The Pentagon on Climate Change

Skeptics of climate change unremittingly contend that the science is inconclusive and the debate is still unsettled. Backed by the coal and oil industry, the skeptic lobby has cast doubt on the human role in global warming and the environmental risk of burning fossil fuels.

The U.S. military, on the other hand, has followed the climate science with a growing sense of alarm.

As far back as 2003 (during the first term of the pro-oil Bush/Cheney Administration), a specially commissioned Pentagon report warned that rapid climate change could “potentially destabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war” over scarce food, water and energy supplies.

Authored by Peter Schwartz, a CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and the Implications for United States Security” sought to “imagine the unthinkable.” The sudden onset of climate change, the analysts argued, would be little short of catastrophic: “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life… Once again, warfare would define human life.” So great was the risk inherent in such a scenario, Schwartz and Randall wrote, that climate change needed to “be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern.”

The political fall-out generated by the report wound up being almost as big a bombshell as the findings themselves. Far from being some crackpot venture, the top-secret study was the brainchild of Andrew Marshall, a legendary Pentagon advisor who had exerted considerable influence over U.S. military thinking for three decades. According to the British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, the then-82-year-old Marshall headed “a secretive think-tank dedicated to weighing risks to national security, called the ‘Office of Net Assessment.’ Dubbed ‘Yoda’ by Pentagon insiders who respect his vast experience, he is credited with being behind the Department of Defense’s push on ballistic-missile defense… and was the man behind a sweeping recent review aimed at transforming the American military under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.”

Completed in October 2003, the climate change study was promptly suppressed by the Defense Department until The Observer secured a copy four months later. In a February 2004 article, the newspaper cited the suppression as proof that the Bush/Cheney Administration, which had repeatedly denied that global warming even exists, was trying “to bury the threat of climate change.”

Several of the world’s leading figures on climate change immediately seized on the study’s findings, arguing, The Observer reported, that “the Pentagon’s internal fears should prove the ‘tipping point’ in persuading Bush to accept climate change.” The chief scientist for the World Bank and previous chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bob Watson, openly wondered:

Can Bush ignore the Pentagon? It’s going to be hard to blow off this sort of document. It’s hugely embarrassing. After all, Bush’s single-highest priority is national defense. The Pentagon is no wacko, liberal group; generally speaking, it is conservative. If climate change is a threat to national security and the economy, then he has to act.

Greenpeace’s Rob Gueterbock, asked for his reaction, was quoted as saying at the time: “You’ve got a President who says global warming is a hoax, and across the Potomac River you’ve got a Pentagon preparing for climate wars. It’s pretty scary when Bush starts to ignore his own government on this issue.”

Report co-author, Doug Randall, told The Observer that the potential ramifications of rapid climate change would create global chaos. “This is depressing stuff,” he said. “It is a national security threat that is unique because there is no enemy to point your guns at and we have no control over the threat.” Randall worried that it was already possibly too late to prevent a disaster from happening. “We don’t know exactly where we are in the process. [Abrupt climate change] could start tomorrow and we would not know for another five years.” Under the circumstances, he said, “It seems obvious that cutting the use of fossil fuels would be worthwhile.”

The Center for Naval Analyses Study

By 2007, when the Defense Department’s “Center for Naval Analyses” released its landmark report, National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, the Bush/Cheney Administration had officially acknowledged the reality of global warming—although they continued to quibble about whether humans were in fact the cause. The 11-member “Military Advisory Board” (MAB) of retired three-star and four-star admirals and generals who headed up the Center’s study, on the other hand, unanimously accepted the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, concluding that “the evidence is sufficiently compelling and the consequences sufficiently grave” to warrant the military’s urgent attention.

Advisory Board Chair General Gordon Sullivan summed up the MAB’s perspective on the climate science debate this way: “We never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield. That’s something we know.”

The report flatly stated that climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security. In the 21st century, the study emphasized, energy, water and the environment are critical factors for economic and security stability, and “when these factors are not in balance, people live in poverty, suffer high death rates, or move towards armed conflict.” Climate change, the Advisory Board members asserted, acts as a “threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.” Nor will the stable regions of the world be immune to these increased tensions. “Unlike the challenges we are used to dealing with,” Navy Vice Admiral Richard Truly noted, “these will come upon us extremely slowly, but come they will, and they will be grinding and inexorable. But maybe more challenging is that they will affect every nation, and all simultaneously.”

