The climate has always been a factor in war. Now, however, it's discussed like the enemy itself.
This week, both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry described climate change as a throttle for trouble of all kinds. At a security-related conference in Alaska, Obama invoked “entire industries of people who can’t practice livelihoods, desperate refugees, political disruptions that could trigger conflicts around the world.”
Kerry, who has previously described climate change as “another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,” went even further. He predicted a wave of new climate refugees—forced to abandon homes in search of food or water.
“You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, he said, "wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival." He closed by comparing the scale of the threat to World War II, when “all of Europe was overrun by evil and civilization itself seemed to be in peril.”
It's not just rhetoric. Kerry and Obama are echoing equally strong language from the upper echelons of the Pentagon.
Admiral Samuel Locklear of the Pacific Command has called climate change (and not, say, North Korea) his largest security concern. David Titley, who until recently was the oceanographer of the Navy, has compared the present moment to Sept. 10, 2001, or the years before WWI. For the Army’s Chief Academic Officer Dr. Wendell King, climate change is “a war that last 100 years.”
The specter of a warmer, more turbulent Earth also pervades the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s official outline of global priorities. Yes, it’s impossible to blame any given conflict on the weather, the planners concede. But while climate change doesn’t kidnap a schoolgirl or steal a nuclear weapon, it does set the stage for such acts, according to the QDR.
“The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world,” according to the Pentagon’s best minds. “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
That’s driving new investments in weather and climate even as budgets fall overall. Soon, new weather satellites will barber-stripe the globe while climatological drones criss-cross the oceans, gobbling up data.
Scott Hausman, the former commander of the Pentagon’s office of combat climatology, recently told msnbc that people with “.mil” domains -- official U.S. military addresses -- have been accessing more federal climate data in general. In January of 2012, for instance, the largest set of federal climate data got 155,000 hits from ".mil" domains. By this past January, the number of hits had nearly doubled, to 293,000.
In February, the National Academy of Sciences published a groundbreaking report on the use “geoengineering – the intentional re-making of Mother Earth – as a way to stop climate change. What made the report unusual wasn’t the subject so much as the financial backer: the Central Intelligence Agency, which paid $630,000 to better understand what might happen if we—or another country—started pushing the planet’s buttons.
There is still more to do, experts argue, and the Arctic is a good place to start. In Alaska on Tuesday, Obama proposed the swift addition of two more icebreakers to the American fleet. The boats should help crack open the Artic year-round, enhancing American “safety and security” in the region, where the loss of summer ice has set off a multi-nation race for military and commercial supremacy, the White House said.
“If the administration actually follows through on funds for icebreaking, charting, ports, and Arctic awareness in general that will be a very encouraging development,” former Rear Admiral David Titely told msnbc.
Until retiring from the Navy in 2012, Titely lead the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, which included a close study of the polar region. He thinks the U.S. is “falling behind” in relation to other nations with a stake in the Arctic circle, including Canada, Denmark, Norway, China and, most notably, Russia.
The former Soviet republic has more than 40 icebreakers, and another eleven under construction, according to the White House. The country has also added military bases, re-opened others, and launched the largest training operations in the region since the fall of the USSR.
“For centuries, Russia’s northern frontier has been protected by thick, year-round ice that was a barrier to anyone or thing operating on the surface. Now that barrier is going away,” Titely said. “So we really don’t know how all this will play out.”