The Pentagon Is Still Worried About Climate Change


This story is over 5 years old.

The Pentagon Is Still Worried About Climate Change

Even if the White House isn’t.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis isn't exactly the type of person environmentalists would typically pin their hopes on. The retired Marine general is best known to most Americans for his quotable musings on killing and the thrill of combat.

However, while environmental issues may not be Mattis' top priority he definitely believes in climate change. He also helped spearhead the military's research into renewable fuel sources. In many ways, that sets him apart from other members of the Trump administration.


President Donald Trump appointed a range of climate change skeptics and fossil fuel industry insiders to cabinet positions and in the White House staff. Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick for chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency, has filed multiple lawsuits against the agency he now leads.

Recently, the House of Representatives held a hearing on "Making the EPA Great Again" focused on looking into the agency's "process for evaluating and using science during its regulatory decision-making activities."

The seemingly hostile attitude of members of the current US government toward climate and environmental science has made many researchers and ecologists nervous. But the US military—which Trump has promised to lavish with more funding and resources—has for years explored alternative energy sources and studied how pollution, environmental degradation and climate change can harm service members, affect military operations and contribute to new conflicts around the world.

That will likely continue under Mattis' leadership. For the military, it's not about saving the whales—it's about preparing for the wars of the future. So far there hasn't been any indicators that the White House plans to block the Pentagon, specifically, from continuing its environmental research.


Burning oil fields during the 1991 Gulf War. Photo: US Navy

US military research into pollution and environmental degradation began as early as the late 1980s. The environment, of course, can be manipulated and used as a weapon. During Operation Desert Storm, burning oil fields set alight by Saddam Hussein's army sent out plumes of noxious smoke that disrupted air operations and obscured troops' vision.


Some Gulf War veterans reported contracting respiratory illnesses from exposure to the smoke, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has largely dismissed many of these claims.

War planners began to take pollution—and climate science—more seriously during the George W. Bush administration. They also began exploring alternative fuel sources despite skepticism by some senior administration appointees.

In 2005, Mattis was commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command—which develops the expeditionary branch's doctrine. He asked Navy researchers to look for ways to make military vehicles more energy efficient.

Mattis' challenge to "unleash us from the tether of fuel," found its way into the 2006 Future Fuels assessment and appeared in energy-related research reports and presentations throughout the military and defense sector.

Mattis had dealt with fuel shortages and the consequences of military vehicles running out of gas during the invasion of Iraq, and he experienced the logistical headaches involved in refueling his forces. He was primarily interested in fuel efficiency, logistics and lethality. However, he also saw that environmental challenges would no doubt be part of the larger picture.

"From economic trends to climate change and vulnerability to cyber attack, we outline those trends that remind us we must stay alert to what is changing in the world if we intend to create a military as relevant and capable as we possess today," Mattis wrote in his foreword to the 2010 Joint Operating Environment.


The same year, the Pentagon officially listed climate change as a potential "threat multiplier."

"The climate doesn't care if you acknowledge it or not," Andrew Holland of the American Security Project told War Is Boring. "A warmer climate means more powerful extreme weather, it's unclear if it means more extreme weather, but certainly when the atmosphere is warmer you can expect a greater punch."

"So you can expect more powerful rain events and hurricanes and cyclones … and, ironically, more powerful droughts."


Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Beaty looks for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, August 2005. Photo: US Coast Guard

During the most destructive weather emergencies, the military is likely to get involved. When Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans in 2005, flooding overwhelmed local authorities and FEMA. A massive mobilization of active duty troops arrived in the city to deliver aid, rescue survivors and help restore order.

The military would return to the region just five years later after an explosion on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and spilled 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill caused massive ecological and economic damage. It disrupted commercial shrimping and fishing operations that thousands of people depended on to feed their families.

Rear Adm. Meredith Austin—the Coast Guard deputy incident commander during the spill—testified in federal court that the response effort was rivaled in complexity only by the response to the 9/11 attacks and the Katrina cleanup efforts.


Since retiring from the Army, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore—an infantry officer who led the military's Katrina response—has become more vocal about what he sees as a civilizational threat posed by pollution and reckless treatment of the environment. He now leads a coalition of organizations in Louisiana he calls the "Green Army."

In a 2015 interview, Honore told War Is Boring that rising sea levels and pollution have damaged the Louisiana wetlands that serve as a natural barrier against hurricanes. "The science and the facts show we have rising sea levels," Honore said. "You can take the 'why' out of it, but we still have to deal with it."

During the summer of 2015, War Is Boring covered the military response to wildfires in the western states in what was one of the worst fire seasons in American history—as well as around the world. Drought and years of poor land management had left the west dry and vulnerable to wildfires.

Flames destroyed homes, businesses and acres of forests and plains. The fires posed a major threat to farms and ranches in rural communities. A mix of military and civilian aircraft deployed to battle the blazes for the air while both civilian firefighters and troops worked on the ground.

"The climate doesn't care if you acknowledge it or not."

But it's not just civilian infrastructure facing threats from environmental changes and pollution. Military infrastructure has already been tangibly affected. Perhaps one of the most vivid illustrations is Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. It's the world's largest navy base—and it's sinking as ocean levels rise.


"Already they're building new double stacked piers so that the electrical equipment going out to the ships doesn't get wet when the tide comes in," Holland pointed out.

