As soon as the new year rang in, Senator Bernie Sanders made an impassioned argument about taking climate change seriously: “We must look at climate change as if it were a devastating military attack against the United States and the entire planet. And we must respond accordingly.” Critics from across the spectrum immediately pounced. However, while the critics are right to attack Senator Sanders for this argument, they are wrong about what precisely is bad about it. The problem is not, as they indicate, that there are no feasible military-based responses to climate change. The problem is that there are, they’re dangerous, and they’re unlikely to offer the kinds of solutions desperately needed at this juncture.
First, let’s start with the observation that Sen. Sanders is far from the first person to argue that we should treat climate change as a military-security problem. In 2007, the military advisory board of the CNA Corporation said “global climate change presents a new type of national security challenge.” In 2011, under Obama, the National Research Council warned in a report titled “National Security Implications for Climate Change for US Naval Forces” that climate change will present “new national security challenges for the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.” In 2017, Trump’s own Defense Secretary Mattis testified before Congress that “climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.” The Center for Climate and Security has a more comprehensive list of reports from the Department of Defense and the intelligence community under the past three administrations linking climate change to military security. Clearly, climate-as-a-security-issue is a well-established and bipartisan argument.
Second, in contrast to Sanders’ critics on the left and right, the people arguing for a national security approach to climate change are not demanding, as Jim Hanson, Ben Howe, and Jerry Dunleavy derisively assert, that we “nuke the atmosphere” or shoot the sun. Rather, they argue that we take seriously the national security implications of climate change. For example, melting sea ice in the Arctic is likely to lead to increased shipping access in the region. Security concerns could include: the need for increased capabilities to conduct search-and-rescue operations for growing traffic in the region, the possibility that hostile states might extend territorial claims over underground oil and gas reserves, and the need for increased military surveillance and presence in Arctic coastal territories made more accessible by depleted sea ice.
In addition, increased climate stress and drought could create political instability and disrupt the acquisition of important resources, including raw materials like steel, and oil. A security-oriented approach could focus on strengthening geostrategically important regimes facing crises exacerbated by climate vulnerability, and ensuring that the US has military infrastructure that is resilient in the face of dramatic changes in precipitation, heatwaves, and other kinds of climatic stress. Droughts, flooding, and environmental vulnerability are also likely (according to the security thinkers) to lead to another kind of national security challenge. Where countries are particularly unstable or underdeveloped, climate stress could provoke greater out-migration and yet another refugee crisis.
As a result, it is clear that Sanders’ statement that we should think of climate change as a “military attack” is not at all that outlandish. Indeed, the argument that we should think of climate change as a military issue is one that has received a lot of favorable press among environmentalists since the Bush administration. Consider, for example, The Progressive saying we should “listen to the military on climate change.” Or the NRDC asking: “the military takes climate change seriously. Why won’t the commander-in-chief?”
These arguments certainly seem intuitive. The military is consistently the most trusted institution. Despite the high-profile missteps and scandals of Generals Flynn, Kelly, and Petraeus, military leaders are largely seen as no-nonsense, clear-eyed defenders of the state. If anyone can be trusted to keep America’s best interest in mind, and to stay the course in defending the nation, it is them. Moreover, the US has a demonstrable willingness to fund the military. This willingness is itself attributable to the fact that we take threats to national security very seriously, and understandably prioritize actions needed to restore or maintain this security. In this case, why not treat climate as a security issue and ‘respond accordingly’ per Sanders? It might certainly indicate a shift of priorities to finally address the “existential threat” of climate change. In fact, we’ve already started describing climate change in militaristic terms: see, for example, the references to the carbon stored in the tar sands as a “carbon bomb.”
Unfortunately, where Sanders’ analogy falls short is that ‘listening to the military’ might spur greater attention to the problem, but there is no indication that the solutions offered by this approach will be rooted in the humanitarian-based approach needed to effectively combat climate change. Take, for example, two likely possibilities of increased environmental vulnerability in weak states: growing numbers of climate refugees, and destabilized countries. In the first case, we already have an idea about how US administrations, particularly those informed by militaristic approaches to national security might respond to the concerns raised by mass movements of refugees. As people have fled from immediate poverty and violence in Latin America and the Middle East, the Trump administration has responded by increasing restrictions on immigration, banning immigrants and refugees from entire countries, and closing borders. As Todd Miller argues in Storming the Wall, growing humanitarian crises from a worsening climate could lead to border hardening, rather than poverty alleviation and climate mitigation.
Second, US foreign policy since the Cold War has shown that the United States is willing to respond to destabilizing states by propping up authoritarian leaders who promise to keep an unruly population in check. This should be particularly concerning to anyone concerned about the effects of drought, flooding, and resource scarcity on marginalized populations. In countries like Egypt, Israel, Nigeria, the Sudan, Mauritania, and Pakistan, hardline leaders have frequently exacerbated scarcity by shifting scarce resources (most importantly water) to vested interests and away from the most needy. As history has shown, a military-based approach to climate insecurity could mean strengthening the ability of hardline regimes to withstand demands for resource redistribution amidst growing inequity. Indeed, this was the US’s approach to Egypt under Mubarak. Given Bolsonaro’s pledge to strip indigenous rights in the Amazon, and Trump’s support for Bolsonaro, this pattern is unlikely to change in the future.
Finally, if the rhetoric and positioning around the increasingly accessible Arctic is anything to go by, a militaristic and security-oriented response to melting Arctic ice does not indicate the kind of climate policy environmentalists hope for. Rather than treating historically low ice levels as a warning, Arctic states have started scrambling for advantage in the region, claiming territory which, in an ironic twist, can be used to further explore fossil fuel exploitation. None of these approaches – hardening borders, propping up weak, but autocratic states, and extending military control over the Arctic – is likely to help deal with the humanitarian dangers of climate change. In fact, they are likely to worsen them, and will do little to address the root causes and inequity driving climate change.
In conclusion, Senator Sanders is wrong about treating climate change as a military attack, not because doing so is frivolous. But because doing so is deeply problematic. What we need are solutions that address the fundamental injustice at the root of the climate crisis. We know what these solutions are: protecting indigenous and minority rights in places like Ecuador, Nigeria, Louisiana, and Canada, where oil extraction proceeds apace under injustice and human rights abuses. Curbing subsidies for oil production and exploration. Recognizing, resettling and compensating climate refugees from places like Bangladesh and the Maldives who are losing land, due to no fault of their own. Improving the social safety net for low-income and working-class people, who otherwise will not be able to afford the transition towards low- or zero-emission energy and transportation societies.
To be clear, these solutions will create losers, particularly among people who work in the fossil fuel sector and, given the need to raise revenue to support low-income and the working-class, among high-income taxpayers. However, the current climate crisis is already creating losers, and militarizing our response to climate change will only make their burden worse. Given the fact that income inequality in the US and worldwide is now at levels last seen during the Great Depression while oil companies have posted record profits, I think we can afford to shift the burden of the transition to those who have profited from it to date.