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On Climate, Defense Could Preserve and Protect, Rather Than Kill and Destroy

(Photo: guilherme jofili / Flickr)

Holding the line against the Kubuchi Desert

One hundred groggy Korean college students stumble off the train in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, blinking in the bright sunlight. A 14-hour train ride from Beijing, Baotou is by no means a popular destination for Seoul’s youth, but then this is no shopping excursion.

A short, elderly man in a bright green jacket leads the students through the crowd in the station, hurriedly giving orders to the group. In contrast to the students, he does not appear tired at all; his smile is unimpaired by the journey. His name is Kwon Byung-Hyun, a career diplomat who served as the Republic of Korea’s ambassador to China from 1998 to 2001. Whereas his portfolio once covered everything from trade and tourism to military affairs and North Korea, Ambassador Kwon has found a new cause that demands his full attention. At 74 years of age, he has no time to see his colleagues who are busy playing golf or for indulging in hobbies. Ambassador Kwon is in his little office in Seoul on the phone and writing letters to build an international response to the spread of deserts in China – or he is here, planting trees.

Kwon speaks in a relaxed and accessible manner, but he is anything but easy-going. Although it takes him two days to get from his home in the hills above Seoul to the front line of the Kubuchi desert as it makes its ineluctable way southeast, he makes the trip often, and with enthusiasm.

The Kubuchi Desert has expanded so that it is just 450 kilometers west of Beijing and, as the desert closest to Korea, is the main source of yellow dust that showers down on Korea, blown by high winds. Kwon founded the NGO Future Forest in 2001 to combat desertification in close cooperation with China. He brings young Koreans and Chinese together to plant trees in response to this environmental catastrophe in a novel transnational alliance of youth, government and industry.

The Start of Kwon’s Mission

Kwon relates how his work to stop deserts began:

“My effort to stop the spread of deserts in China started from a very distinct personal experience. When I arrived in Beijing in 1998 to serve as ambassador to China, I was greeted by the yellow dust storms. The gales that brought in the sand and dust were very powerful, and it was no small shock to see Beijing’s skies preternaturally darkened. I received a phone call from my daughter the next day, and she told that the Seoul sky had been covered by the same sandstorm that had blown over from China. I realized that she was talking about same storm I had just witnessed. That phone call awakened me to the crisis. I saw for the first time that we are all confronted by a common problem that transcends national boundaries. I saw clearly that the problem of the yellow dust I saw in Beijing was my problem, and my family’s problem. It was not just a problem for the Chinese to solve.”

Kwon and the members of Future Forest board a bus for an hour ride and then make their way through a small village where farmers, cows and goats gawk at these odd visitors. After a 3-kilometer walk over bucolic farmland, however, the scene gives way to a terrifying specter: unending sand stretching to the horizon without a single trace of life.

The Korean youth are joined by Chinese peers and are soon hard at work digging into what remains of the topsoil to plant the saplings they have brought with them. They join an increasing number of young people in Korea, China, Japan and elsewhere who are throwing themselves into the challenge of the millennium: slowing down the spread of deserts.

Deserts like the Kubuchi are the product of reductions in annual rainfall, poor land use and the desperate attempt of poor farmers in developing regions like Inner Mongolia to obtain a little cash by cutting down the trees and bushes, which hold the soil and break the winds, for firewood.

When asked about the challenge of responding to these deserts, Ambassador Kwon made a brief response, “These deserts, and climate change itself, are such an overwhelming threat to all humans, but we have not even begun to shift our budget priorities when it comes to security.”

Kwon hints at the possibility of a fundamental shift in our basic assumptions about security. We are visited now by the forerunners of climate change, whether the terrible wildfires that swept the United States in the summer of 2012 or the danger to the sinking nation of Tuvalu, and we know that drastic action is required. But we are spending over a trillion dollars a year for missiles, tanks, guns, drones and supercomputers – weapons that are as effective in stopping the spread of deserts as a slingshot is against a tank. Could it be that we need not take a leap in technology, but rather a conceptual leap in the term security: making the response to climate change the primary mission for those well-funded militaries.

To drown by desert or drown by ocean?

Climate change has borne two insidious twins that are greedily devouring the patrimony of the good earth: spreading deserts and rising oceans. As the Kubuchi desert slouches east towards Beijing, it joins hands with other rising deserts in dry lands across Asia, Africa and around the world. At the same time, the oceans of the world are rising, growing more acidic and engulfing the coastlines of islands and continents. Between these two threats, there is not much margin for humans – and there will be no leisure time for far-fetched fantasies about wars on two continents.

