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The NatSec Guide to Climate Change
Just what you need to worry about.
For the battlefield commander, weather is just another planning factor. The rains soak soldiers to the bone and lower morale, but they can also keep enemy air out of the skies. The sunshine warms the soaking wet soldier, but also forces them out of view of enemy reconnaissance assets and dehydrates them. If weather is the flip-flopping ally soldier turned enemy and back again, then climate is the weather’s commander. For the policymaker, the weather is making you sweat in your suit during a DC summer. Climate is what’s making that summer start in April and last through October.
As defined by NOAA, “weather reflects short-term conditions of the atmosphere while climate is the average daily weather for an extended period of time at a certain location.” In other words, weather is the atmospheric conditions (rain, snow, heat) you are experiencing right now, and climate determines the frequency and severity of those conditions. In this episode of Breaking Beijing, I’d like to break down what you actually need to know about climate change as it pertains to national security and operational planning. As my novel EX SUPRA uses the near-term acceleration of climate change to help drive the events in the book, I will be using four passages from EX SUPRA to speak about specific operational and policy concerns as they pertain to particular regions and events.
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Now, if you pick up a national security publication these days you’re sure to find at least one article on how X is national security. Food security. Wealth inequality. Climate Change. Infrastructure. There is a time and place for all of these things, but not everything can be an imminent national security threat all the time. Not only is this bad for strategic planning, it’s a great way to lose your damn mind by becoming hysteric and neurotic about every issue in the 24/7 news cycle.
In the case of climate change, I’d like to show where the rubber meets the road. In other words, when do you as a natsec policy person need to start caring about and factoring in climate change as a part of national security. I’m not here to tell you to drill in ANWR or pass the Green New Deal. I’m not an expert in climate policy, just catastrophe. Let’s get started.
“The closer one got to the Tibetan Plateau, the harder every mile of travel became. To make matters worse, the effects of climate change ravaged the sub-continent harder than most of the world. Mudslides, flooding, and heavy snowfall turned much of the region into an ecological hellhole. Half of the casualties on both sides of the Tawang line came from the environment, freak storms flooded foxholes as soldiers slept, and as it got colder, buried soldiers in snow. The sudden bursts of warm weather were the worst, the landslides wiped out entire platoons of dug-in soldiers in a matter of seconds. India had done little to prepare its infrastructure for the brutality of nature, and everyone in Prada was paying the price. China, on the other hand, spent decades and billions of dollars in infrastructure throughout the Tibetan plateau, giving the PLA reinforcements a smooth ride from Chengdu to Prada.” - “EX SUPRA”, EX SUPRA
War will forever be harsh and unforgiving, but through technology and lessons learned, we have made a lot of things easier. In many ways we have conquered nature, and now nature is pushing back. As a commander or policymaker, you have to understand first the reality on the ground in order to shape the bigger picture.
At the most basic, tactical level, climate change impacts your every day by making weather harder to predict and therefore complicating operations. More intense storms, rapid changes in temperature, and unreliable geography will make your soldiers miserable, shift timelines, and increase casualties. The weather is a soldier’s first enemy, so dealing with it is not new. Rather, the challenge comes in mitigating the damage from the severity of climate change-driven extreme weather. Teaching soldiers how to deal with extreme weather, pack accordingly, and grit their teeth is just about all you can do at the tactical level. Embrace the suck, and advocate for the right gear.
“When the battalion plus of refugee Marines arrived with a few battered destroyers, frigates, and the USS America, the Guadalcanal of John Basilone and Chesty Puller was already gone. Climate change ravaged the impoverished island, and the new shoreline made littoral navigation incredibly difficult for the Navy’s ships. Honiara International Airport, formerly Henderson Field, was partially flooded and in a state of disrepair from years of neglect. Most of the island’s residents had fled as the seas rose in the late 2020s, and those left on the island weren’t in any better shape than the Marines.” -With the New Breed, EX SUPRA
At the operational level, you have more to worry about than just shitty weather making your day a little bit more miserable. Everything from maps to logistics plans will have to be regularly updated and refined as the climate becomes more unpredictable. Former sites used even a few years before may soon no longer be viable from airfields to roads. Engineer reconnaissance will only become more important as the environment becomes just as dynamic as the enemy. There are countless tales of units arriving first in theater to find the decades-old maps or operational knowledge held over from the last war are completely out of date. In the next war, we cannot assume real-time overhead surveillance, nor does overhead surveillance tell you the whole story. A satellite can’t tell you whether the soil can carry a tank or a JLTV, nor can a drone tell you if the newfound swamp of stagnant water from recent flooding expanded the mosquito population to your planned FOB.
