Naval station Norfolk is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet, an awesome collection of military power that is in a terrible way the crowning glory of American civilization. Seventy-five thousand sailors and civilians work here, their job the daily business of keeping an armada spit-shined and ready for deployment at any moment. When I visited in December, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was in port, a 1,000-foot-long floating war machine that was central to U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cranes loaded equipment onto the deck; sailors rushed up and down the gangplanks. Navy helicopters hovered overhead. Security was tight everywhere. While I was checking out one of the base’s massive new double-decker concrete piers that’s nearly as big as a shopping-mall parking lot, I wandered over to have a closer look at the USS Gravely, a guided-missile destroyer that has spent a lot of hours on watch in the Mediterranean. Armed men on the deck watched me warily — even my official escort seemed jittery (“I think we should step back a bit,” he said, grabbing my arm).
You can’t spend 10 minutes in this part of Virginia without feeling the deep sense of history. The Battle of Hampton Roads, a famous naval showdown between two Civil War ironclads, occurred just offshore. The base was a key departure point for thousands of sailors during World War II, many of whom never returned. Their ghosts still haunt the place. Everyone’s aunt or uncle has a story to tell about a night in a port in Brisbane or Barcelona or about the way their ears rang the first time they heard a cannon firing from the deck of a ship.
But within the lifetime of a child growing up here, all this could vanish into the Atlantic Ocean. The land that the base is built upon is literally sinking, meaning sea levels are rising in Norfolk roughly twice as fast as the global average. There is no high ground, nowhere to retreat. It feels like a swamp that has been dredged and paved over — and that’s pretty much what it is. All it takes is a rainstorm and a big tide and the Atlantic invades the base — roads are submerged, entry gates impassable. A nor’easter had moved through the area the day before my visit. On Craney Island, the base’s main refueling depot, military vehicles were up to their axles in seawater. Water pooled in a long, flat grassy area near Admiral’s Row, where naval commanders live in magnificent houses built for the 1907 Jamestown Exposition. “It’s the biggest Navy base in the world, and it’s going to have to be relocated,” says former Vice President Al Gore. “It’s just a question of when.”
There are 29 other military bases, shipyards and installations in the area, and many of them are in just as much trouble. At nearby Langley Air Force base, home to two fighter wings and headquarters for the Air Combat Command, base commanders keep 30,000 sandbags ready to stack around buildings when a big storm comes in. At Dam Neck, another Navy base, they pile old Christmas trees on the beach to keep it from eroding. At NASA Wallops Flight Facility, NASA armored the shoreline with 3 million cubic yards of sand to protect its launchpads from sea surges. “Military readiness is already being impacted by sea-level rise,” says Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who mentions that with all the flooding, it’s becoming difficult to sell a house in some parts of Norfolk. If the melting of Greenland and West Antarctica continues to accelerate at current rates, scientists say Norfolk could see more than seven feet of sea-level rise by 2100. In 25 years, operations at most of these bases are likely to be severely compromised. Within 50 years, most of them could be goners. If the region gets slammed by a big hurricane, the reckoning could come even sooner. “You could move some of the ships to other bases or build new, smaller bases in more protected places,” says retired Navy Capt. Joe Bouchard, a former commander of Naval Station Norfolk. “But the costs would be enormous. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars.”
Rear Adm. Jonathan White, the Navy’s chief oceanographer and head of its climate-change task force, is one of the most knowledgeable people in the military about what’s actually happening on our rapidly heating planet. Whenever another officer or a congressperson corners White and presses him about why he spends so much time thinking about climate change, he doesn’t even try to explain thermal expansion of the oceans or ice dynamics in the Arctic. “I just take them down to Norfolk,” White says. “When you see what’s going on down there, it gives you a sense of what climate change means to the Navy — and to America. And you can see why we’re concerned.”
Those who talk most about climate change — scientists, politicians, environmental activists — tend to frame the discussion in economic and moral terms. But last month, in a dramatic turn, President Obama talked about climate change in an explicitly military context: “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security,” he said in his State of the Union address. “We should act like it.”