The warming of the earth, misuse of water and soil, and poor agricultural policies that treat soil as something to consume rather than a life-sustaining system, have contributed to the catastrophic decline in agricultural land.

The United Nations established the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in 1994 to unite stakeholders from around the world to respond to the spread of deserts. At least a billion people face a direct threat from spreading deserts. Moreover, as over farming and declining rainfall impinge on the brittle ecosystems of dry lands, home to an additional two billion people, the global impact on food production and on the sufferings of displaced people will be far greater.

So serious is the emergence of deserts on every continent that the United Nations designated this decade as the “Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification” and declared the spread of deserts “the greatest environmental challenge of our times.”

The UNCCD executive secretary at the time, Luc Gnacadja, stated bluntly that “The top 20 centimeters of soil is all that stands between us and extinction.

David Montgomery has detailed the severity of this threat in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Montgomery stresses that soil, often dismissed as “dirt,” is a strategic resource, more valuable than oil or water. Montgomery notes that 38 percent of global cropland has been seriously degraded since 1945 and that the rate of cropland erosion is now 100 times faster than its formation. That trend has combined with increasing temperatures and decreasing rain to make the western regions of America’s “breadbasket” marginal for agriculture and subject to increased erosion from heavy rains. In short, even parts of the heart of America’s breadbasket, and the world’s, are on their way to becoming deserts.

Montgomery suggests that areas like Inner Mongolia that are suffering from desertification today “serve as the canary in the global coal mine in terms of soil.” Those expanding deserts should be a warning about things to come for us. “Of course, in my home, Seattle, you can reduce the rainfall by a few inches a year and raise the temperature by one degree and still have evergreen forests. But if you take an arid grass region and reduce the rain by a few inches a year – it already was not getting that much rain. The decline in vegetation, the erosion by wind and the resulting depletion of the soil is what we mean by desertification. But I would like to stress that we are seeing soil degradation around the world, but we only see the manifestations clearly in these vulnerable regions.”

Meanwhile, melting polar ice caps are driving a rise in sea levels that will threaten coastal dwellers as shores vanish and extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy are becoming regular occurrences. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report titled “Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington: Past, Present, and Future” in June 2012, projecting that global sea levels will rise 8 to 23 centimeters by 2030, relative to the 2000 level, 18 to 48 centimeters by 2050, and 50 to 140 centimeters by 2100. The report’s estimate for 2100 is substantially higher than the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projection of 18 to 59 centimeters, and privately, many experts anticipate a more dire scenario. That catastrophe will be within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

Janet Redman, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, has watched climate policy from the 40,000-foot level of climate summits. She draws attention to how Hurricane Sandy has brought home the full ramifications of climate change: “Hurricane Sandy did help to make the threat of climate change quite real. Such extreme weather is something ordinary people can feel. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, says this hurricane was a result of ‘climate change,’ and he is a very mainstream person.”

Moreover, when New Jersey governor Chris Christie asked for Federal funds to rebuild the seashore, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went much further. Mayor Bloomberg said we need to use federal funds to start rebuilding New York City itself. “He said explicitly that the sea levels are rising, and we need to create a sustainable city right now,” recalls Redman. “Bloomberg declared that climate change is here. He even went as far as to suggest that we need to restore the wetlands around New York City to absorb these sorts of storms. In other words, we need an adaptation strategy. So the combination of an extreme weather event with a powerful argument from a mainstream politician with high public/media visibility helps to change the dialogue. Bloomberg is not Al Gore; he is not a representative of Friends of the Earth.”

An ambient worry may be condensing into a new perspective on the definition of security. Robert Bishop, former CEO of Silicon Graphics Inc., founded the International Centre for Earth Simulation as a means to make climate change today understandable to policy makers and industry. Bishop notes that Hurricane Sandy will cost something like $60 billion, and the total cost for Katrina and Wilma, and the ultimate cost of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill cleanup, will total about $100 billion each.

“We are talking about ecological disasters that weigh in at 100 billion dollars a pop.” He notes, “Those sorts of disasters are going to start changing perspectives in the Pentagon – because they clearly put the entire nation at risk. Additionally, the rise of sea level along the United States’ Eastern Seaboard threatens to create major future costs. Big money to protect cities located on the coasts will soon be required. Norfolk, Virginia, for example, is home to the only nuclear aircraft carrier base on the East Coast, and that city is already suffering a serious flood problem.”

Bishop goes on to explain that New York City, Boston and Los Angeles, “the core centers of civilization” for the United States, are all located in the most vulnerable parts of the country and little has been done to defend them from the threat, not of foreign troops or missiles, but of the rising ocean.

