Review: Stephen Kinzer on the US military and climate change

American generals do not fear war. Few in the Pentagon blanch at the idea of even a major conflict with another global power. If it brings mass casualties, that fairly comes with their line of business. The only thing that truly frightens American generals and admirals, security analyst Michael T. Klare tells us in his new book All Hell Breaking Loose, is the prospect of climate change. This is the specter that produces what he calls “the American military’s greatest nightmare.” It unfolds like this:

The armed forces are confronted with multiple warming-related crises abroad while the homeland itself is suffering from severe climate effects and many of the military’s own facilities are immobilized by rising seas or other climate impacts. With governments collapsing in many parts of the world, global trading systems—for food, energy, and other vital commodities—will begin to break down, producing widespread chaos and flight. In this terrifying scenario, the military will be stretched far beyond its deployable capacity … [Senior officers] dread institutional collapse under the weight of multiple deployments in impossible conditions.

In Klare’s reckoning, military commanders are well ahead of their counterparts in the White House and Congress when it comes to recognizing global warming. After conducting dozens of interviews, sitting in on many seminars at military academies, and combing through hundreds of reports and transcripts, he concludes that many senior officers “are convinced that climate change is real, is accelerating, and has direct and deleterious implications for American national security.” Warning signs are hardly lacking. In 2018 a hurricane devastated Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, heavily damaging a squadron of F-22 fighter jets and causing $5 billion in damage. Six months later flooding destroyed more than one hundred buildings at Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska, where the US Strategic Command is based. In the face of blows like these, the military cannot afford the luxury of inaction.

Klare traces the evolution of the Pentagon’s growing concern about climate change from what may have been its first study, commissioned in 2003. There have been many since. One issued in 2013 by the National Research Council—charged with finding ways that science can support national security—concluded that “it is prudent for security analysts to expect climate surprises in the coming decade … to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, most likely at an accelerating rate.”

Though the Pentagon may be ahead of civilian agencies in reckoning with the effects of climate change, however, it is not taking decisive action to address the threat. Part of the reason has to do with the political climate in Washington. When a commander in chief insists that climate change is a mirage or foreign plot, it is difficult for soldiers schooled in obedience to declare the opposite. They have not pressed against those limits. The military has taken no active role in trying to educate the public or policymakers in Washington about the security threat it evidently sees. The US Army War College itself issued a study in August concluding that “the Department of Defense is precariously underprepared for the national security implications of climate change-induced global security challenges.”

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Reluctance to challenge the political bias of civilian leaders, however, is not the main reason that the military’s response to the climate threat is so tepid. More important is the Pentagon’s entrenched resistance to change. For generations, American strategic planners have embraced the premise that the most dangerous threats we face emanate from hostile armies. They still do. “The consensus military view [is] that Russia and China will pose the greatest potential threat to US security in the coming years,” Klare reports. To wrest the Pentagon out of that mindset is to ask it to change its entire concept of what constitutes security. Today, although the United States does not face the prospect of enemy attack, we continue to spend huge amounts of money to project military power around the world. We would not endanger our national security if, for example, we cut the number of our foreign bases from eight hundred to eighty—but we will seriously endanger it if we continue to ignore the onrushing reality of climate change. Rather than viewing other powerful countries as relentlessly hostile, we should be trying to enlist them in efforts to confront challenges that threaten all humanity. The Pentagon’s leaders are to be congratulated for their willingness to collect evidence that challenges the status quo. In their readiness to grasp the profundity of the climate challenge and advocate for the potent measures that new realities demand, though, soldiers are not much further along than their civilian counterparts.


Stephen Kinzer teaches international relations at Brown University and writes a world affairs column for the Boston Globe. His new book is Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.


Book notes
There were some interesting observations this week about why what’s popular in books is popular, a perennial question in the basically crap-shoot world of publishing. Venerable critic Laura Miller, in Slate, revisited a tumultuous decade in young-adult books, which became ubiquitous with powerhouse franchises like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but seems to be being consumed by the very forces of social networking and virality that once fed it. In Vox Constance Grady, in what seemed to us a provocative article, blamed corporate consolidation in publishing for the flattening of ebook sales. In my view, her taking price-gouging Amazon discounts as a benchmark potentially undervalues the work of writers and publishers, but so far I haven’t seen much of a response. Maybe everyone in publishing is still sleeping off the holidays. In The New Republic Rumaan Alam asked whether, like it or not, the Instagram poetry of Rupi Kaur is the natural literary medium for the smartphone generation, and Alexandra Alter, in the Times, studied the sources of the unprecedented (and unpredicted) popularity of Delia Owens’s novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, still on bestseller lists as a hardcover after a year and a half. The book appears to be the rare enthusiasm shared by readers across the political spectrum. And in a tweet New York Review Books asked why we don’t in America have something I’d never heard of, the book token!  Indeed, why? Editor Eileen O’Brien reported from Ireland that they were her favorite present as a child. Legendary editor Sonny Mehta, who helmed the canonical publisher Alfred A. Knopf for thirty-two years, died this week. His obituary in The New York Times limns the sort of character—learned yet worldly, opinionated yet attuned to the market, making all-powerful decisions from a place of experience and instinct—who used to be at the center of what and how we read, a generation we are losing to an unpredictable future.

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