On one level, this is just shrewd politics, a way of talking about climate change to people who don’t care about extinction rates among reptiles or food prices in eastern Africa. But it’s also a way of boxing in all the deniers in Congress who have blocked climate action — many of whom, it turns out, are big supporters of the military. The Senate Armed Services Committee is made up of characters like James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and is headed by John McCain of Arizona, who, before he ran for president in 2008, had been an outspoken advocate for climate action, but has been silent on the issue in recent years. The House Armed Services Committee is now chaired by Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, who argued in a 2011 op-ed that prayer is a better response to heat waves and drought than cutting carbon pollution.
Any official who draws a link between climate change and national security is guaranteed a rabid reaction from right-wingers. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently called climate change “a threat multiplier” that “has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today — from infectious disease to terrorism.” In response, The Wall Street Journal editorial page blasted Hagel as a delusional tree-hugger: “Americans who might die at the hands of the Islamic State won’t care that Mr. Hagel is mobilizing against melting glaciers.” In a speech in Jakarta last year — a city of almost 30 million that is sinking rapidly — Secretary of State John Kerry called climate change “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction” and likened it to terrorism, epidemics and poverty. McCain immediately dismissed Kerry’s concerns and accused him of “butterflying around the world, saying all kinds of things”; former Republican leader Newt Gingrich tweeted, “Every American who cares about national security must demand Kerry’s resignation. A delusional secretary of state is dangerous to our safety.”
Before climate change became taboo for Republicans, it was possible for even conservative politicians to have rational discussions about the subject. In 2003, under Donald Rumsfeld, former President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, the Pentagon published a report titled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.” Commissioned by Andrew Marshall, who is sometimes jokingly referred to within the Pentagon as Yoda — and who was a favorite of Rumsfeld’s — the report warned that threats to global stability posed by rapid warming vastly eclipse that of terrorism. Some of the climate science in the report was flawed, but the broader conclusions were not. “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,” the report stated. “Once again, warfare would define human life.”
Even McCain, now firmly in the denial camp, didn’t hesitate to draw the connection between climate change and national security. “If the scientists are right and temperatures continue to rise,” he said on the Senate floor in 2007, “we could face environmental, economic and national-security consequences far beyond our ability to imagine.”
This kind of talk vanished from the party after 2008, when the GOP turned into a subsidiary of Koch Industries. Since then, Republicans have worked hard to undermine any connection between climate and national security. Case in point: In 2009, then-CIA director Leon Panetta quietly started the Center on Climate Change and National Security. It was a straightforward attempt by the intelligence community to gather a better understanding of the changes to come. Among other things, the Center funded a major study of the relationships between climate change and social stress, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most respected scientific organizations in the country. Climate deniers in Congress didn’t like it, especially Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Big Coal state. By the time the report was completed, Panetta had left the CIA and his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, let it wither. “We felt constant pressure to water down our conclusions,” says one of the co-authors of the National Academy report. The day the report was released, the press conference was suddenly canceled, and the report was buried. A few weeks later, the Center on Climate Change and National Security was disbanded.
Barrasso has also been a key figure in derailing Senate hearings on the connection between climate and national security. Last year, Daniel Chiu, one of the Pentagon’s top strategists, testified intelligently about the national-security implications of climate change. But in the Q&A period that followed, Barrasso disappeared into fantasyland, quizzing Chiu about “global international crime syndicates” that are manipulating European environmental policies “to aid and support terrorist organizations and drug cartels that wish to do us and our allies harm.”
Deniers in Congress have gone after the Pentagon where military officials feel it most: their budget. Last year, House Republicans tagged an amendment onto the defense appropriations bill that prohibited the Pentagon from spending any money implementing recommendations from the latest report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “The amendment had no effect on the defense budget, since the IPCC’s recommendations don’t really apply to us,” one Pentagon insider told me. “But the intent was clear: This is going to be war.”
The scale of military assets that are at risk due to our rapidly changing climate is mind-boggling. The Pentagon manages more than 555,000 facilities and 28 million acres of land — virtually all of which will be impacted by climate change in some way.
