Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at a town hall event in Coralville, Iowa on Feb. 2, 2020. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Buttigieg and Centrist Dems Want a Military Response to Climate Change. That’s Dangerous.

The Pentagon sees climate victims as threats.

BY Sarah Lazare

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Will the U.S. response to climate change be steered by xenophobia, premised on fortressing U.S. borders and forcibly repatriating people to places that are in crisis?

Mayor Pete Buttigieg says that if he were elected president, he would use the Department of Defense to fight climate change by creating “a senior climate security role in the Secretary of Defense’s office responsible for managing climate security risks” and boosting the Pentagon’s budget to “allow our military leaders to build resilience for military bases and installations.” 

A similar ethos was reflected in the $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 signed by President Trump in December 2019. One provision, based on legislation introduced by centrist democratic Rep. Denny Heck (Wash.), will create a “Climate Security Advisory Council” instructed to improve coordination between intelligence, defense and government agencies in analyzing “climate security.” 

These efforts to address climate change through a national security lens are deeply worrisome. If an ethic of fear and national self-interest—and not justice and solidarity—shapes the U.S. response to climate change, it could unleash a number of frightening actions, in which the U.S. fortresses its borders, protects its military bases and slams the door on those its emissions have harmed.

Yet as Trump has rolled back scant Obama-era climate protections, including the Clean Power Act, and instructed all agencies to set aside efforts to combat climate preparedness, many centrist Democrats have looked to the national security establishment—particularly the Department of Defense—as an ally, because it is the arm of the executive branch that purports to take climate change most seriously. The NDAA measure is based on legislation introduced by Rep. Denny Heck (Wash.), a centrist Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee and has championed the role of the “intelligence community” in addressing climate threats. Buttigieg, who has flaunted his military credentials throughout his campaign, insists that the Department of Defense must be involved in addressing the “security challenge of our era.” He writes, “Climate security must be deeply integrated into all aspects of national security planning.” 

The Climate Security Advisory Council provision flew under the radar in December, eclipsed by more troubling measures that increased funding for nuclear weapons and F-35s. But the implications should give pause. The NDAA instructs the council to define “climate security” primarily in terms of how climate change affects the United States and its allies. The language zeroes in on protecting “national security infrastructure” and “the security of allies and partners of the United States,” and warns of ‘‘ongoing or potential political violence, including unrest, rioting, guerrilla warfare, insurgency, terrorism, rebellion, revolution, civil war and interstate war.”

Many of the countries not deemed “allies” of the United States are on the front lines of changing weather patterns, whether heat waves, droughts or increasingly severe storms. Are we to assume that, under the rubric of the council, the suffering of people living in Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba or Nicaragua is to be discounted? What about those living in countries that are allied but deemed less strategically central to U.S. national security, like the Marshall Islands, which are already suffering the severe effects of climate change? 

It is also deeply troubling to imagine the U.S. military—the world’s most violent institution, and itself a climate villain—taking a leadership role in shaping the response to a crisis that could subject countless people to illness, food insecurity, severe storms and human displacement. The NDAA language has no acknowledgement of climate victims except through the lens of “ongoing or potential political violence.” As Michael Klare notes in his book All Hell Breaking Loose, when Gen. John F. Kelly was commander of U.S. Southern Command, he established a “Joint Task Force - Migrant Operations” in Guantanamo Bay, which held exercises to prepare for “mass migration events.” One such exercise, staged in 2015, responded to a fake scenario that involved “mass migration of people from multiple Caribbean islands after a series of hurricanes devastate the area,” a reporter noted at the time. “The goal of the exercise scenario was to effectively interdict and repatriate the migrants at sea who were attempting to enter the United States.” 

Lindsay Koshgarian is the program director for the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Priorities Project, a budget-focused nonprofit. She tells In These Times, “The U.S. tendency will already be to respond to refugee crises and unrest caused by climate destabilization as military problems with a military solution, and I'm afraid this is just evidence of that. There is too much danger that climate change will become just another justification for bigger Pentagon budgets, and more troops and more bases in more places.”

The Pentagon has long evaluated climate change through the lens of U.S. military interests, including the effects on roughly 800 U.S. military bases that span the planet. “If extreme weather makes our critical facilities unusable or necessitate costly or manpower-intensive work-arounds, that is an unacceptable impact,” states a Department of Defense climate risk assessment from January 2018. This view is in line with the ethos of an ever-expanding U.S. military empire: Such “extreme weather” is “unacceptable” not because it indicates that people around the world are suffering severe consequences of climate change, but because it threatens the military’s global foothold.

The Pentagon’s lens precludes other ways of understanding a potential U.S. response to the climate crisis: namely, as justice and reparations for U.S. wrongdoing. The United States is disproportionately driving the climate crisis as the biggest per-capita emitter of greenhouse gases, while China is the overall highest emitter. A 2016 study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that the countries most responsible for driving climate change are the ones least harmed by it in the immediate term. “‘Free rider’ countries contribute disproportionately to global GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions with only limited vulnerability to the effects of the resulting climate change, while ‘forced rider’ countries are most vulnerable to climate change but have contributed little to its genesis,” the study finds.

Climate change is in motion and will require a mass mobilization—both to mitigate the crisis globally and to help people survive it. Will the U.S. response be steered by xenophobia, premised on fortressing U.S. borders and forcibly repatriating people to places that are in crisis? Or will the response be rooted in solidarity and internationalism, premised on the principle that one’s life shouldn’t be tossed aside simply because of where one was born? The only way to ensure a response rooted in solidarity is cast off narrow notions of “national security” and make sure any climate response is firmly under the control of civilians. If the national security establishment is steering the ship, much of humanity will not be on board.


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Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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