Why climate change is not considered a “threat”

It would not be true to say that we are doing nothing to address the environmental crisis, but if we are a species facing extinction, then we are not doing much.

Maybe part of the problem is the time frame. The military tends to think about security in fast motion: How can you secure an airport in a few hours, or bomb a newly acquired target within a theater of operations within a few minutes? That trend is exacerbated by the increasing speed of the cycle of intelligence gathering and analysis overall. We need to be able to respond to Web-based network attacks or missile launches instantaneously. Although rapidity of response has a certain aura of effectiveness, the psychological need for a fast answer has little to do with real security.

What if the primary security threat were to be measured in hundreds of years? There does not seem to be any system in place in the military and security community for grappling with problems on such a time-scale. David Montgomery suggests this problem is one of the most serious facing mankind today. For example, the loss of topsoil globally is something on the order of 1 percent a year, making it a shift that is invisible on the policy radar screens in Washington DC. But that trend will be catastrophic for all of humanity in less than a century, as it takes hundreds of years to create topsoil. The loss of arable land, combined with the rapid increase in population around the world, is without doubt one of the greatest security threats we face. And yet few in the security community are focused in on this issue.

Janet Redman suggests that we must find some sort of a long-term definition of security that can be accepted in security circles: “Ultimately, we need to start thinking about security in an inter-generational sense, as what might be called ‘inter-generational security.’ That is to say, what you do today will impact the future, will impact your kids, your grandchildren and on beyond us.” Moreover, Redman suggests, climate change is just too scary for many people. “If the problem is really that severe, it could completely undo everything we have come to value; destroy the world as we know it. We will have to change the way we live our lives. From transportation to food to careers, the family; everything would have to change.”

Jared Diamond suggests in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive that societies have periodically confronted harsh choices between short-term benefits for the current rulers with their comfortable habits and the long-term interests of future generations, and that they rarely have displayed understanding of “intergenerational justice.” Diamond goes on to argue that the more the changes demanded go against core cultural and ideological assumptions, the more likely the society is to fall back on massive denial. If the source of the threat is our blind assumption that material consumption embodies freedom and self-realization, for example, we may be on the same track as the vanished civilization of Easter Island.

Perhaps the current obsession with terrorism and endless military expansion is a form of psychological denial by which we distract our minds from climate change by pursuing a less complex problem. The threat of climate change is so enormous and threatening that it demands that we rethink who we are and what we do, to ask ourselves whether or not every cafe latte or Hawaiian vacation is part of the problem. Far easier to focus attention on an enemy out there in the mountains of Afghanistan.

John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus and harsh critic of what he terms “the Pentagon’s obesity problem,” sums up the underlying psychology most vividly:

“Here we are, trapped between the spreading sand and the rising waters, and somehow we simply cannot wrap our minds around the problem, let alone find a solution.

“It’s as if we are standing in the middle of the African veldt. From one side a charging elephant is bearing down on us. From the other side, a lion is about to pounce. And what are we doing? We’re focused on the lesser threats, like al-Qaeda. We’re focused on the ant that has crawled onto our toes and sunk its mandibles into our skin. It hurts, sure, but it’s not the major problem. We’re so busy looking down at our toe that we’ve lost sight of the elephant and the lion.”

Another factor is simply a lack of imagination on the part of policy makers and those who create the media that informs us. Many people are simply incapable of conceiving of the worst-case environmental catastrophe. They tend to imagine that tomorrow will be essentially like today, that progressions will always be linear, and that the ultimate test for any prediction of the future is our own personal experience. For these reasons, catastrophic climate change is inconceivable – literally.

If it is that serious, do we need to turn to the military option?

It has become a standard line for politicians to praise the US military as the greatest in the world. But if the military is completely unprepared for the challenge of spreading deserts and disappearing soil, our fate could resemble that of the forgotten emperor from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” whose colossal, ruined statue bears an inscription:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Fighting spreading deserts and rising oceans will take colossal resources and all of our collective wisdom. The response involves not only restructuring our entire government and economy, but also recreating our civilization. Yet the question remains: Is the response a mere reshuffling of priorities and incentives, or is this threat the true equivalent of war, i.e., “total war,” different only in the nature of the response and the assumed “enemy?” Are we looking at a life-and-death crisis that demands mass mobilization, a controlled and rationed economy and large-scale strategic planning for the short and long term? Does this crisis demand, in short, a war economy and a complete rethinking of the military system?