In response to this threat, the Military Advisory Board proposed a number of recommendations, including that

  • The national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies.
  • The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.
  • The U.S. should commit to global partnerships that help less developed nations build the capacity and resiliency to better manage climate impacts.

The report also called upon the Department of Defense to adopt energy efficiency measures and to conduct an assessment of the impact rising sea levels, extreme weather events and other potential climate change effects would have on U.S. military installations worldwide in the next 30 to 40 years.

Unlike with the Bush/Cheney White House, there was no mistaking the Pentagon’s views on the climate issue: climate change represents a palpable threat not only to America’s national security, but to its status as a world superpower. And contending with this threat, the report authors stressed, will not be cheap. As Marine General Anthony Zinni observed, “We will pay for this one way or another. We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or, we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives. There will be a human toll.”

2010 Quadrennial Defense Review

Once every four years, the Department of Defense issues a “Quadrennial Defense Review” (QDR), a strategy document that lays out the Pentagon’s vision for its missions and force structure in the face of anticipated threats. The Congressionally mandated QDR process “frames the strategic choices for the Department and establishes priorities to determine appropriate resource investments.” In February 2010, for the first time ever, climate change was formally designated in the QDR as a ‘National Security Threat.’

Climate change, according to the QDR, affects U.S. security “in two broad ways”: first, by accelerating the conditions for global instability and conflict, and second, by its physical impact on the Department of Defense’s facilities and capabilities. Climate-related changes, from increases in heavy downpours and rises in temperature and sea level to rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost and earlier snowmelt, “are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters,” the QDR states. In stark, no-holds-barred language, the review warns that “climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration. While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability and conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” The review cautions that extreme weather events could well lead to increased demands on the Pentagon for humanitarian assistance or disaster response not only at home, but overseas.

As the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels and, correspondingly, the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, the Defense Department is itself a hefty part of the climate problem. But in the 2010 QDR, remarkably, the Pentagon pledges to dramatically reduce its own carbon footprint through increased energy efficiency and major investments in renewable energy.

The GOP / Military Rift over Climate

Neither the Pentagon nor U.S. intelligence agencies conduct their own independent scientific research on the earth’s climate, and over the past decade, both of these entities have conscientiously endeavored to distance themselves from the political debate over climate change. Charged as they are with defending America’s national interests, they have instead focused their attention on the security repercussions climate change is already triggering. “The American people expect the military to plan for the worst,” retired Vice Admiral Lee Gunn stated in regard to the 2010 QDR. “It’s that sort of mindset, I think, that has convinced, in my view, the vast majority of military leaders that climate change is a real threat and that the military plays an important role in confronting it.”

It’s both ironic and exasperating, then, that the Republican Party—which for decades has styled itself as the party of national defense and military strength—has now become such a bastion for climate skepticism and denial. Debunking the international scientific consensus on climate change has become a veritable article of faith among Republican candidates and officeholders. That fanatical position, however, puts the GOP squarely at odds with the military establishment, which has unequivocally accepted the scientific conclusions of the 98 percent of the world’s climatologists who actually conduct research on climate and publish in journals reviewed by their peers.

This past November, yet another Department of Defense-commissioned study on climate change was released—this one by the “Defense Science Board,” the department’s science advisers. The report, Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security, asserts that “Climate change is already intensifying the environmental and resource problems that communities are facing… Climate impacts are observable, measurable, real, and having near and long-term consequences,” most notably in Africa, where social conflict has been particularly prevalent for decades. Failure to anticipate and mitigate these changes, the report states, “increases the threat of more failed states with the instabilities and potential for conflict inherent in such failures.”

Climate change, the Defense Science Board bluntly warns, is already occurring and only destined to grow as a security concern for the U.S. And the longer we (and the GOP’s skeptics and deniers) delay acting, the worse it’s going to be for all of us, everywhere.

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February 18th 2014

george - great article - smart commentary and really nice timeline.

May 6th 2015

otvyoutube - The History of the Pentagon