The Fossil Fueled Military Battles Climate Change

“The responsibility of the Department of Defense is the security of our country.” Thus begins DOD’s 2014 Climate Change Adaption Road Map, released yesterday to much acclaim.

But then two paragraphs later, it refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” not a threat.

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier” because it has the potential to exacerbate many of
the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these

A few more paragraphs later, it admits this report primarily looks at climate change’s impact on DOD, not its impact on the US.

Our first step in planning for these challenges is to identify the effects of climate change on the Department with tangible and
specific metrics, using the best available science.

I don’t mean to be churlish — and I do recognize that DOD is quite forward-thinking, among government agencies for its awareness of and initial preparations for climate change.

But that’s sort of the point. This is as good as it gets. And only secondarily does even one of the most progressive agencies in government, with respect to climate change, get to this kind of admission.

Maintaining stability within and among other nations is an important means of avoiding full-­scale military conflicts. The impacts of climate change may cause instability in other countries by impairing access to food and water, damaging infrastructure, spreading disease, uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, compelling mass migration, interrupting commercial activity, or restricting electricity availability. These developments could undermine already-fragile governments that are unable to respond effectively or challenge currently-stable governments, as well as increasing competition and tension between countries vying for limited resources.   These gaps in governance can create an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism. Here in the U.S., state and  local governments responding to the effects of extreme weather may seek increased [Defense Support of Civil Authorities].

Climate change is going to be hell. It’s going to cause wars. And it will even require addition DOD resources domestically, in the form of Reserve troops to help local authorities cope with emergencies. And — though DOD doesn’t say it, certainly not in its publicly released document — the US is one of the places that will struggle with governance of the internal effects of climate change, even if they’ll do better than, say, Bangladesh or some harder hit countries. Certainly the US is no model of proactive government preparing for these disasters!

Meanwhile, here’s what else DOD does in the name of fulfilling its responsibility for the security of the country. (h/t OTB)

To date, there have been approximately 240 coalition air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since air operations began nearly a month ago.


What goes underreported and, hence, underappreciated, is the magnitude of the overall air operation being conducted in support of or in addition to the actual air strikes against targets on the ground. Simply put, behind every successful air strike is a massive supporting infrastructure of aircraft, ground operations and planning activities. Air strikes are not conducted in isolation. Every strike package consists not only of bomb-carrying aircraft but others providing the protection, electronic warfare support, aerial refueling, battle space management and intelligence. The 240 strikes in Iraq and Syria were supported by some 3,800 aircraft sorties, 1,700 tanker flights and over 700 ISR sorties. There have also been thousands of flights by transport aircraft, C-17s and C-130s making up the largest fraction, providing humanitarian relief but also moving personnel and essential supplies into the region.

Behind all these aircraft stands the supporting personnel and infrastructure necessary to any air operation. These range from ground crews and air traffic controllers to maintainers, armorers and intel personnel. Then there are the people in the air operations center who put together the air tasking order that details all the air activities for a 24-hour period. There are more people and more complexity when it is a joint and coalition operation.

Doing the math, this means there have been around 20 supporting sorties for each strike conducted. This is in a fairly benign environment.

That is, even while DOD notes — laudably, given how dysfunctional our government is — that climate change is going to destabilize countries and will even require deployment of the Reserve to limit instability in our own country, it is burning up fossil fuels at an alarming rate, even in its relatively circumscribed operation against ISIL.

This report edges us closer to the point where we call climate change a threat to the US, rather than just a threat multiplier to all the other things looming out there.

But until we’re there — until we recognize that climate change has killed far more people in the US since 9/11 than terrorism — we will continue to burn fossil fuel as a first or second response to threats on the other side of the world.

17 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    Maintaining stability within and among other nations is an important means of avoiding full-­scale military conflicts.

    Obviously, and it’s not even arguable, the US promotes and maintains instability within and among other nations. Just look at Asia between India and the Med, plus North Africa, for starters. Then glance at Central America and East Asia.
    Blowing up stuff and killing people is what the Pentagon does, by itself or by proxy, and the idea that blowing up stuff and killing people is stabilizing is ridiculous.
    So this whole climate change threat idea is simple a trick to help maintain a huge military engaged in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) = wars.