Nearly every naval and Air Force base on the East Coast is vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surges, including Eglin Air Force Base, the largest Air Force base in the United States, which is on the low-lying Florida Panhandle, and Patrick Air Force Base on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. In the West, the problem is often drought and flash flooding. Fort Irwin, a seven-square-mile Army base in Southern California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, has troubles with both. California’s epic drought has put the base’s long-term water supply into question. Fort Irwin is one of the only bases in the U.S. with the space and the isolation to allow full-scale mock tank warfare. At the same time, the base has been pounded by extreme rain events. In August 2013, when a year’s worth of rain fell in 80 minutes, flooding caused $64 million in damages on the base.
Up in Alaska, the problem is thawing permafrost and coastal erosion from stronger storms and higher tides. The Air Force’s early-warning radar installations, which help the U.S. keep a close watch on anything lobbed our way from North Korea or Russia, have been hit particularly hard. At one installation, 40 feet of shoreline have been lost, endangering the reliability of the radar. At other installations, thawing permafrost has caused the radar to tilt and fall out of alignment.
In some places, these impacts are little more than expensive nuisances. But in others, the future of entire installations, many of them virtually irreplaceable due to their geography and strategic location, is in question. The U.S. naval base on Diego Garcia, a small coral atoll in the Indian Ocean, like the nearby Maldives, is sure to vanish. Built during the Cold War, Diego Garcia gave the U.S. military a footing from which to counter Soviet influence in the region, as well as to protect shipping lanes out of the Middle East. In more recent years, this rare strategic asset has become a crucial logistics hub for sending supplies to joint forces in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Southern Europe. It also houses Air Force Satellite Control Network equipment used to control GPS. The ships and equipment can be moved easily enough, but giving up a military toehold in a vital but flammable part of the world is not something the military likes to do. “To the Navy, presence matters,” says retired Rear Adm. David Titley.
The Pentagon is examining its 704 coastal installations and sites in a big study to try to figure out which bases are most at risk. Eventually some tough decisions will have to be made about which ones to close, relocate or protect. Even speculating about the number of possible closures is too hot a topic for anyone in the Pentagon to touch right now. But the process can’t be put off much longer. The next meeting of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission could occur as soon as 2017. “In BRAC, all of the decisions are based on the military value,” says John Conger, the deputy undersecretary of defense, who is responsible for BRAC. “Will climate change affect the military value of the installation? Well, sure it will. The question is, does it dominate the equation? And I don’t think it does — yet.”
Just as there are climate-change hot spots, there are also climate-denial hot spots — and Virginia is one of them. The Republican-dominated Virginia General Assembly has been hostile to discussion of climate change — one legislator called sea-level rise “a left-wing term.” Instead, the politically acceptable phrase in Virginia is “recurrent flooding.”
This makes it hard for the Navy to deal with the most immediate problem Norfolk faces: keeping its roads open. One study by the Virginia Institute for Marine Science identified nearly 300 miles of flood-vulnerable roads in the Norfolk area. “If people can’t get to work on the base because the roads are flooded out, we have a big problem,” says Capt. J. Pat Rios, who is in charge of Navy facilities in the mid-Atlantic region. But roads in Norfolk are the state’s responsibility, and rebuilding them is not a priority right now. Because a number of the men and women in the Virginia Legislature don’t believe climate change is an urgent issue, they don’t want to spend much money addressing the threat it poses. “They find roads to fix in other parts of the state,” says Joe Bouchard.
For now, the Navy’s strategy is just to buy time. In the late 1990s, Navy engineers realized that the 13 piers at the base, some dating back to World War II, were reaching the end of their life spans. Because they had been built at a time when nobody gave a thought to sea-level rise, the piers were relatively low to the water. At high tide, the utilities that ran along the underside of the pier decks — electrical, steam, phone, Internet — were often immersed in water, rendering them unusable. “It was not a nuisance problem — it was not a minor operational issue,” says Bouchard. “Sea-level rise was interfering with combat readiness for the Atlantic fleet.”
So far, four new piers have been built, which are higher, stronger and better-designed than the old piers. Bouchard, who was commander while the first new piers were constructed, says “they were built with sea-level rise in mind.” But out on the base, nobody wants to talk directly about spending money to deal with sea-level rise, mostly because they are worried about drawing scrutiny from climate deniers in Congress, who are happy to redline any expenditure with the word “climate” in it. Instead, many people in the military end up talking about the climate similar to the way eighth-graders talk about sex — with code words and suggestive language.