Installations in Guam and Florida have also caught the eyes of military officials as being at risk. Holland noted the military can plan for these threats—and there are ways to adapt—but "you have to be pretty clear-eyed about the future."

The US Navy is among the most pro-active military services in studying climate change and planning for it. This is because the Navy commonly responds to natural disasters around the globe, including the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and Typhoon Haiyan's devastation of The Philippines.

The melting of polar ice caps in the Arctic have also changed the way the Navy and the Coast Guard approach operations in the far north. Melting Arctic ice caps actually make operations easier in a way—it means greater ease of movement through the waters.

Problem is, that also means greater access for other countries' vessels and potential competition for natural resources in the polar region.

"The Arctic will become a region of cooperation, competition and conflict—albeit low conflict—as many nations race to access and exploit the natural resources in the region," Antonio Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland told War Is Boring in 2013.


"This will require the Coast Guard to have icebreaker assets in the region," he added. "The USN will need to increase its training and experience in what still represents a cold harsh environment—experience that has been lost since the end of the Cold War."

It's a simple competition over natural resources. Nation-states and paramilitary groups have long fought deadly conflicts over access to oil, natural gas, and minerals.

When US-backed Iraqi troops began the siege of Mosul in 2016, they encountered Islamic State militants appropriating the Gulf War tactic of setting oil fields ablaze. On a tactical level, it gave Islamic State fighters a smokescreen to provide cover from coalition and Iraqi surveillance and air strikes. On a strategic level, it denied the Iraqi government use of the oil fields.

But the smoke also subjected local people to horrible living conditions, and breathing it in may cause long-term respiratory problems for children living nearby. This was particularly evident in Qayyarah—an Iraqi town near a military base that has become one of the hubs for US forces as they support local troops.

"Every day is a bad day in Qayyarah, and today is a particularly bad one," War Is Boring correspondent Matt Cetti-Roberts wrote in a dispatch from the campaign. "The town is an environmental disaster zone."

Syrian rebel fighter. Photo: David Axe

"As climate change affects the availability of food and water, human migration and competition for natural resources, the [Defense] Department's unique capability to provide logistical, material and security assistance on a massive scale or in rapid fashion may be called upon with increasing frequency," then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote in a 2014 briefing.


When Hagel wrote those words, the war in Syria was already raging. Drought played a key role in setting the stage for the Syrian Civil War.

Foreign backed-dictatorships and their repressive rule had already created long simmering resentment throughout the Arab world, leading to widespread protests and revolts in the Arab Spring. But it was more than just revolutionary furor that led to clashes on the streets of Damascus.

In the years leading up to the revolt against president Bashar Al Assad, the country was already suffering from the worst drought on record. Livestock were dying of hunger and thirst while crops dried and withered. Assad's government granted water rights to political allies, forcing many farmers to drill illegal wells—creating widespread resentment.

More and more people began moving to cities to find work and water, often clashing with urban dwellers. By the time Assad's troops fired the first shots of the civil war, Syrians had been agitated for years about both access to resources and repressive policies. The war has become a playground for foreign powers, jihadists and dueling ideologies—but it started with water.

A report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the drought and its impact on the region and traced how it contributed to the conflict.

"Being able to, in a specific region, draw this story line together we think is pretty significant," study co-author Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University told National Geographic. "The entire world needs to be planning for a drier future in that area. And there will be lots of global implications."


Droughts and competition over water have also played a role in conflicts in Africa—notably in the two Sudans. Fighting over wells between black African farmers and nomadic Arab tribesman in Sudan's western Darfur region was part of the conflict that led to the Darfur Genocide.

The crisis has caused Darfuris to flee and seek new lives in neighboring Chad, Egypt and Israel. Many Darfuris have made the voyage across the Mediterranean to look for new lives in Europe along with thousands of others from war-torn and hungry lands.

In response to a 2015 call by then-US President Barack Obama for a "peacekeeping surge," the British military committed troops to Somalia and South Sudan for peacekeeping operations in hopes of stemming the tide of migrants coming to Europe.

"If we can, as peacekeepers, help to maintain order and peace and see stable development in that country then that is going to be, again, less poverty, less migration, less issues that affect us back at home," then-Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC.

But people won't stay if they can't adapt to the changes in the places they live. If people can't grow food and support themselves where they once could, they'll go someplace where they can.

A Darfuri woman hauls water in a displaced persons camp in Sudan. Photo: United Nations

So far, these economic dislocations has mostly led to conflicts between groups within countries. But what happens when two or more different countries dependent on the same source of water—be it the Nile, the Jordan, the Euphrates, the Mekong or another large river system—begin to compete over them?


Analysts are increasingly worried about the prospect of large scale water wars in coming decades. Regional conflicts over water could disrupt global trade, cause greater displacement and create more openings for terrorist organizations and transnational criminal organizations to recruit and thrive.

"When you're planning and thinking about threats to America you shouldn't just discount something just because of ideology," Holland explained.

By all accounts Mattis appears to embrace this non-partisan management style befitting a former military officer. He fought to keep officials from the Obama years he deemed particularly qualified, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work.

"The military is good at planning, let them continue to plan for all eventualities," Holland argued.

"This is not about some green, purely environmentalist mission, this is about planning for threats to the United States and ways to address them."

This story originally appeared on War Is Boring .

Read more of Motherboard's climate change coverage: