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US Military Could Collapse Within 20 Years Due to Climate Change, Report Commissioned By Pentagon Says

The report says a combination of global starvation, war, disease, drought and a fragile power grid could have cascading, devastating effects.

by Nafeez Ahmed
25 October 2019, 7:39am

Image: Calvin Shen

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

According to a new U.S. Army report, Americans could face a horrifically grim future from climate change involving blackouts, disease, thirst, starvation and war. The study found that the US military itself might also collapse. This could all happen over the next two decades, the report notes.

The senior US government officials who wrote the report are from several key agencies including the Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and NASA. The study called on the Pentagon to urgently prepare for the possibility that domestic power, water, and food systems might collapse due to the impacts of climate change as we near mid-century.

The report was commissioned by General Mark Milley, Trump's new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the highest-ranking military officer in the country (the report also puts him at odds with Trump, who does not take climate change seriously.)

The report, titled Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army, was launched by the U.S. Army War College in partnership with NASA in May at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. The report was commissioned by Gen. Milley during his previous role as the Army’s Chief of Staff. It was made publicly available in August via the Center for Climate and Security, but didn't get a lot of attention at the time.

The two most prominent scenarios in the report focus on the risk of a collapse of the power grid within “the next 20 years,” and the danger of disease epidemics. Both could be triggered by climate change in the near-term, it notes.

“Increased energy requirements” triggered by new weather patterns like extended periods of heat, drought, and cold could eventually overwhelm “an already fragile system.”

The report also warns that the US military should prepare for new foreign interventions in Syria-style conflicts, triggered due to climate-related impacts. Bangladesh in particular is highlighted as the most vulnerable country to climate collapse in the world.

“The permanent displacement of a large portion of the population of Bangladesh would be a regional catastrophe with the potential to increase global instability,” the report warns. “This is a potential result of climate change complications in just one country. Globally, over 600 million people live at sea level.”

Sea level rise, which could go higher than 2 meters by 2100 according to one recent study, “will displace tens (if not hundreds) of millions of people, creating massive, enduring instability,” the report adds.

The US should therefore be ready to act not only in Bangladesh, but in many other regions, like the rapidly melting Arctic—where the report recommends the US military should take advantage of its hydrocarbon resources and new transit routes to repel Russian encroachment.

But without urgent reforms, the report warns that the US military itself could end up effectively collapsing as it tries to respond to climate collapse. It could lose capacity to contain threats in the US and could wilt into “mission failure” abroad due to inadequate water supplies.

Total collapse of the power grid

The report paints a frightening portrait of a country falling apart over the next 20 years due to the impacts of climate change on “natural systems such as oceans, lakes, rivers, ground water, reefs, and forests.”

Current infrastructure in the US, the report says, is woefully underprepared: “Most of the critical infrastructures identified by the Department of Homeland Security are not built to withstand these altered conditions.”

Some 80 percent of US agricultural exports and 78 percent of imports are water-borne. This means that episodes of flooding due to climate change could leave lasting damage to shipping infrastructure, posing “a major threat to US lives and communities, the US economy and global food security,” the report notes.

At particular risk is the US national power grid, which could shut down due to “the stressors of a changing climate,” especially changing rainfall levels:

“The power grid that serves the United States is aging and continues to operate without a coordinated and significant infrastructure investment. Vulnerabilities exist to electricity-generating power plants, electric transmission infrastructure and distribution system components,” it states.

As a result, the “increased energy requirements” triggered by new weather patterns like extended periods of heat, drought, and cold could eventually overwhelm “an already fragile system.”

1571699156387-Screen-Shot-2019-10-21-at-65444-PM
A diagram from the report.

The report’s grim prediction has already started playing out, with utility PG&E cutting power to more than a million people across California to avoid power lines sparking another catastrophic wildfire. While climate change is intensifying the dry season and increasing fire risks, PG&E has come under fire for failing to fix the state’s ailing power grid.