This is where the operational environment begins to become relevant to the natsec world: logistics, intelligence, and casualty rates. If MRE rations get cut because the enemy drops artillery on the beachhead, that’s a commander’s problem. If the unit can’t operate from a pre-planned location because the money wasn’t allotted for the Seabees to repair a flooded airfield, that’s on DC. If maps are old because the unit’s S2 failed to do their job, that’s a commander’s problem. If a unit has no visibility or familiarity into a potential operating environment because DoD or State didn’t clear it, or the environmental surveys weren’t funded, that’s DC’s problem. A soldier dies from a landslide that is tragic, the unit mourns and the commander has to write another letter home. If whole units become combat ineffective because of a malaria outbreak or the fleet is scuttled by a storm because the meteorological models were wrong as a result of bad data from defunding Arctic and climate research, that is DC’s problem. Don’t get people killed because of political cowardice or just plain ignorance.
So how can you do right as a natsec policy person? Ensure commanders have the relevant data and information, don’t let State or DoD politics run roughshod over necessary collection, mil-con, and scientific research. It’s not as sexy as the NGSW or an anti-ship missile, but it’s just as important and will only be more so in the coming years. Fund that new meteorological center, understand why DoD needs Arctic scientists, read up on why the folks on the ground need these things. Don’t just hand wave the back-end support because you think it’s some hippie nonsense.
“It was a center of world commerce, trade, and investment. It was a symbol of East-West fusion, rich and powerful far beyond its size, clean and beautiful to match. Then the 2020s came and with them the first climate change-driven migrations, the effects hit the subcontinent before the rest of Southeast Asia. Singapore’s fortune only lasted so long, with rising tides and ethnic tensions turning the city into an unstable metropolis on the brink of disaster.” -A Hell of a Way to Die, EX SUPRA
Climate change (man-made or otherwise) drives conflict. Not all conflict, but when the basics of survival are up for debate, someone will start throwing punches. There’s a reason famine and plague are two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. When the rivers dry up, or are dammed up, lack of freshwater will start fights. China is actively damming its freshwater supplies at the expense of Southeast Asia. Rising global temperatures and human encroachment on wilderness expose us to new diseases and drive the evolution of animal-borne illnesses. Drought cuts global food supplies, particularly to developing nations, and war accelerates that vicious cycle as supply chains are broken. Overfishing, as China does around the world, is driven by an ever-increasing need for basic staples without effective replenishment of those populations. Simply put, countries have been greedy and careless as they’ve grown, and as those resources dwindle, they are becoming greedy and aggressive out of necessity and fear for their own domestic stability. China is perhaps the most frequent and egregious violator today, but far from the only one at fault. Shortages, famine, lack of employment, lack of housing, etc, all drive migration. As populations jump from one location to another, ethnic tensions will undoubtedly rise and friction occur. Sometimes this is as simple as riots in the street, and sometimes it can turn into political upheaval, civil war, and genocide. For US policymakers, this matters because global instability spreads our resources thin, distracts us from our own priorities, and power vacuums invite authoritarian regimes that only create more pain and complication.
How can you manage this? By mitigating the problems before the accelerate out of control. Water diplomacy, through desalinization programs for our allies and partners, should be at the core of any international aid effort. For food and other resources, this is why sustainable practices matter. Sure the hippies love it, but when you don’t have to wake up at 3am to a coup in some country your boss has never heard of, you’re gonna love it too. Effectively managing resources, at home and abroad, will make conflict less severe and less likely. Unfortunately, the enemy gets a vote too.