  2. der says:

    Pentagons political weaselspeak. Blowing up stuff and killing people may be a part of the strategy, logistics is its heart: “An army is a creature which marches on its stomach” (Napolean Bonaparte).
    **Chris Hedges – “The National Defense Authorization Act. … permits the military to seize, arrest American citizens, strip them of due process, and hold them in military detention centers, … this provision in the NDAA essentially allows the state to criminalize an entire group of people and lock them away without any legal redress. And they know what’s coming. The NSA has run all sorts of scenarios on economic collapse, and especially climate change. And they’re preparing.”
    **The May/June 2011 issue of Foreign Policy magazine was designated ‘The Food Issue’. In the lead article, ‘The new geopolitics of food’, Lester R. Brown writes, ‘From the Middle East to Madagascar, high prices are spawning land grabs and ousting dictators. Welcome to the 21st-century food wars’. Lizzie Collingham ends her new book on a similar note: ‘The optimistic post-[World War Two] period when food was abundant and cheap appears to be drawing to a close and it seems likely that in the future food will become increasingly scarce and expensive’ (p. 501). Indeed, as Lester Brown writes, ‘food is the new oil’.
    **And so The Pentagon plans for that future day becuase – “I have a great idea. Let’s take one of the globe’s most important agricultural regions, one with severe water constraints and a fast-dropping water table. And let’s set up shop there with a highly water-intensive form of fossil fuel extraction, one that throws off copious amounts of toxic wastewater. Nothing could possibly go wrong … right? Well…”

  3. galljdaj says:

    Adding to ‘also(s); did the DOD merely forget to mention all the pollution it was creating thereby adding to the climate mess!?

  4. TarheelDem says:

    This no doubt is a budget-justification document, not a strategic plan. When will someone have the courage and power to say that one way to deal with this pretty quickly is to dramatically reduce the forward positioning of US bases, ditch the idea that all bases are “platforms of the projection of power”, and get over the notion that “full spectrum dominance” is anything other than the ticket to being the most expensive military in the world?

    A brief for more foreign military aid (Defense Support Cooperation Agency), more funding for rapid deployment and disaster relief forces, lots of construction work, consulting contracts for supply chain reviews, and on and on.

    No one will ask what obsolete or wasteful crap they will be cutting to offset those new expenses. No one, either side of the aisle.

    And no one will be saying that if the Saudis want to offer cut-rate oil, why it’s a great time to pump it into the ground in the US through refilling and/or expanding the strategic petroleum reserve. Some frigging capitalists these guys turn out to be!

  5. orionATL says:

    does this report really mean to communicate that climate change is a threat to the u.s. society? or does it really mean to communicate that there is a new threat – climate change – that will require we keep putting dod front-row-center in dollars allocated among u.s. government agencies?

    the reference to terrorist who target the u.s. is telling. it suggests this report is blant dod self-promotion. why should that situation arise? why should there be terrorists who focus their anger on the u.s. in association with climate change?

    this report seems to communicate that war will be a major means for the u.s. to deal with climate change. if that’s the case, the document is fomenting folly. thanks though chuck for all your hard work.

  6. TarheelDem says:

    All Chuckie did was put his signature in the automatic signature software. Give some contracting tech writer some cred for accurately representing his principals. In clear enough English. That the game is easily understood.

  7. gmoke says:

    One of the economists working for the EPA on determining the social cost of carbon for their new emissions regulations spoke at Harvard within the last year. She showed a slide of all the Federal agencies they had consulted. The DOD was not on that list. I asked her specifically if they had contacted the DOD and seen their work on security and climate change. She said they had not.

    My hope is that my question may have shifted EPA’s attention in the direction of the DOD’s work.

  8. bolasete says:

    “Disaster at the beginning” from the I Ching
    “The responsibility of the Department of Defense is the security of our country.”
    The FBI, Justice, ICE, TSA, etc, are all involved in security and they (am i ignorant or naive) are not under Secretary of Defense. That the General Staff think they rule all fits perfectly with good ol’ Tommy Franks statement, apropos of nothing to my knowledge, that if another 911 befell us martial law would be declared. The corporate takeover, always increasing, gives us Benito’s fascism, a further move to militarism will fit well with the nasty aggression of the Peace Prize-r and his followers. I think we should question everything, starting from scratch in setting the framework.

