step may be even harder for many than walking into battle.
Let me introduce a few rather controversial ideas that will help us to get thinking about this crisis.
Did I say that we do not have much time?
Remember that the US military as it stands today is one of the greatest polluters in the world, whether it is the emissions of fighter planes, aircraft carriers, and tanks, the dumps for toxic chemicals, or our contaminated bases around the world. The current situation is grim.
Moreover, the military is tasked with securing fossil fuels around the globe, thereby promoting our terminal addiction to petroleum, natural gas and coal.
It may sound odd to some, but seizing and protecting fossil fuels was not the intended role for the military.
Many have made the argument, especially on the left, that we should simply shut down the military, shut down all of those polluting weapons, close down all bases and then throw all that money at the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change.
That argument is not without merit if we consider the scale of the current climate crisis, which now threatens human extinction. Or, to be more precise, you may not be extinct, but you are going to wish you were.
But this argument misses two critical points.
First, the military is not going to simply disappear, fade away; its members will not give up all those jobs and those big budgets. There is a whole “ecosystem” of contractors, subcontractors and sub-sub-contractors who will literally fight to the death to keep their snouts in that wide and deep trough.
Therefore, the only meaningful way to focus those funds and that expertise on climate change is to transform the role of the military (which is possible) no to ask the military to disappear (we will go extinct before that happens).
If what we call the “military” was an organization that was committed to dealing directly with mitigation and adaptation regionally and globally, its budget would be just about right.
We have seen the first steps towards confronting climate change over the last ten years, especially in the Pacific Command (less so the Indo-Pacific Command) including large-scale projects to develop electric batteries, promote conservation and efficiency and to increase awareness of climate change. Some of those efforts continue today, in spite of fossil fuel interests controlling the executive branch. But the argument about climate change advanced in seminars on security and military issues in Washington D.C., is one for a limited concept of its impact.
Military experts talk about the impact of rising seas on US military bases, the implications of a changing environment for the conduct of military operations. The conclusion is that we will need to upgrade facilities around the world and plan carefully future bases and weapons systems so as to take into account climate change.
In addition, there is much discussion about how climate change acts as a multiplier, exacerbating conflicts over water, food, and other natural resources around the world. The nightmare scenarios sketched out by military planners echo the conflicts resulting from climate change limned by Christian Parenti in his landmark book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011).
The emerging consensus on the need for a transformation of the military is described by Michael Klare in his book All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. The awareness of the problem is broad, but the military paradigm remains unaltered. Klare notes that officers are “proceeding in their efforts to prepare for combat on a climate-altered planet” but the book offers no suggestion that the military has a plan to end climate change, or even reduce it.
The sad truth is that we have not even started the real conversation on climate change in the military. The assumption is that climate change will impact military actions but the same weapons will be used and the same sorts of conflicts will take place—only more frequently. The possibility that the very nature of security will be altered (that we must so completely reinvent the military and that weapons will no longer be the primary tool) is not even being considered.
But it is possible, even necessary, to imagine a complete transformation of the military whereby mitigation and adaptation become the primary role. The military should be transformed so that it is focused on the rapid restructuring of the US economy, under orders to make sure that the use of fossil fuels ends as quickly as possible and enforcing a reduction in consumption overall.
Or, might it be possible for the military to take the lead in bringing justice to our society and to our economy by rapidly transforming the very economic and industrial system that we rely on? Whereas much of the military does the bidding of fossil fuel corporations today, securing oil fields or natural gas wells, and protecting sheiks and their hangers on, enough bravery and imagination could make the opposite the case.
Or it could be that the military will be the part of the government which apprehends the owners of fossil fuel companies, the criminals who have conspired to promote dangerous substances like petroleum and coal, and then rendered us addicted to them for our daily lives in the manner of drug kingpins? Fossil fuel interests knew about the dangers to the atmosphere of emissions in the 1960s but hid those facts from the public. They paid (and still pay) phony “experts” to lie to Congress, and to the American people, about the dangers of those substances.
Such criminal offenses would mean, for you or for me, that our assets would be seized and we would be thrown in jail. If the Justice Department cannot find a way to prosecute and imprison those fossil fuel shareholders, perhaps the special forces can do so—much as John Brown set out to end a similar crime of cheap energy at a hidden human price: slavery. Once the military has those executives all in jail, and those ill-gotten wealth is directed towards recovery of the climate, once all their lobbyists and experts silenced, then, and only then, can we have a debate on climate policy.
There are tremendous dangers involved in unleashing of the military to solve things. We should not fool ourselves and we should also expect any miracles. However, we need to be realistic. We must brace for an extremely painful period when the willingness to risk one’s life is going to be a significant commodity.
We also do not have much of a choice.
The role of the military in American society will continue to increase, whether we like it or not. The legislative and the executive have become so corrupt, and so dysfunctional, the toys of the super-rich and multinational banks, that they are losing the ability to govern. The military is not untouched by this culture of decadence; vast sums are wasted on useless weapons systems and officers see their highest loyalty to be towards the military contractors who will offer them retirement packages. But many of those who actually run the military, as opposed to those who profit, are still capable of planning and governance.
We must to assume that the unprecedented military budget of $738 billion (plus much spending not disclosed) stipulated by the 2019 National Defensive Authorization Act will permanently alter the nature of governance in the United States, perhaps rendering the military the only part of the Federal government that is able to carry out its mission, in light of the ruthless cuts elsewhere.
In the long term, we create a healthier, and more peaceful, government that focuses on the needs of the people. But we will get nowhere if we do not first face the reality of increasing domestic and international chaos and the relative stability (and capacity for long-term planning) within the military.
There is another point to remember before we dismiss the military as a risk, a monster searching for wars to justify its budget.
There are parts of the military’s culture that will be essential to any meaningful response to climate change. Turning the tide in this battle against indulgence, greed and ruthless exploitation is going to take extreme bravery. Speaking the truth to power about climate change, mobilizing in the face of adversity, creating and implementing strategies, along with culture that will bind together groups of people committed to this project—these are tasks that a military is best capable of carrying out.
The dire situation for the climate will require that we transform the economy rapidly and completely. We need more than a functional government, which we do not have now. If we can get real leadership in place, the military could say that the country will not be using any more petroleum eight months from now, that all buildings will be fully insulated in a year, and then it can proceed to implement that order for the entire nation. The military, if completely revamped, if subject to a rigorous housecleaning, could set up a fifty-year plan for adaptation along the coasts to respond to rising oceans.
Only a militarized economy can undertake a transformation and scientists tell us that such a mobilization is necessary for human survival. It is, to be blunt, a no-brainer.
But we need to think very carefully about what a “militarized economy” means.
Let us consider what Jill Stein of the Green Party wrote when she introduced the original “Green New Deal” (since mimicked in a weaker form by the Democratic Party).
Jill Stein wrote,
“Building on the concept of FDR’s New Deal, we call for a massive mobilization of our communities, government and the people on the scale of World War II – to transition our energy system and economy to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2030, including a complete phase out of fossil fuels, fracked gas and nuclear power.”
Think about the significance of what she proposes. When Stein writes of a “mobilization” that will be “on the scale of World War II” she is talking about a completely militarized economy.
If we look back to the source, to the New Deal implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, we find an effort by the government to address, on a massive scale, the ecological, economic and institutional crises that seized the United States during Great Depression. During that period, a real government, capable of analysis, planning and implementation, replaced a complacent, do-nothing government that assumed, to quote Calvin Coolidge, that “the business of America is business.”
During that period, Frances Perkins built within the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) a powerful organization capable of engaging and inspiring the unemployed to address critical issues in agriculture, ecology and energy in a systematic and comprehensive manner. It was a government that could transform, rather that passively respond to situations.