“We didn’t raise the piers because of climate change,” Capt. Rios tells me during my visit to the base. He doesn’t quite wink, but almost.
“Then why did you raise them?” I ask.
“Because we needed new piers. And as long as we were building them, it didn’t cost much more to build them higher.”
But building higher piers is not going to save the base in Norfolk. No matter how much money the Pentagon spends, it won’t matter if people can’t get to the base because roads are underwater or nobody wants to live in the area because the value of their homes is spiraling down. “To save the base, you have to save the region,” says Bouchard. With the help of the White House, state and local officials recently set up an innovative two-year pilot project with the Navy to begin to address these problems. But right now, solutions are a long way off.
Sea-level rise is only one of the climate-driven threats that are making the world more dangerous and volatile. Drought contributed to the escalating food prices that triggered the Arab Spring revolt in Egypt, in 2011; it also helped trigger the civil war in Syria. In northern Nigeria, a region destabilized by extreme cycles of drought and flooding, Boko Haram is terrorizing villages and killing thousands of Nigerians.
Climate change is also reshaping the boundaries of the continents. Nowhere more so than in the Arctic, which is likely to become a major flashpoint in the territorial disputes and resource wars of the future. “The melting ice is opening a new ocean,” says Adm. Gary Roughead, who was U.S. chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011. “It’s a once-in-a-millennium event.” Thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered petroleum lies beneath the Arctic, as does 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas and more than $1 trillion of mineral wealth. “The best way I’ve heard it explained,” says Rear Adm. Daniel Abel of the U.S. Coast Guard, “imagine if you have the Panama Canal and Saudi Arabia’s worth of energy show up at the same place in your area of responsibility. How would you embrace that?”
You can already see glimpses of a militarized future in the Arctic. In 2007, Russian soldiers dived 14,000 feet beneath the North Pole in a minisub and planted a Russian flag in the seabed, marking it as their turf. “This isn’t the 15th century — you can’t go around the world and just plant flags” to claim territory, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Peter MacKay, said dismissively. Last September, six Russian jet fighters were detected near Alaska; when U.S. and Canadian fighters intercepted the Russian planes about 55 miles off the coast — still outside of American airspace, but closer than they usually fly — the Russians turned around and headed home, but it was a close encounter and one that has been happening with increasing frequency in recent months. In November, a Russian sub in the Barents Sea near Greenland test-fired a Bulava intercontinental missile — the Bulava is Russia’s latest and most deadly nuclear weapon. The missile has a range of about 5,000 miles and can be loaded with up to 10 nuclear warheads, each of which can be individually maneuvered. A Bulava launched from a sub in the Arctic could easily reach Boston, New York or Washington, D.C.
Within the Pentagon, these provocations were seen as more than old Cold War game-playing. In the eyes of some planners, Putin was sending a not-very-subtle message that he thinks of the Arctic the same way Americans once thought of the West: a vast, uncivilized landscape of resources that will be dominated by whomever stakes the first claim.
After the Cold War, the U.S. military largely forgot about the Arctic. It was too hostile, too forbidding, too expensive to operate there, and without the Soviets to worry about, there was little reason to. In the 1990s, as Big Oil developed plans to explore the region for oil and gas, the Navy’s concern grew — Roughead says a big blowout on an offshore drilling rig in the Arctic “would make Deepwater Horizon look like a cakewalk.” But given the complexities of drilling in the Arctic, that seemed like a distant-future threat.
