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New Book Looks At How The U.S. Military Is Preparing For Climate Change

A member of the National Guard helps rescue storm victims in North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew.
A member of the National Guard helps rescue storm victims in North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew.

Just after he entered the White House, President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate accord. It was only the most obvious rebuke of efforts to address climate change, that has since included ending a NASA carbon monitoring program and loosening regulations on air pollution.

Yet one agency has remained focused on what it views as one of the chief threats to national security: the military.

In his new book, “All Hell Breaking Loose,” military expert and author Michael Klare examines military thinking, delving into the Pentagon’s own reports and remarks, to explain how rising temperatures, a melting arctic and worsening national disasters increasingly draw on military resources.

Klare teaches at Hampshire College and is a visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He has written 15 books on national security and the military.

He spoke with WLRN’s Jenny Staletovich when he visited Miami to appear on a climate panel at the Miami Book Fair. The following is an edited version of the interview:

Staletovich: Tell me what prompted you to write this now, to take this sort of deep dive into how the military responds to climate change?

Klare: You know, I've been working in my professional life for the past 30 years or so looking at the causes of conflict, and particularly into the relationship between resource competition and conflict — water and land and food — how that that tends to result in conflict. And it's become very clear in recent years that that climate change is increasing the level of resource scarcity and, hence, resource conflict.

So in the book, you found that the military did sort of its first rigorous assessment of climate change in 2007. It was, I think, a Pentagon-funded think tank that did this assessment that was six years before the Obama administration asked government agencies to assess the risk. Can you talk about what prompted them to do the study and what they found?

I think that they were largely prompted at that time by their experience with what we now call the Forever Wars; the wars in the Middle East and in North Africa. And they saw firsthand for themselves how climate change is increasing water scarcity, food scarcity, and increasing the intensity of animosities and hostilities leading to the conflicts that they were getting sucked into. The Department of Defense and the military sees, as their primary function, defending against foreign enemies like Russia and China. There's no question about that. When they see climate change, they see that as an impediment to their ability to carry out their primary function. So we have to be clear: They see that climate change is exacerbating all the forces of chaos that we see around the world.

Within the ranks of the military, is climate change a politically divisive issue or just a pragmatic thing that ...

I think it's very much a pragmatic thing. And it depends where in the military you're talking about. The Navy is much more focused on these issues, say, than the other branches.

Here in Florida, whenever there's a sizable hurricane, and there's a lot of damage or there's a lot of impacts, we always hear about the National Guard being activated. But in your book, you talk about Hurricane Sandy, for example. The number of personnel that were involved in the response to that was 14,000. And that's not even counting additional support personnel. So when the military responds, it's not just the National Guard, right? That's correct. When there's a severe disaster. ...

Well, the first line of defense will be the National Guard. But when you had Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Maria, one after the other, the National Guard was not nearly enough to deal with the extremity of the disaster. For Harvey, Irma and Maria combined, the U.S. mobilized a small army — what you would need to fight, a not a huge war but a medium-sized war. So if a real war erupted in Europe or the Middle East, they wouldn't have those forces.

So what effect or impact has the Trump administration had on some of the things that the military were already doing?

They are very aware that their own bases and installations are at severe risk and that they must proceed with all these measures that they had undertaken before. They're just going ahead. But they don't use the term climate change. They talk about extreme weather, extreme effects, without using a term that might set off an alarm bell in the White House.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
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