Similarly, the NRA (national recovery administration) was established in 1933 to set prices and to enforce fair practices so as to eliminate “destructive competition” and overproduction—thus reducing many of the market forces that had brought on the depression in the first place.
What is often left out of the story is the degree to which the CCC and NRA were modelled on the policies for economic and industrial mobilization undertaken by Woodrow Wilson during World War I. The New Deal was, in effect, a military economy that was not for war, but focused on resolving ecological catastrophes like the Dustbowl and economic challenges like overproduction and unemployment.
The crisis today is much larger, and much more serious, than was the case during Great Depression.
We must also recognize the fact that climate change cannot be stopped by the protests of a few NGOs. We need a nation-wide campaign that reaches down to every citizen and promotes frugality, awareness of climate change and a concern for the environment. We must go door to door and make sure that everyone is 100% renewable by next week—and to offer them the means. If an NGO was capable of doing that, in a few weeks, for the entire country, it would be in effect a government.
We must create a functional government that can set these priorities for the nation and then implement them unimpeded.
Let us turn to two critical speeches by American presidents that can help us to grasp the significance of this moment.
The first speech is President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4,1865, which is engraved on the marble walls of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln put forth, with considerable bravery, a vision for the United States that moved beyond the cruel system of creating cheap energy by the use of slavery. Lincoln spoke of the necessary sacrifice in the speech, perhaps anticipating his own death as a result of this commitment to the end of slavery.
One thing is clear. Lincoln did not believe that the transformation of American culture, economics and society necessary to end slavery could be carried out by NGOs, advertising campaigns or appeals for corporate social responsibility. Lincoln saw government as key to such a massive change and the military, sadly, tragically, ended up as part of that process. Slavery was not abolished in a congressional subcommittee. It was ended by the brutal Wilderness Campaign.
When Lincoln spoke, he did not try to hide the cruel truth from his audience,
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
In the decadent political culture that infests Washington D.C. today, it is hard to imagine a president saying anything so profound, or so difficult, to the citizens. Lincoln did not aim to please, or to flatter. He spoke so as to compel by moral means, to challenge intellectually, to inspire to reach for a higher truth.
The second speech is President Jimmy Carter’s “Moral Equivalent of War” speech of April 18, 1977. Carter pushed for a radical reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels in the United States and he postulated that the government would play a central role in the process. Carter was focused on ending our growing dependency on imported oil, rather than the threat of global warming (which was not well understood at the time).
Carter’s speech was the last great effort to imagine a government capable of transforming society, rather than being toyed with by powerful interests.
Speech is even more relevant to us today.
“By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us. Two days from now, I will present my energy proposals to the Congress. Its members will be my partners and they have already given me a great deal of valuable advice. Many of these proposals will be unpopular. Some will cause you to put up with inconveniences and to make sacrifices.”
Carter’s speech should have been the turning point for the United States. But we were lulled to sleep by our good fortune, seduced by our comfortable lives.
No one wanted to hear about sacrifices then.
But sacrifice will be the name of the game from here on out. We will not avoid multiple massive catastrophes, at home and abroad. We will need a society in which citizens are willing to sacrifice for each other and work together for a common, difficult, goal.
If we can articulate a larger plan, as Lincoln did, and Carter did, we can give meaning to the upcoming struggle and we can thus create a space wherein a moral vision is expressed even in the midst of crushing ambivalence.
If we can take that step forward, we will be on the road to addressing the climate catastrophe and mapping out a solution, though it take a hundred years.
The military will have to be at the center, but it will not be pushing crackpot geoengineering projects that are meant to further enrich the enriched rich, but rather by dedicating itself once again to sacrifice, to the defense of the national interest, and the interests of the citizens. Taking on climate change as its primary goal is the best, and perhaps only, way to do so. That decision will allow us to establish a government for the United States of the people, for the people and by the people.
(talk delivered at seminar “The Intersection of Climate Change and Security” held on December 12, 2019 in Washington D.C. by the Asia Institute & Foreign Policy in Focus)