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Climate Change Catch 22: It’s Official–the U.S. Military Poses a Significant Threat to the U.S. Military

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This week, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security announced the release of a series of “bipartisan” statements and reports under the banner, Military and National Security Leaders Urge Robust New Course on Climate Change.” The most comprehensive of the newly released documents focuses on the threat that rising sea levels and catastrophic storms pose to U.S. military bases globally.

Compiled by a panel of military luminaries, including Rear Admiral Jonathan White and Brigadier General Gerald Galloway, the report identifies “[d]ealing with” the “risks” that climate change increasingly poses to the “operational effectiveness” of the U.S. military as “a core priority” of the military in the coming years.

Among the other documents released on Wednesday was a statement by “The Climate Security Consensus Project, a bipartisan group of twenty-five senior military and national security experts.” The letter identifies a laundry list of likely impacts and “stresses resulting from climate change,” including the “likelihood of intra or international conflict, state failure, mass migration, and the creation of additional ungoverned spaces, across a range of strategically-significant regions, including but not limited to the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and the Arctic regions.” .

Some might be tempted to celebrate the potential for the U.S. military to break through the fossil fuel-funded corporate media’s silence on climate change and the broader culture of climate denial in the U.S. However, the newly released documents are best seen as part of broader attempts to securitize and militarize the climate crisis. In a 2015 speech to graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, President Obama described climate change as a battle, “one where our Coast Guardsmen are already on the front lines,” one that “perhaps more than any other, will shape your entire careers.” Calling it “a peril that can affect generations,” Obama spoke of the “urgent need to combat and adapt to climate change.”

The strategies outlined in the newly released documents, like Obama’s 2015 speech mark the emergence of what amounts to the climate change equivalent of the “War on drugs” and the “War on terror,” with what are likely to be similarly disastrous results. This boondoggle will, however, no doubt garner windfall profits for war profiteers like Halliburton and the corporation formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root. In true disaster capitalist fashion, these newly released documents, like similar reports issued in 2014 and 2015, steer clear of addressing the root causes of climate change. Conspicuously and predictably absent from the reports is any mention of the fact that the U.S. military is not only the largest polluter in the world, but the largest single driver of climate change worldwide. In 2009, the daily oil consumption of the U.S. military was estimated at 359,000 barrels of oil a day.

To put this figure in perspective, the Pacific Northwest is currently embroiled in a struggle to keep the region from being transformed into a dirty fossil fuel transport corridor. The proposed Tesoro Savage oil terminal, to be sited in Vancouver, WA, would be the largest oil terminal in North America. With a an estimated carrying capacity of 360,000 barrels of oil a day, the facility is nearly equivalent to the daily oil consumption of the U.S. military. The proposed facility poses a major threat to the ecological and economic health of the region. An oil spill on the Columbia River, which is the ecological, cultural and economic lifeblood of the region, would have potentially catastrophic impacts on marine fisheries, agriculture, and tourism. But it would also constitute a fundamental abrogation of the treaty-protected rights of Columbia River Tribal Nations to be able to fish in their “usual and accustomed places.”

Even in the absence of a spill, however, the climate impacts of burning the fuel would be felt both locally and globally. Pacific Northwest Tribal Nations are already dealing with impacts of accelerating climate change, given rising sea levels and storm surges, and the impacts of ocean acidification and warming waters on traditional foods, including salmon and shellfish. The Quinault Indian Nation, which is working to stave off the incursion of fossil fuel terminals in Grays Harbor, WA, is already making plans to relocate its lower village to higher ground in the face of the increasing threat posed by tsunamis in the region.