Naval leaders began to think differently about the region in 2007, which, when the history of climate change is written, will go down as one of the turning points. That summer, scientists were stunned by an unexpected vanishing of sea ice that exposed 1 million square miles of open water — six Californias — beyond the average since satellites started measurements in 1979. Roughead assembled a special Navy task force to figure out what was going on. “I wanted to really understand the long-term trends so we could begin to think strategically about the challenges we might face in the Arctic, and what we needed to operate up there,” Roughead says. “The idea was to be more thoughtful about this than to just run around the Pentagon shouting, ‘Hey, everybody, climate change is a big deal!’ ”
Navy scientists estimate that by 2025 the summer ice melt in the Arctic will be big enough to allow transpolar shipping to expand on the Northern Sea Route, which passes through the Barents Sea along the Russian coastline and cuts the transit time between Asia and Europe by a third. As the ice thaws, there will be more tourists sailing in the Northwest Passage along the Canadian coast. There will be more drilling in the Chukchi Sea west of Alaska. There will be more traffic to Greenland, where mining companies are already lining up to extract minerals that will be made accessible by the retreating ice sheets. With all this new maritime traffic, it’s inevitable that the Navy will have to respond to more and more incidents up there, from search-and-rescue missions to possibly countering the aggressive actions of the Russian navy. Or, nearly as likely, from the Chinese, who are eager to tap into the rich oil and gas reserves in the Arctic. “The U.S. Navy doesn’t cede an ocean to anybody,” Titley argues. “We are a great power.”
But the U.S. Navy is also, according to Roughead, “woefully unprepared” to operate in the icy, unforgiving Arctic. The Navy doesn’t have good weather-forecasting ability there; satellite communications are unreliable; only about 10 percent of the seabed has been surveyed, so navigators are unaware of undersea obstacles. Submarine missions have also become more dangerous due to unpredictable sea ice-freezing patterns. Most important, because nobody in the Navy was prioritizing the need to operate in the Arctic, few Navy ships are prepared for cold weather. Their water and ventilation systems don’t work properly in freezing temperatures, their hulls are not hardened against ice. As Titley puts it, “Every Navy commander’s nightmare is that something happens in the Arctic — a ship full of tourists going down, a terrorist attack, an encounter with Russian military — and having to pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. President. We’d like to do something about this, but we simply don’t have the equipment to allow us to respond to the situation.’ ”
When it comes to safety and security in the Arctic, no piece of equipment is as important as an icebreaker. Virtually every nation with a claim to the Arctic knows this: Russia has 43 icebreakers (six of them nuclear-powered); Canada has 13; Finland has nine. The U.S. has one, the Polar Star, which is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. It’s nearly 40 years old. Within a decade, it will be scrapped, and there are no plans to build another one. “By not funding them,” says Titley, “we telegraph to the rest of the world that we don’t care about the Arctic.”
The price tag for a new icebreaker is $1 billion — not cheap, but about one-third the price of a destroyer. And not something Rep. Duncan Hunter, the San Diego climate denier who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees Coast Guard affairs, wants to hear about. (Although he does seem to be in favor of an ice-free Arctic: “Thousands of people die every year of cold, so if we had global warming it would save lives,” he told a group of Californians in 2009.) In the view of one Pentagon watcher, the problem is not just that deniers like Hunter don’t see the need for icebreakers, “they don’t see the need for any kind of strategic thinking about the Arctic at all.” Without active icebreakers, California Rep. John Garamendi, the ranking Democrat on Hunter’s subcommittee, told the Associated Press that “the control of the Arctic is in the hands of Russia.”
The other issue is the lawlessness of the new ocean, especially when it comes to oil and gas exploration under the retreating ice. Every nation enjoys sovereign rights 200 miles off its coastline — but what about beyond that? How should it be divvied up? In 2010, a Chinese admiral claimed that since China has 20 percent of the world’s population, it should have 20 percent of the Arctic’s resources. Fair or not, that is surely not a view that Russia — or the United States, for that matter — is likely to endorse.
To resolve these sorts of claims, as well as to give legal structure to the rights and responsibilities of countries with respect to the oceans, United Nations members spent decades negotiating an agreement, formally known as the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. Among other things, UNCLOS recognizes that nations have a right to claim resources along what is known as their “extended continental shelf,” which basically means any recognizable land features that extend underwater beyond the 200-mile border. The agreement was finalized in 1982 and now has been agreed to by more than 60 countries, including Russia and every other Arctic nation — except the U.S. Although the agreement is widely supported by Big Oil, U.S. military leaders and every American president since Ronald Reagan, opponents like Sen. Inhofe, dean of the congressional climate deniers, and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan have been able to block U.S. participation by claiming the agreement infringes on American freedom and that royalty provisions in the agreement would allow a corrupt “U.N.-style bureaucracy” to divert billions of dollars from the U.S. economy by “taxing” corporate profits.