  9. TarheelDem says:

    No doubt calling climate change a “threat” instead of a “threat multiplier” in a document released before a midterm election and more importantly before a vote on a continuing resolution for the next fiscal year’s appropriations.

    No sense in waving a red flag in front of elephants.

  10. Adam Colligan says:

    This isn’t really a fair assessment of the research linking climate change to conflict or of the breadth of the DoD’s work on the issue.
    I actually worked on a, 5-year, multi-institution, DoD-funded project about the relationship between Climate Change and African political stability. And there have for years been climate-related components in the planning and assessment of all kinds of Pentagon and IC programs, not just big-picture reports like this one that seek to make a big global strategic meaning out of it. With regard to the fossil fuel burning that goes on in a conflict like the ISIL one, it’s also worth noting that the DoD has been one of the most interesting leaders in producing working testbeds for the use of biofuels, even in combat platforms.
    But the most glaring problem in this post is the definitve way you assert what the social, political, and military consequences of climate change are going to be. The truth is not so simple. Tere has been a lot of very interesting research coming out in the past few years that has sought to directly test links between climactic events (both gradual and accute) and conflict or the precursors to conflict. And the results are mixed and often counter-intuitive. At the risk of drastically over-summarizing: there is not a strong basis right now for confidently backing a “resource wars” thesis or any of the other common related ideas about climate and conflict. (Some of those other ideas include scenarios like disaster-induced anarchy, armed migrant invasions, popular revolts based on social despair from lost livelihoods, etc.).
    This isn’t to say that there won’t be consequences like those, especially in isolated cases; and it ceertainly isn’t to say that climate change isn’t scary from a geopolitical or military perspective. But the DoD is absolutely right to use the hedging and conditional language that it uses in that report when discussing possible causal chains for climate change to induce crises. And it is also right to characterize the current understanding of climate change as a threat multiplier — an agent that interacts with existing sources and patterns of conflict rather than introducing a whole new game. You are wrong to characterize this language as some kind of “demotion” of climate change (although, to be honest, sometime’s it’s going to be a multiplier between 0 and 1 that actually diminishes conflict potentials).

    • emptywheel says:

      Sorry. You’re entirely missing my point.

      Climate change is already killing more people here than the purported biggest DOD threat, terrorism. Already. Not in dispute. And that will only get worse.

      Therefore, we should treat it as a primary threat, not JUST as a threat multiplier. I am in no way doubting that it is a threat multiplier. But anyone who regards it solely as such is simply abdicating security in this country.

      • Adam Colligan says:

        Heart disease and cancer are already killing way more people than either climate change or terrorism. And the rise of obesity is producing a bigger delta in all sorts of deadly harms than other changes in risks. Does that mean the DoD is somehow remiss in not reporting those things as primary threats?
        Of course not. The DoD is concerned with security threats and, to some extent, natural disaster deployment needs. When it comes to the former, the impact of climate change is very uncertain. There is good reason to doubt the conventional wisdom that security threats will be systematically induced in a direct or novel way by climate change itself. When it comes to the latter, climate change is not creating new types of natural disaster threats but rather is changing the frequency and scale of existing types of needs (multiplying).

  11. prostratedragon says:

    The persistence of this glaring fragment of cognitive dissonance is what’s had me close to surrender of late:

    That is, even while DOD notes — laudably, given how dysfunctional our government is — that climate change is going to destabilize countries and will even require deployment of the Reserve to limit instability in our own country, it is burning up fossil fuels at an alarming rate, even in its relatively circumscribed operation against ISIL.

    Maybe it’s time to link greenhouse effect climate change and military greenhouse gas production at every opportunity. One must use the way in that one can.

  12. Rayne says:

    So basically we pissed away another 18 months of inaction, in spite of previous DoD QDR which said “climate change is a critical strategic concern with regard to its operations and its impact on defense efforts,” and DoS QQDR which said “climate change is a serious threat to our national security.”

    But as long as classified executive orders and other secret documents outlining the terms by which the US remains entrenched with certain fossil fuel provider-states, we’ll continue to see a conflict between what our country truly needs for the defense of its people, and the continuity of its current culture of excess built on fossil fuel consumption.

    Doesn’t help that a substantive number of Congress are little more than whores, selling out their bully pulpits and votes for petro-dollars.

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