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Emanuel Pastreich Headshot

I Have Seen the Enemy and the Enemy Is Climate Change

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To drown by desert or drown by ocean?

Climate change has borne two insidious twins that are greedily devouring the patrimony of the good earth: spreading deserts and rising oceans. As the Kubuqi Desert slouches east towards Beijing, it joins hands with other rising deserts in dry lands across Asia, Africa and around the world. At the same time, the oceans of the world are rising, growing more acidic and engulfing the coastlines of islands and continents. Between these two threats, there is not much margin for humans -- and there will be no leisure time for far-fetched fantasies about wars on two continents.

Meanwhile, melting polar ice caps are driving a rise in sea levels that will threaten coastal dwellers as shores vanish and extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy are becoming regular occurrences. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report titled "Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington: Past, Present, and Future" in June 2012, projecting that global sea levels will rise 8 to 23 centimeters by 2030, relative to the 2000 level, 18 to 48 centimeters by 2050, and 50 to 140 centimeters by 2100. That catastrophe will be within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

It would not be true to say that we are doing nothing to address the environmental crisis, but if we are a species facing extinction, then we are not doing much. And if you look at the threats for which we spend over a trillion dollars a year, climate is not even in the top twenty topics for the military.

Maybe part of the problem is the time frame. The military tends to think about security in fast motion: How can you secure an airport in a few hours, or bomb a newly acquired target within a theater of operations within a few minutes? That trend is exacerbated by the increasing speed of the cycle of intelligence gathering and analysis overall. We need to be able to respond to Web-based network attacks or missile launches instantaneously. Although rapidity of response has a certain aura of effectiveness, the psychological need for a fast answer has little to do with real security.

What if the primary security threat were to be measured in hundreds of years? There does not seem to be any system in place in the military and security community for grappling with problems on such a time-scale. This problem is one of the most serious facing mankind today. For example, the loss of topsoil globally is something on the order of 1 percent a year, making it a shift that is invisible on the policy radar screens in Washington, D.C. But that trend will be catastrophic for all of humanity in less than a century, as it takes hundreds of years to create topsoil.

Janet Redman, co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network suggests that we must find some sort of a long-term definition of security that can be accepted in security circles: "Ultimately, we need to start thinking about security in an inter-generational sense, as what might be called 'inter-generational security.' That is to say, what you do today will impact the future, will impact your kids, your grandchildren and on beyond us." Moreover, Redman suggests, climate change is just too scary for many people. "If the problem is really that severe, it could completely undo everything we have come to value; destroy the world as we know it."

Fighting spreading deserts and rising oceans will take colossal resources and all of our collective wisdom. The response involves not only restructuring our entire government and economy, but also recreating our civilization. Yet the question remains: Is the response a mere reshuffling of priorities and incentives, or is this threat the true equivalent of war, i.e., "total war," different only in the nature of the response and the assumed "enemy?" Are we looking at a life-and-death crisis that demands mass mobilization, a controlled and rationed economy and large-scale strategic planning for the short and long term? Does this crisis demand, in short, a war economy and a complete rethinking of the military system?

Certainly there is a danger that military culture and assumptions will be incorrectly applied to the issue of climate change, a threat that ultimately is best addressed by cultural transformation. What if the Pentagon were to seize on climate change to justify even more military spending on projects with little or no applicability to the actual threat? We know that in many fields of traditional security this tendency is already a serious problem. As the United States has serious problems reining in its impulse to employ the military option as a solution for just about everything, we need, if anything, to rein in the military, not to fuel it further.

But as it regards climate change, the situation is different. Reinventing the military for the purpose of combating climate change is a necessary, if risky, step, and that process could fundamentally transform the culture, the mission, and the priorities of the entire security system. We have no choice but to engage in the debate with the military.

Unless the true security concerns are grasped, from desertification and rising oceans to food scarcity and aging populations, it may be impossible to find a collective security architecture that will allow for deep cooperation between the militaries of the world. After all, even if the U.S. military were to draw down or resign from its world-police role, the overall security situation would likely become more dangerous. Unless we can find room for cooperation between militaries that does not require a common potential enemy, we are unlikely to reduce the terrible risks we presently face.

It is a truism of the military that it is always preparing to fight the last war. Whether the African chiefs who fought European colonists with charms and spears, the Civil War generals passionate for horses who disparaged filthy railroads, or the generals of World War I who sent infantry divisions into machine-gun fire as though they were fighting the Franco-Prussian War, the military tends to assume that the next conflict will be merely a scaled-up version of the last one.

We must put forth a plan for a military that devotes 60 percent or more of its budget to developing technologies, infrastructures and practices to stop the spread of deserts, to revive oceans and to transform the destructive industrial systems of today into a new, sustainable economy. What would a military that took as its primary mission the reduction of pollution, the monitoring of the environment, remediation of environmental damage and adaptation to new challenges look like? Can we imagine a military whose primary mission is not to kill and destroy, but to preserve and protect?

We are calling on the military to do something that at present it is not designed to do. But throughout history, militaries often have been required to completely reinvent themselves to meet current threats. Moreover, climate change is a challenge unlike anything that our civilization has ever encountered. Retooling the military for environmental challenges is just one of many fundamental changes that we will see.

A systematic reassignment of every part of the current military-security system would be the first step toward moving from a piecemeal to a fundamental engagement. The Navy could deal primarily with protecting and restoring the oceans; the Air Force would take responsibility for the atmosphere, monitoring emissions and developing strategies for reducing air pollution; while the Army could handle land conservation and water issues. All branches would be responsible for responding to environmental disasters. Our intelligence services would take responsibility for monitoring the biosphere and its polluters, assessing its status and making long-term proposals for remediation and adaptation.

Such a radical shift would restore purpose and honor to the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces were once a calling for America's best and brightest, producing leaders like George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, rather than political infighters and prima donnas like David Petraeus. If the imperative of the military shifts, it will regain its social standing in American society and its officers would again be able to play a central role in contributing to national policy and not watch with their arms tied as weapons systems are pursued for the benefit of lobbyists and their corporate sponsors.

The United States faces a historic decision: We can passively follow the inevitable path toward militarism and imperial decline, or radically transform the present military-industrial complex into the model for a truly global collaborative to combat climate change. The latter path offers us the opportunity to correct America's missteps and to set off in a direction more likely to lead in the long run toward adaptation and survival.


Modified version of the Truthout article "On Climate, Defense Could Preserve and Protect, Rather Than Kill and Destroy."

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