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Richard Maltzman
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Consider this a transitional blog post.  The last one was (a bit tongue in cheek) about the opening of the Northwest Passage and other ‘good’ things to come from climate change.  It features an Alaskan connection.

This one covers the connection between the US Department of Defense and global climate change, as covered by Scientific American.  As you’ll see, one of the major pieces of that story is about the effects of climate change on the Arctic from a military viewpoint.  Again, Alaska is a highlight.

This post is transitional from a past-present-future perspective, because the next few blog posts will reflect the fact that your humble blogger is traveling to Alaska to experience that part of the world for the first time and to share some perspective on climate change, project management, and the environment while actually witnessing glaciers, changes to the landscape, and stories from local people.  So stay tuned.  This show is heading North and West from its usual New England, USA home.

So, on to our three-part story based on the very recent (June 2016) “Preventing Tomorrow’s Climate Wars” article from Scientific American.  The three components to the story are:

  • Drought-induced conflict, mainly in Africa
  • Storms and disruption in the Pacific
  • Potential conflict in the Arctic

 I'll show quotes from this article in 'indented italics'.  Before discussing the three specific military/climate interactions, there is some very good background and context to be shared about the way in which the military has got involved.  Even though the argument about climate change (in the US, anyway) has become highly politicized, the military is not about to wait for politicians to finish that debate.  They work from facts – they have to – and the fact is that climate change (in the Department of Defense’s [DoD] own terms) is “an accelerant of instability” and a “threat multiplier”.

You can read the roadmap the DoD came up with here.


The article says

This past January the department issued a directive telling senior leaders they must now assess and plan for the risks posed by climate change.  One new expectation is that humanitarian assistance and disaster response, limited to occasional missions in the past, will become part of almost every deployment, because the number of natural disasters worldwide is increasing significantly.


Although this may make the military sound more like the Red Cross or a UN relief organization, it actually makes strategic sense.  Consider that countries which face disaster (e.g. droughts) for extended times, often become failed states and destabilizing factors in key regions, often breeding terrorism – in turn a major threat to US citizens at home and abroad as well as to peace-loving inhabitants of any country.

In October 2015, three former defense secretaries, two former secretaries of state, and 40 senators, military commanders, and national security experts – Republicans and Democrats – published a full-page open letter as an advert in the Wall Street Journal saying that climate change is “shaping a world that is more unstable, resource-constrained, violent, and disaster-prone”.


Next, I’ll briefly review the first two bullets from above (African Drought and Pacific Storms) and close with the piece on the Arctic because it mentions Alaska and will make a good segue to the next few posts which will emanate from the 49th US State.


Africa – a dangerous mix of drought and terrorism

Rapid population growth in Africa is a huge concern.  In fact, we recently blogged about it.  This large and growing population is heavily dependent on rain-fed subsistence agriculture.  Changes in the environment – particularly drought – and the follow-on effects of crop failures, outbreaks of disease, combined with ethnic and religious rivalries, can “tip fragile states” (and there are many of them) toward war.   The signs of climate change are not imaginary – they are real, and physical.  Take Nigeria as an example.  Its Lake Chad has lost more than 90% (you read that correctly – only 10% remains) of its original size to drought. Effects from the drought, combined with a perceived-to-be-ineffective Nigerian government, have enabled Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram (now allegiant to ISIS) to rise to power.

The US DoD has funded projects to study this relationship and to predict where this deadly combination may show up next.  A University of Texas project has indeed yielded a “hot zone” map which shows where new conflicts would be most likely, enabling the military to get a strategic edge in preparing for response and/or preventing the threat from occurring in the first place.

The Pacific – stormy seas could enable dangerous conflicts

The South China Sea is a critical trade route, through which more than ½ of the world’s trade by ship passes. China is now engaged in huge projects, building military bases on – and even physically enlarging   - islands in that sea which are claimed by the Philippines and other countries.

The connection here is that the Philippines recently experienced Super Typhoon Haiyan.  The US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded with an aircraft carrier and 13,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to provide food, freshwater, and supplies.  You can sense (correctly) that this was – aside from a humanitarian response – also a strategic move to build alliances with countries in the region to counter China’s assertive moves.  Again: a relationship between climate and conflict.

The Arctic – breaking the ice

There is no place on earth where warming is occurring faster than in the Arctic.  And this is causing fundamental changes to the geography to the point where the Northern Sea Route north of Russia, and the Northwest Passage north of Canada are now open to travel and energy exploration during a good portion of the year.  This is new – and due to rapidly melting sea ice.  Russia is the leading military power in the Arctic, and president Vladimir Putin has not missed the importance of the changing geography. 

In what are apparently direct orders from President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s military has created a Joint Strategic Command North, dedicated to protecting the nation’s interests in the Arctic Circle.  The command has reopened cold war bases across Russia’s Arctic coastline, including one at Wrangle Island, only 300 miles from Alaska.

But it’s not just Russia that is very, very interested in the Arctic.  Countries you may not expect to be ‘players’ are intensely interested in the newly-opened oil and gas resources that could be available.  Singapore and India – countries which are exceedingly un-Arctic – are pushing to join the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization of the eight countries which border the Arctic or hold Arctic Territory [Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland (where it passes through the small offshore island of Grímsey)].

It took a while to get there but you do see a connection to Alaska here.  And that great land will be the source of the next few posts. 

Keep your (bald eagle) eye out for them!

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: June 24, 2016 03:22 AM | Permalink

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