There are tremendous risks involved in invoking a military response, especially in an age when a violent mindset permeates our society. Certainly opening the door for the Beltway bandits to set up for business in the temple of climate change would be a disaster. What if the Pentagon were to seize on climate change to justify even more military spending on projects with little or no applicability to the actual threat? We know that in many fields of traditional security this tendency is already a serious problem.

Certainly there is a danger that military culture and assumptions will be incorrectly applied to the issue of climate change, a threat that ultimately is best addressed by cultural transformation. As the United States has serious problems reining in its impulse to employ the military option as a solution for just about everything, we need, if anything, to rein in the military, not to fuel it further.

But as regards climate change, the situation is different. Reinventing the military for the purpose of combating climate change is a necessary, if risky, step, and that process could fundamentally transform the culture, the mission, and the priorities of the entire security system. We have no choice but to engage in the debate with the military.

Unless the true security concerns are grasped, from desertification and rising oceans to food scarcity and aging populations, it may be impossible to find a collective security architecture that will allow for deep cooperation between the militaries of the world. After all, even if the US military were to draw down or resign from its world-police role, the overall security situation would likely become more dangerous. Unless we can find room for cooperation between militaries that does not require a common potential enemy, we are unlikely to reduce the terrible risks we presently face.

James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.” For us to wish that the military would simply become something different of its own accord accomplishes nothing. We must map out a path to transformation and then pressure and prod the military to assume a new role. So the argument against military involvement is valid, but the truth is that the military will never agree to a deep reduction of military budgets to support spending to address climate change through other agencies. Rather, the danger of climate change must be made visible within the military. Moreover, the introduction of sustainability as a key principle for the military could go far to remedy militarism and the mentality of violence that plagues American society by channeling the energies of the military into the healing of the ecosystem.

It is a truism of the military that it is always preparing to fight the last war. Whether the African chiefs who fought European colonists with charms and spears, the Civil War generals passionate for horses who disparaged filthy railroads, or the generals of World War I who sent infantry divisions into machine-gun fire as though they were fighting the Franco-Prussian War, the military tends to assume that the next conflict will be merely a scaled-up version of the last one.

If the military, instead of postulating military threats in Iran or Syria, takes engagement with climate change as its primary mission, it will bring in a new group of talented young men and women, and the very role of the military will shift. As the United States starts to reassign its military spending, so will other nations of the world. The result could be a far less militarized system and the possibility of a new imperative for global cooperation.

But the concept is useless if we cannot find a way to goad the US military in the right direction. As it is, we are spending precious treasure on weapons systems that don’t even meet military needs, let alone offer any application to problems of climate change. John Feffer suggests that bureaucratic inertia and competing budgets are the primary reason we seem to have no choice but to pursue weapons that have no clear application: “The various organs of the military compete with each other for a piece of the budgetary pie, and they don’t want to see their total budgets go down.” Feffer implies that certain arguments are repeated until they seem like Gospel: “We have to maintain our nuclear triad; we have to have a minimum number of jet fighters; we must have a Navy appropriate for a global power.”

The imperative to just keep building more of the same also has a regional and political component. The jobs associated with these weapons are scattered across the country. “There isn’t a congressional district that isn’t connected in some way to the manufacture of weapons systems,” Feffer says. “And the manufacture of those weapons means jobs, sometimes the only surviving manufacturing jobs. Politicians cannot ignore those voices. Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts was most courageous in calling for military reform, but when a backup engine for the F-35 fighter jet that was manufactured in his state was up for a vote, he had to vote for it – even though the Air Force declared that it was not needed.”

There are some in Washington DC who have started to develop a broader definition of national interest and security. One of the most promising is the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation. Under the direction of Patrick Doherty, a “Grand Strategy” is taking shape that draws attention to four critical issues that radiate out through society and the world. The issues treated in the “Grand Strategy” are “economic inclusion,” the entry of 3 billion people into the world’s middle class over the next 20 years and the implications of that change for the economy and the environment; “ecosystem depletion,” the impact of human activity on the environment and its implications for us; “contained depression,” the current economic situation featuring low demand and harsh austerity measures; and the “resilience deficit,” the fragility of our infrastructure and overall economic system. The Smart Strategy Initiative is not about making the military more green, but rather about resetting the overall priorities for the nation as a whole, including the military. Doherty thinks the military should stick to its original role and not stretch out into fields that are beyond its expertise.