In the case of China, their need for basic resources will be the most likely source of global conflict beyond the immediate Taiwan threat. In fact, in EX SUPRA that’s why the war in 2035 starts: China needs more resources or they face disaster and the Pacific isn’t big enough for two great powers. Sure hydrocarbons and rare-earths drive the modern economy, but when food and water are in short supply, the threat is more existential. From the US perspective, this means both helping allies in the ways mentioned above to reduce their dependence on Chinese resources, while also ensuring we recognize and fight China’s illegal resource practices for what they are. Sanctions, intelligence-sharing, and enforcing global norms for resources are all basic starting points. But first and foremost, you and your boss have to understand that these are not minor issues. The damming of the Mekong and other freshwater supplies, overfishing, resource hoarding, these are all core interests of the Chinese Communist Party because they view it as key to their survival. If you ignore the effects of climate change, you’re ignoring the threat of the CCP.
“It was true his country had seen better days. The drought, fires, and monsoons from the accelerating effects of climate change had done some real damage. The country survived on heavy industry exports, raw materials that were plentiful in Australia but increasingly rare in the rest of the developed world. What this meant for Australian politics was that the ruling party owed its successes to foreign trade with, and investment from, the People’s Republic of China. In the late 2010s, it seemed that Australia was finally freeing itself of covert Chinese influence and corruption, but the global depression of the 2020s, coupled with the effects of climate change, meant that dollars, or rather Renminbi, meant more than democracy.” -Detour, EX SUPRA
Not only is resource scarcity likely to invite greater Chinese aggression, it’s likely to force choices on our allies and partners that endanger our own security. Australia faces horrendous wildfires and drought while trying to overhaul its economy, India suffers from poor infrastructure, energy shortages, and record heat waves while the Chinese beat down their door in the melting Himalayas. Pakistan faces record floods, the African continent faces food and water shortages while suffering from resource abuse and pollution from global corporations. Britain faces its hottest summer on record. All of these are driving increased mortality rates, political instability, and forcing our allies and partners to choose in often survivalist manners that limit their ability to partner with the US. If you through Europe’s addition to Russian gas in the face of the Fukushima crisis was bad, wait until you see what happens when our friends have to choose between feeding their populations and standing up to Beijing.
In many cases, we have the ability to mitigate damage through technology like smart crops or green technology (including nuclear energy), but we are often shortchanged by domestic politics that reject climate science and international aid. This will come back to cost us in blood and treasure. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to understand that our friends are hurting, that we are hurting, and that you have to stop or at least slow the bleeding before something really bad happens.
To summarize, climate change matters because the effects are already here. Every day we see greater flooding, fires, and intense storms in our own backyard. Overseas, our enemies are taking stock of their own resources and making plans to collect more while our allies are scrambling to make their economies more sustainable. While the hysteria from films like The Day After Tomorrow are just that, perhaps a better painting of the threat posed by climate change in the near-term are the old biblical stories: plague, famine, flood, drought, war. If we don’t actively seek to mitigate damage from climate change and compensate for the extreme weather that is already here, those stories are going to start feeling a lot more real for all of us. Why should you care about the Arctic melting? Because that causes shifts in salinity, migrations, and sea levels that directly drive resource levels, conflict, and operational readiness. Why does it matter if a particular fish dies out? Because that fish is responsible for a certain percentage of global calorie consumption. Famine drives instability, instability drives conflict. Why should you care if a certain population loses access to fresh water? Because it drives all of the above. Climate change is national security when its effects are felt in real terms, and one day soon we’re going to find that not everybody thinks the earth is big enough for all of us.
Beyond the Green New Deal, beyond “Drill, Baby, Drill",” the effects of climate change and resource scarcity are legitimate planning factors for everyone from the lowly battalion commander to the President’s national security advisor. I said I’d tell you when to start caring about if, the time is now. Get planning.
If you would like to read more about our future with climate change, US-China resource conflict, check out my novel, EX SUPRA. And if you have any suggestions for topics for future newsletters, please send them my way on Twitter @Iron_Man_Actual.
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