Rescued Hondurans receive immediate medical care assessment from US military during hurricane relief efforts by Joint Task Force-Bravo, Nov. 13, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Elijaih Tiggs)
It’s time to prepare our well-resourced, capable forces for saving the world, not destroying it.
MAY 17, 2022
Lawrence Wilkerson Col, USA (Ret)
The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released on 28 February is an eye-opener, posing a “now or never” challenge to staving off the catastrophic effects of man-made warming.
It is also glaringly obvious that the lion’s share of what is detailed in the report will fall to the U.S. military to deal with. And the more a negligent civilian leadership — both at the national and local levels — delays serious action to adapt to and ameliorate climate change, the more this reality will be exacerbated.
Whether it’s sea level rise, unprecedented drought, extreme weather events, devastating and wide-ranging fires, dwindling fresh water supplies, food scarcity, multiple pandemics, or massive human migrations (particularly from the Global South), or any number of these occurring simultaneously or synergistically, the hand-writing is on the wall.
Other countries’ militaries are for the most part either too small or too ill-equipped and ill-trained to deal with such challenges. The U.S. military is not only resourced and trained; it is the only military with unparalleled global reach. The ships, the planes, wheeled vehicles, water distribution systems, satellite communication networks, and, most of all, the ability to deploy far from its shores, all reside chiefly in America’s military forces.
All Americans should be grateful that the leaders of their military services, unlike many of their civilian leaders, are not burying their heads in the sand and looking the other way. All of the services have climate change strategies. But none of these strategies — yet — contemplates the devastation and work that confronts the military, and sooner rather than later. The new IPCC report is loaded with examples.
Simply looking at water and food — “the staples of life” — demonstrates how daunting the challenges are. Look at Syria today for an early example.
From 2007 to 2010, Syria experienced the worst multi-year drought in its history. This was on top of two previous multi-year droughts that themselves were devastating, particularly to Syrian agriculture. Before the droughts, Syria was a net exporter of wheat; after the third drought, Syria had to purchase wheat on the world market — and usually at very high prices. We all know what followed — a bitter 11-year civil war from which the country has yet to emerge.
Meanwhile, the water and food situation grows increasingly desperate, as it does all across the Levant where aridity is the worst it’s been in a thousand years.
The recent much-praised agreement between Israel and Jordan to trade solar-generated energy for water is an example of the sort of state-to-state cooperation the region will require to reduce some of the risk, but it still falls far short of what is needed. All across northern Africa and much of the way south, east, and west from there is similarly hurting as ground water is depleted, crops and livestock are starved for water and food, and conditions worsen every day. The ongoing Ukraine crisis has highlighted some of the challenge.
Because of the ongoing war, Ukraine, a key food exporter, especially to the Levant and North Africa — has had to curb some exports. Lebanon was receiving more than 50 percent of its wheat from Ukraine. No longer. On top of such dramatic changes, food prices are at a 10-year high and will likely rise further. Worse perhaps, fertilizer prices have skyrocketed as high as 205 percent above pre-war levels. Both Russia and China have begun to limit exports of fertilizer, fearing each might not have sufficient amounts for their own agricultural sectors.
And U.S. sanctions on Belarus have increased the global price of potash, a key ingredient in fertilizer. These price increases are wreaking havoc on the food security of critical regions in the Global South that are already increasingly challenged by climate change’s impact on their food and water supplies that, in turn, is promoting transnational migration.
The Ukraine crisis also provoked some remarkably courageous comments from the IPCC heads of delegation from both Ukraine and Russia under the circumstances. Oleg Anisimov, the Russian representative, said: “Let me present an apology on behalf of all Russians not able to prevent this conflict….[I] fail to find any justification for the attack on Ukraine.” And Svitlana Krakovska, his Ukrainian counterpart, said: “Human-induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots — fossil fuels and our dependence on them.”
As climate change begins seriously to threaten American — indeed global — security, the only large and capable military forces readily available will be those of the United States. Within less than a generation, emergency delivery of food and water, as in Somalia in 1993, will be essential to stop massive starvation and total state collapse.
Medical care will be needed as well. But soon, such early and interim steps will give way to extremely serious decision-making in Washington. For example, as its own Americas portion of the Global South suffers ever more seriously the effects of the climate crisis, millions will try to relocate. The border challenges of today, as overwhelming as they may see, may only be a harbinger of much worse to come. Every southern U.S. state, even the states with only water borders, will likely have to deploy its National Guard. Active military forces will follow.
America must get moving now, not dither and doubt. The U.S. military’s risk factor equation is around 60-65 percent. That is, if the chance of disaster is that high, you buy insurance, the best policy you can afford. The risk with the climate crisis is human existence and the risk factor is at least 70-plus percent. Ask yourself what you would do.
These recommendations in no way constitute an advocacy for more overseas bases for the U.S. military, a supplemental to its already-over-the-top budget, or an increase in its overall numbers. In fact, these recommendations absolutely eschew even more stupid, endless wars that detract from attention to genuine national security challenges such as that presented by the changing climate.
The military knows it’s coming, just as many in 1938 and 1939 knew a massive war in Europe was coming and that it would eventually envelop America. We did something — almost too late, but not quite. This time the risk is far, far greater. We owe it to our military to get moving. Indeed, we owe it to the human race.
Lawrence Wilkerson Col, USA (Ret)
More from Lawrence Wilkerson Col, USA (Ret)
The All-Volunteer Force Forum sees climate change as the greatest national security threat.
The benefits of diplomacy are greater and longer-lasting, but not as tangible.
It looks like the Blob is starting to come around to the idea that maybe the U.S. approach to the Middle East for the last 20 years or so hasn’t been all that great.
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