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Climate change and the military: too bad you can’t shoot CO2

July 6, 2013

A visiting poster asked for my views about mitigation and adaptation, and what measures might be entailed (prompting this post in response – Climate change, mitigation and adaptation: what are we supposed to do, exactly? ). I had to consider this question for quite a while, because it occurred to me straight away how hard it was to plan for a future you can’t predict.

This unpredictability also seemed to be an undercurrent in a story I read this morning about Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, William Hague’s climate envoy (whatever that might be): Climate change poses grave threat to security, says UK envoy.

It’s becoming a familiar theme, this military concern with climate change. (As an aside, I find some wry amusement in the fact that climate change deniers have picked a fight not only with science, and with nature, but also with the entire world’s armed forces. Talk about brave or stupid: guess which one I’m plumping for?).

The quandary for the military is one of many. For centuries, conflict was a predictable affair, between nations, with opposing forces dressed so you could tell them apart, and clear markings on hardware so you knew what to shoot at.

Then came proxy wars; it became so dangerous to invoke warfare at the national level, those with opposing ideological or economic aspirations decided instead to duke it out overseas. South America, Africa and Asia became the killing fields, while arms manufacturers enjoyed Christmas pretty much every single day of the year. But still the military knew, more or less, who they were fighting, how to fight the enemy, and why they were doing so.

Then came asymmetric warfare. No longer could you recognise the enemy, nor tell where his allegiances might lie. Nations were no longer the protagonists (although they continued their support of insurgency), uniforms were abandoned, and threats could no longer be constrained by borders. To top it all, the penchant for overwhelming force, so reassuring to a public liking war but hating body bags stuffed full of their relatives, was a concept made redundant by tiny groups of men and women who could wreak terror on a nation with the contents of a backpack.

I’m sure as hell not going to feel sorry for them, but I do have some sympathy, and great respect, for the professional military, born out of an abiding interest in military history. For the services, coming to grips with such changes is hard enough, but when you have to factor in a war on nature itself, the job becomes almost impossible.

The reason I’ve reached this conclusion is because of the way my writing about climate change has developed. For some time now, I’ve spent more and more time discussing chaos. Climate science seemed to have laid out a map of sorts; do this, that will happen. We’ve discussed various scenarios, developed by the IPCC and others, where a range of inputs produces a range of outputs.

I think perhaps I’ve been a bit complacent in my assumptions. ‘Destabilisation’ has become the word I use most often to describe the effects of global warming. Climate change – the cumulative effects of global warming – is clearly not going to be a predictable affair. Far from it; as the speed of the Arctic ice volume loss last year demonstrated, combined with the knock-on effects of changes in polar air circulation, the only accurate prediction it now seems we can make are these: every pattern we’re used to is going to cease to be a pattern. The unexpected will be the only thing we can expect (other than sea level rise, which seems inescapable).

The military high commands across the globe no longer know what to arm against, what to spend money on, what to train and equip for. Everywhere you look, the outlook is one of profound instability; economic, social, political, military, agriculture – everything we’ve become reliant on can, and likely will, fail us.

For the armed forces, there is one clear outcome, one clear prognosis. They are the final arbiter of all disputes, and climate change will simply add to their burden. Whether it be border conflicts, trade disputes, energy security, food supplies, conventional national warfare or terrorism, it will be the military that will be called on. When domestic stability is threatened, when civil disorder becomes rife, the military will be used to quell riots, to protect property, to maintain the inevitable martial law that will be imposed if things get bad.

If things get bad? Don’t know why I’m equivocating. I should have said ‘when’.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. markhb permalink
    July 7, 2013 1:09 am

    As we now see in Egypt, where “democracy” was demanded, and those elected have largely failed to become statesmen.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    July 7, 2013 6:39 am

    Mark – it’s a tricky one. From this distance, I’m quite certain the information I have is insufficient to tell what’s really going on, but it is clear that democracy is problematic, both for those who, as you observe, fail to become statesmen, and for a public prepared to usurp democratic authority rather than use the electoral system to express dissent. Democracy is a deal that both sides have to observe for it to be cohesive.

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