The US Army report shows that California’s power outage could be a taste of things to come, laying out a truly dystopian scenario of what would happen if the national power grid was brought down by climate change. One particularly harrowing paragraph lists off the consequences bluntly:

“If the power grid infrastructure were to collapse, the United States would experience significant:

  • Loss of perishable foods and medications
  • Loss of water and wastewater distribution systems
  • Loss of heating/air conditioning and electrical lighting systems
  • Loss of computer, telephone, and communications systems (including airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services)
  • Loss of public transportation systems
  • Loss of fuel distribution systems and fuel pipelines
  • Loss of all electrical systems that do not have back-up power”

Although the report does not dwell on the implications, it acknowledges that a national power grid failure would lead to a perfect storm requiring emergency military responses that might eventually weaken the ability of the US Army to continue functioning at all: “Relief efforts aggravated by seasonal climatological effects would potentially accelerate the criticality of the developing situation. The cascading effects of power loss… would rapidly challenge the military’s ability to continue operations.”

Also at “high risk of temporary or permanent closure due to climate threats” are US nuclear power facilities.

There are currently 99 nuclear reactors operating in the US, supplying nearly 20 percent of the country’s utility-scale energy. But the majority of these, some 60 percent, are located in vulnerable regions which face “major risks” including sea level rise, severe storms, and water shortages.

Containment

The report's authors believe that domestic military operations will be necessary to contain future disease outbreaks. There is no clear timeline for this, except the notion of being prepared for imminent surprises: “Climate change is introducing an increased risk of infectious disease to the US population. It is increasingly not a matter of ‘if’ but of when there will be a large outbreak.”

Areas in the south of the US will see an increase in precipitation of between .5 and .8 mm a day, along with an increase in average annual temperatures of 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (C) by 2050.

Along with warmer winters, these new conditions will drive the proliferation of mosquitos and ticks. This in turn will spur the spread of diseases “which may be previously unseen in the US”, and accelerate the reach of diseases currently found in very small numbers such as Zika, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, and many others:

“The US Army will be called upon to assist in much the same way it was called upon in other disasters. Detailed coordination with local, state and federal agencies in the most high risk regions will hasten response time and minimize risk to mission.”

A new era of endless war

The new report is especially significant given the Trump administration’s climate science denial. Commissioned by General Mark Milley, now the highest ranking military officer in the United States, the report not only concludes that climate change is real, but that it is on track to create an unprecedented catastrophe that could lead to the total collapse of US society without serious investments in new technology and infrastructure. However, while focusing on projected climate impacts, the report does not discuss the causes of climate change in human fossil fuel emissions.

The report was written by an interdisciplinary team active across several US government agencies, including the White House’s Office of American Innovation, the Secretary of Defense’s Protecting Critical Technology Task Force, NASA’s Harvest Consortium, the US Air Force Headquarters’ Directorate of Weather, the US Army’s National Guard, and the US State Department. The US Army War College did not respond to a request for comment.

Their report not only describes the need for massive permanent military infrastructure on US soil to stave off climate collapse, but portends new foreign interventions due to climate change.

The authors argue that the Syrian civil war could be a taste of future international conflicts triggered by climate-induced unrest. There is “no question that the conflict erupted coincident with a major drought in the region which forced rural people into Syrian cities as large numbers of Iraqi refugees arrived,” they say.

The resulting conflict “reignited civil war in Iraq,” and heightened military tensions between the US and Russia.

“The Syrian population has declined by about 10 percent since the start of the war, with millions of refugees fleeing the nation, increasing instability in Europe, and stoking violent extremism,” the report concludes.

The most urgent case for a potential US intervention, however, is the South Asian country of Bangladesh.

With half its 160 million-strong population currently living at sea level, some 80 million Bangladeshis are set to be displaced as huge areas of the country become “uninhabitable” due to climate impacts: “How will this large scale displacement affect global security in a region with nearly 40 percent of the world’s population and several antagonistic nuclear powers?”