Readers of the report by White and Galloway might not find the stats on the military’s oil consumption entirely surprising, given that, as the report specifies, “The United States military is the greatest globally deployed military force in human history.” The U.S. military is “present in 156 countries across the globe, and includes ‘nearly 562,000 facilities on 4,800 sites worldwide and covering 24.9 million acres.’” The report’s central concern is with anticipated climate impacts on “coastal military infrastructure”; between 2035 and 2100, climate change promises to significantly impact the “operational readiness” of U.S. forces. The report envisions a world in which the U.S. can’t bank on retaining its existing “assets,” and is compelled instead to perpetually “rebalance” its “investments,” as its installations go under. White and Galloway, et al, genteely demur from any mention of the new strategic “assets” that the U.S. has already identified in the Arctic, as melting glaciers give way to new opportunities for fracking, drilling and mining. But no matter, front line communities of color around the world that are most impacted by climate change and losing ground—from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, to Puerto Rico, Okinawa, and the Marshall Islands, to Syria and the Persian Gulf—can rest assured that the U.S. will be on hand to “deter conflict and coercion, and promote adherence to international law and standards.”

The report provides sobering and specific insights into the anticipated impacts of climate change in the U.S. and globally. It anticipates, for example, that “low-lying areas” of “key” Marine Corps training facilities at Camp Lejeune and Parris Island, located respectively in North and South Carolina, “could be underwater around one third of the year….” Meanwhile, “half of the land area of U.S. Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook in New Jersey,” the report notes, “could be flooded by extreme tides in 2070.”

The report discusses the fate of the Marshall Islands, which it describes as a “strategic asset.” The Marshall Islands, the report notes, “hosts the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site,” which White and Galloway, et al, affectionately describe as “a pillar of U.S. Strategic Command.” The report’s clinical take on the “growing realization that the Marshall Islands may become uninhabitable in the decades ahead,” couldn’t represent a more dramatic contrast to Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s impassioned address at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, in which she invoked the human cost of nuclear testing and rising sea levels, and “will[ed] the world/to find its balance/So that people/remember/that beyond/the discussions/are faces/all the way out here….” . Not surprisingly, scant concern for those lives can be found in these reports and statements.

The weeks before the documents were released saw a groundswell in the movement to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens to contaminate the water and land of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Also central in the struggle is an understanding of the global climate impacts of burning the 570,000 barrels of oil a day that the pipeline will carry. On September 3rd, just short of two weeks before the release of the Center for Climate and Security documents, Native American activists confronted guard dogs and pepper spray as they tried to protect a burial ground on the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation from being desecrated by bulldozers.

The burial ground was among a number of sacred/culturally significant sites identified by the Standing Rock Sioux in an injunction filed just days before to try to halt construction while the tribe pursues a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers for approving the pipeline without adequate review.

The September 3rd assault on activists and on the tribal burial ground occurred on the 153rd anniversary of the 1863 Inyan Ska (Whitestone Massacre). According to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Section 106 Historic Preservation Officer for the Standing Rock Sioux, and Founder and Director of the Sacred Stone Camp, which is at the epicenter of resistance to the pipeline, the U.S. army slaughtered 300 to 400 “Yanktonais, Isanti (Santee), and Hunkpapa gathered alongside a lake in southeastern North Dakota…for an intertribal buffalo hunt to prepare for winter.”  The Inyan Ska Massacre, like Wounded Knee, and Sand Creek, is a reminder of the long and violent arc of U.S. militarism and what befalls communities that are slow to move along to reservations and strategic hamlets and to submit their sovereign ancestral lands for inclusion in the U.S.’ portfolio of “strategic assets” and “investments.” Five days after the anniversary of the Inyan Ska massacre, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple called out the National Guard. “I have asked Gen. Dohrmann to make available some North Dakota National Guard personnel to support law enforcement and augment their public safety efforts,” announced Dalrymple. The resistance at Standing Rock, however, shows no sign of abating, as more Native activists–and non-Native allies–arrive on the scene to join the thousands already on site who are prepared to put their bodies on the line to protect the land and ensure the survival of the planet.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is gearing up to “combat” the climate impacts of decades of U.S. military dominance. The only and predictable winners of a militarized response to climate change will be the Milo Minderbinders who profit from making nightmares real.

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Desiree Hellegers is a co-founder and affiliated faculty of the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver. She has just completed a play based on her 2011 book No Room of Her Own: Women’s Stories of Homelessness, Life, Death and Resistance (Palgrave, 2011).

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