All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change

Those tree-hugging liberals over at the Pentagon just don’t get it. They don’t understand that climate change is a hoax and the Trump White House doesn’t want to hear about it. They keep working away, defying Presidential directives, studying and planning and preparing for a hotter world where all hell is breaking loose.

Cover of All Hell Breaking Loose

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change
By Michael T. Klare
Metropolitan Books, New York, 2019

All Hell Breaking Loose, by Michael T. Klare, is a well-researched, crisply written book that details how senior United States military officers are thinking about and responding to the threat of climate change despite current White House policy.

Klare is Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s the author of fourteen books. His articles and essays have appeared in The Nation,, The Guardian, The New York Times and Foreign Affairs.

Before I go any further, l should say I know very little about the military. I grew up in Canada where the armed forces are respected but small. I’ve never served in the military, nor has anyone in my family. And I’ve never been particularly interested in military history.  So one thing I appreciated about this book is that it taught me a little bit about how officers think and plan.

Klare makes it very clear – despite my sarcastic opening – that US military leaders are not concerned about climate change per se. What they care about is the impact of climate change on their ability to fulfill their primary missions: protecting the US homeland and defeating America’s enemies, principally Russia and China. In that context, climate change is a secondary threat to US national security because it makes the military’s job harder and could even make it impossible at some point in the future.

Senior officers understand that in order to succeed in its primary missions, the US military must respond the threat of climate change.

“There is, therefore, a direct clash between current White House doctrine on climate change and the Pentagon’s determination to overcome climate related threats to military preparedness.”  [p. 5]

Threats from Climate Change

The Pentagon perceives climate change as a threat multiplier, Klare says. It increases global chaos. Climate change’s direct impacts – extreme weather events, sea level rise, prolonged drought, wildfires and pandemics – increase tensions and pressures on some of the most vulnerable and volatile places in the world. When the rains don’t come, when crops fail, when forests burn, the results can include water and food scarcity, mass migration, ethnic conflict, civil unrest, state collapse, the emergence of “ungoverned spaces”, and intense competition for scarce resources, especially water, both within and between states.

I like how Klare catalogs the ways climate change threatens the US military.

First, climate change increases the demand for military intervention in locations all around the world in response to climate-related events. These interventions lie along a spectrum that Klare calls the “ladder of escalation.”  They include everything from quick in-and-out deployments to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief, to “stability operations” needed to support failing states, all the way up to great power conflict and war.

Second, the physical territory of the United States is not immune to the impacts of climate change. (As I write this, the air here in the Seattle area is grey and acrid from wildfire smoke.). The military faces increasing demands to help disaster-struck communities within the US. In August and September 2017, for example, hurricane Harvey smashed into Houston, America’s fourth largest city. Then hurricane Irma pummeled the island of Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands. Shortly after that, hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Relief operations for this cluster of catastrophes required tens of thousands of national guard and US Army and Navy personnel, plus ships, vehicles, equipment and supplies. These were not short-term deployments, especially in Puerto Rico.

Finally, the military’s own facilities are impacted by climate change. Sea level rise, storm damage, drought and wildfires affect US bases and installations just as they affect surrounding cities and towns. Klare highlights the impacts of climate change on Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval installation and home to the Atlantic Fleet. By 2100, scientists forecast that 60% of the base will be exposed to regular tidal flooding, and a category 4 hurricane would inundate the land areas under ten feet of water. Nearby Langley Air Force Base can expect daily flooding to cover 90% of its land area by the end of the century.  Of course, long before that, both installations would experience frequent and severe operational disruptions.

Klare sums up the danger succinctly.

“This threat to the Pentagon’s installations at home, combined with an increased tempo of climate disasters abroad, conjures up the military’s worst nightmare: a future in which the armed forces are called upon to overcome multiple emergencies around the globe while many of their bases are out of commission and large numbers of their troops are engaged in domestic relief operations, leaving them ill-equipped to address any major threats at all.”  [p. 37]

Adapting to Climate Change

So what is the Pentagon doing about it?

First, they’re spending tons of money to upgrade bases and other installations to be more resilient to climate-related events.  For starters, $21-billion to shore up Naval Station Norfolk and surrounding facilities.

Next, the military is trying to reduce its climate footprint.  According to this research paper, the US Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels, and therefore the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. So the Pentagon is adopting alternate sources of energy in order to reduce its own contribution to global warming.  It turns out that alternative energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear bring additional benefits:

  • Providing a more reliable and assured supply of energy with less price volatility than fossil fuels.
  • Reducing the energy, effort and casualties involved in transporting fuel in combat zones. Portable solar arrays, for example, reduce the need to deliver fuel to forward operating bases by oil tanker trucks which are susceptible to enemy ambush.