With a population eight times that of Syria’s, the report explains, “permanent displacement of a large portion of the population of Bangladesh would be a regional catastrophe with the potential to increase global instability.”

The authors recommend the US Army work with the State Department and USAID to “strengthen the resilience of [Bangladeshi] government agencies and provide training for the Bangladeshi military.”

Water scarcity will destabilize nations—and the U.S. Army

While sea level rise offers one specific type of risk, another comes from water scarcity due to climate change, population increase, and poor water management. The report describes water scarcity as a near-term risk driving civil unrest and political instability.

By 2040, global demand for fresh water will exceed availability, and by 2030 one-third of the world population will inhabit the “water-stressed regions” of North Africa, Southern Africa, the Middle East, China, and the United States, the report notes.

The decline in water availability over the next two decades will lead to an increase in “social disruption” in poor, vulnerable regions.

Water scarcity is also a driver of possible global food system failure, which could trigger new “outbreaks of civil conflict and social unrest.”

The report depicts a global food system increasingly disrupted by “rapid freeze-thaw cycles in spring and fall, soil degradation, depletion of fossil water aquifers, intensified spread of agricultural pests and diseases, and damage to shipping infrastructure as a consequence of flooding.”

Such food system instability will result in “significant increases in mortality in vulnerable locations, which are those where DoD-supported humanitarian intervention is most likely.”

But foreign military interventions, particularly in water scarce regions of the Middle East and North Africa, might not be viable unless the US Army invents or acquires radical new technologies to distribute adequate levels of water to soldiers.

The problem is so bad and so expensive, the report says, that the Army “is precipitously close to mission failure concerning hydration of the force in a contested arid environment.”

Water is currently 30-40 percent of the costs required to sustain a US military force operating abroad, according to the new Army report. A huge infrastructure is needed to transport bottled water for Army units. So the report recommends major new investments in technology to collect water from the atmosphere locally, without which US military operations abroad could become impossible. The biggest obstacle is that this is currently way outside the Pentagon’s current funding priorities.

Rampaging for Arctic oil

And yet the report’s biggest blind-spot is its agnosticism on the necessity for a rapid whole society transition away from fossil fuels.

Bizarrely for a report styling itself around the promotion of environmental stewardship in the Army, the report identifies the Arctic as a critical strategic location for future US military involvement: to maximize fossil fuel consumption.

Noting that the Arctic is believed to hold about a quarter of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves, the authors estimate that some 20 percent of these reserves could be within US territory, noting a “greater potential for conflict” over these resources, particularly with Russia.

The melting of Arctic sea ice is depicted as a foregone conclusion over the next few decades, implying that major new economic opportunities will open up to exploit the region’s oil and gas resources as well as to establish new shipping routes: “The US military must immediately begin expanding its capability to operate in the Artic to defend economic interests and to partner with allies across the region.”

Senior US defense officials in Washington clearly anticipate a prolonged role for the US military, both abroad and in the homeland, as climate change wreaks havoc on critical food, water and power systems. Apart from causing fundamental damage to our already strained democratic systems, the bigger problem is that the US military is by far a foremost driver of climate change by being the world’s single biggest institutional consumer of fossil fuels.

The prospect of an ever expanding permanent role for the Army on US soil to address growing climate change impacts is a surprisingly extreme scenario which goes against the grain of the traditional separation of the US military from domestic affairs.

In putting this forward, the report inadvertently illustrates what happens when climate is seen through a narrow ‘national security’ lens. Instead of encouraging governments to address root causes through “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” (in the words of the UN’s IPCC report this time last year), the Army report demands more money and power for military agencies while allowing the causes of climate crisis to accelerate. It’s perhaps no surprise that such dire scenarios are predicted, when the solutions that might avert those scenarios aren’t seriously explored.

Rather than waiting for the US military to step in after climate collapse—at which point the military itself could be at risk of collapsing—we would be better off dealing with the root cause of the issue skirted over by this report: America’s chronic dependence on the oil and gas driving the destabilization of the planet’s ecosystems.

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