The resources that the U.S. could justifiably claim if it recognized the Law of the Sea are vast. In Alaska alone, the continental shelf extends 600 miles from the coast, with an estimated 73 billion barrels of oil and oil-equivalent natural gas. Supporters of the agreement estimate these resources could generate more than $193 billion in federal, state and local revenue over a 50-year period.
Setting aside the economic consequences, from a national-security perspective, it’s foolish to exempt ourselves from the one international agreement that can resolve disputes over territorial claims before they escalate. “I believe our being in the treaty would make for greater stability and security, and not just in the Arctic,” Roughead argues. “It will also allow our claims to the extended continental shelf to be recognized internationally.” As for the argument advanced by Inhofe and others that by joining the treaty we would weaken the powers of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and turn authority over to the United Nations, Roughead is immediately dismissive: “That is simply not the case.”
As the world warms, the U.S. military will inevitably be called upon to conduct more disaster relief and humanitarian-aid missions. The U.S. military, of course, is not a polar-bear rescue operation. “The military has many important roles,” says Sharon Burke, a former assistant secretary of defense. “But the main job is to fight wars. That means breaking things and killing people.” But the military also prides itself on its practical-mindedness, both in times of war and of peace. Military leaders embraced desegregation long before the rest of the nation, in part because they wanted the best people they could find, no matter what color. “It’s our job to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it could be,” says Robert Freeman, a meteorologist and member of the Navy’s climate-change task force.
Adm. Samuel Locklear III, who is in charge of all U.S. armed forces in the Pacific, is one of the most respected men in the U.S. military — and the one with the toughest job, with both China and North Korea to watch over. “The political and social upheaval we’re likely to see from our rapidly warming planet,” Locklear told The Boston Globe in 2013, “is probably the most likely thing that . . . will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”
Soon afterward, Locklear was summoned before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Inhofe asked him to “clarify” his remarks. And he did, calmly and forcefully, schooling the senator in how steadily increasing populations in Asia would only put more people at risk from storms and other climate-related disasters. “OK, I’m going to start to interrupt you here,” Inhofe said, realizing it was a losing battle. He quickly changed the subject.
What Locklear correctly foresees is that a world of climate-driven chaos is already upon us, and it’s only going to get worse. And we need to start talking about it now, because not only will the threats multiply, so will the questions we have to address. It’s one thing to plan for the invasion of Normandy Beach or the siege of Fallujah — it’s quite another to plan for being the rescue squad for the entire planet. We have already spent more than $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no measurable success. How much more can we afford to do? “I think we have to make some strategic choices,” says Roughead. “Which parts of the world do we care about most? What are the strategic flashpoints? Do we want to be able to operate in the Arctic or not? What kind of world are we preparing for?” Some intelligence analysts argue that U.S. military superiority will be the least significant asset in the future because no one will attack us with massive conventional force. Instead, we will be pulled deeper and deeper into smaller conflicts driven by terrorism, failed states and natural disasters. “When oceans rise, instability follows,” says Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
Ashton Carter, Obama’s pick for secretary of defense, is not known to Pentagon insiders for his focus on the threats of climate change. And the chances of any significant action in Congress before 2016 are close to zero. But as chaos rises, it is inevitable that we will ask our military to do more. At some point, climate denialism will flip into climate panic, and the demand for law and order and stability will prevail (as will the calls for quick and dangerous techno-fixes like geo-engineering to cool down the planet and stop the rising seas). As one military analyst has pointed out, the U.S. military is the only force on Earth with the ability to police, process, house, feed and move refugees on a mass scale. But you can see how this picture could turn dark fast — one of the biggest long-term threats climate change poses could be to civil liberties and freedom. “It’s not a question of what the military can do for climate change,” says one former Pentagon official. “It’s what climate change will do to the military and its mission.” It’s a scary notion, but that’s where we are headed. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many climate-adaptation road maps the Pentagon puts out. We are now committed to a future of disorder and conflict — one in which today’s emergencies will always interrupt tomorrow’s plans.
One White House staffer recalls walking into the Pentagon office of an Army general not long ago. “I’d like to talk to you about climate change,” the staffer told him. The general didn’t even bother to look up. “I’d like to,” he said. “But I have to write a letter to a family whose son has died.”