At stateside bases, the military is moving to be a “net zero” consumer of energy, producing 100% of its energy needs by itself, and even “islanding” bases off of the commercial electrical power grid.

“All of a sudden, American military bases became giant laboratories for the large-scale utilization of alternative energy.”  [p. 219]

Finally, the military is collaborating with international allies, helping them develop their own climate-related capabilities and resilience. This strengthens our allies of course, but it also reduces the burden on the US of providing disaster relief and security to these countries.

All very sensible. All done quietly, without fanfare so as not to overtly contradict current White House policy.

Klare concludes the book by noting that the military doesn’t concern itself with threats to wildlife and natural habitats, but rather with the threats posed to human systems like energy infrastructure, transportation and communication networks, hospitals and governments.

“From this perspective, climate change presents its greatest harm not by hastening the extinction of endangered species but by decimating the vital systems upon which our communal life depends.”  [p. 235]

Caves and Caravans

All Hell Breaking Loose provides some additional insights and examples that I found really fascinating.

Did you know that the US has enough battle tanks, artillery pieces and munitions to supply a fighting force of 15,000 for up to 30 days of combat stockpiled in climate-controlled caves near Trondheim, Norway?  Yup, they’ve been there since the early 1980’s.  Could come in handy if there’s ever a war with the Russians in the Arctic.

Speaking of war with the Russians in the Arctic, global warming has caused such a dramatic reduction in Arctic sea ice that it’s becoming increasingly accessible for commercial shipping and, more importantly, oil drilling.  Five countries have Arctic Ocean coastlines and the offshore boundaries are far from clear. Competition for undersea resources is likely to cause heightened tensions between them. From the Pentagon’s perspective, the warming Arctic is a “whole new ocean” with complex geostrategic implications.

I sincerely hope humanity is not so brain-dead stupid as to fight a war for control of fossil fuel under the Arctic Ocean which is only accessible because we’ve burned so much fossil fuel we’ve melted the ice cap covering that ocean.

Klare also informs us that senior commanders were not amused to have over 6,000 troops deployed to the southern US border in 2019 to guard against a so-called “invasion” of unarmed Central American migrants, including destitute women and children, who posed not the slightest security threat to the United States. He cites internal memos from officers alarmed at the “unacceptable risks” these border deployments posed to combat readiness.

And what is causing these migrant caravans that Trump rants about?  Prolonged drought from climate change in places like Guatemala and Honduras is one leading cause.  Farmers and their families flee when crops repeatedly fail and they can no longer support thenselves on the land.

Ironic isn’t it: If the Trump Administration adopted aggressive measures to deal with climate change it might actually help slow mass migration from Central America.

The Pentagon is Worried. We Should Be Too

I am impressed with the long-range planning that Klare tells us the Pentagon is grappling with. Although there are lots of scientists and research institutes thinking about very long-range scenarios, I can think of only three organizations on the planet that make plans for themselves over such distant time horizons; the Pentagon, the Communist Party of China and the Vatican. It’s good the Pentagon is thinking about climate change.

Now imagine what could happen if the Pentagon was actually encouraged in these efforts by the White House. Imagine if they shared their expertise with local, regional and state governments. What if there was effective joint civilian-military planning going on across the country? Maybe even a coordinated national strategy on climate change?

And what if, instead of spending countless billions to shore up military bases, we decided to conduct our foreign affairs so that we didn’t need such a gargantuan military and we could just close some of those bases? Yeah, I know: in my dreams.

All Hell Breaking Loose is a timely book well worth reading. Just be aware that even though it was published in November 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, the overall message is still grim. While it’s encouraging to read about the Pentagon’s efforts to plan and adapt, the scenarios described in the book paint a bleak picture of the many ways climate change is already impacting and will continue to impact our world and the global systems we depend on.

If you live in the US, chances are there’s a military base or facility not far from your home. After all, there are more than 3,000 of rhem scattered across the country. And that means your city or town is facing the same climate threats they are.

The Pentagon is worried about climate change. Its leaders are preparing, adapting to a climate-affected world so they can continue to fulfill their mission.

The rest of us should be too.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

“All hell breaking loose”: How the Pentagon in planning for climate change
Vox interview with Michael Klare, February 24, 2020

Pentagon Fuel Use, Carbon Emissions and the Costs of War
Paper by Neta C. Crawford, published by the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, Brown University, June 12, 2019


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5 Responses to All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change

  1. Michele R. says:

    Thanks Harry. Very interesting review. You can add one more ‘organization’ that engages in long range planning – native Americans. I’ve read about tribes who are relocating for the very reasons cited above having to do with rising sea levels.,seven%20generations%20into%20the%20future.

    Liked by 1 person

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