When asked about the general response of the Pentagon to the question of climate change, he identified four distinct camps. First, there are those who remain focused on traditional security concerns and do take climate change into account in their calculations. Then there are those who see climate change as another threat that must be taken into account in traditional security planning but as more of an external factor than a primary issue. They voice concerns about naval bases that will be underwater or the implications of new sea lanes over the poles, but their basic strategic thinking has not changed. There also those who advocate using the massive defense budget to leverage market changes with an eye toward impacting both military and civilian energy usage.

Finally, there are those in the military who have come to the conclusion that climate change demands a fundamentally new national strategy that spans domestic and foreign policy and are engaged in a broad dialogue with varied stakeholders on what the road forward should be.

Some thoughts about how to reinvent the military, but fast!

We must put forth a plan for a military that devotes 60 percent or more of its budget to developing technologies, infrastructures and practices to stop the spread of deserts, to revive oceans and to transform the destructive industrial systems of today into a new, sustainable economy. What would a military that took as its primary mission the reduction of pollution, the monitoring of the environment, remediation of environmental damage and adaptation to new challenges look like? Can we imagine a military whose primary mission is not to kill and destroy, but to preserve and protect?

We are calling on the military to do something that at present it is not designed to do. But throughout history, militaries often have been required to completely reinvent themselves to meet current threats. Moreover, climate change is a challenge unlike anything that our civilization has ever encountered. Retooling the military for environmental challenges is just one of many fundamental changes that we will see.

A systematic reassignment of every part of the current military-security system would be the first step toward moving from a piecemeal to a fundamental engagement. The Navy could deal primarily with protecting and restoring the oceans; the Air Force would take responsibility for the atmosphere, monitoring emissions and developing strategies for reducing air pollution; while the Army could handle land conservation and water issues. All branches would be responsible for responding to environmental disasters. Our intelligence services would take responsibility for monitoring the biosphere and its polluters, assessing its status and making long-term proposals for remediation and adaptation.

Such a radical shift of direction offers several major advantages. Above all, it would restore purpose and honor to the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces were once a calling for America’s best and brightest, producing leaders like George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, rather than political infighters and prima donnas like David Petraeus. If the imperative of the military shifts, it will regain its social standing in American society and its officers would again be able to play a central role in contributing to national policy and not watch with their arms tied as weapons systems are pursued for the benefit of lobbyists and their corporate sponsors.

The United States faces a historic decision: We can passively follow the inevitable path toward militarism and imperial decline, or radically transform the present military-industrial complex into the model for a truly global collaborative to combat climate change. The latter path offers us the opportunity to correct America’s missteps and to set off in a direction more likely to lead in the long run toward adaptation and survival.

Let’s Start with the Pacific Pivot

John Feffer recommends that this transformation could start with East Asia and take the form of an expansion of the Obama Administration’s much-vaunted “Pacific pivot.” Feffer suggests: “The Pacific Pivot could be the basis for a larger alliance that postulates the environment as the central theme for security cooperation between the United States, China, Japan, Korea and other nations of East Asia, thereby reducing the risk of confrontation and rearmament.” If we focus on real threats, for instance how rapid economic development – as opposed to sustainable growth – has contributed to the spread of deserts, the decline of fresh water supplies, and a consumer culture that encourages blind consumption, we can reduce the risk of an arms buildup in the region. As East Asia’s role in the world economy increases and is bench-marked by the rest of the world, a regional shift in the concept of security, along with an associated change in military budgeting, could have immense impact globally.

Those who imagine that a new “Cold War” is sweeping East Asia tend to overlook the fact that in terms of rapid economic growth, economic integration and nationalism, the eerie parallels are not between East Asia today and East Asia during the ideological Cold War, but rather between East Asia today and Europe in 1914. That tragic moment saw France, Germany, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the midst of unprecedented economic integration and despite talk and hopes of lasting peace, fail to resolve long-standing historical issues and plunge into a devastating world war. To assume that we face another “cold war” is to overlook the degree to which the military buildup is driven by internal economic factors and has little to do with ideology.

China’s military spending reached $100 billion in 2012 for the first time, as its double-digit increases push its neighbors to increase military budgets as well. South Korea is increasing its spending on the military, with a projected 5 percent increase for 2012. Although Japan has kept its military spending to 1 percent of its GDP, freshly elected prime minister, Abe Shinzo, is calling for a major increase in Japanese overseas military operations as hostility toward China hits an all-time high.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon encourages its allies to boost military spending and buy US weapons. Ironically, potential cuts in the Pentagon budget are often presented as opportunities for other nations to increase military spending to play an increased role.


Ambassador Kwon’s Future Forest has been immensely successful in bringing Korean and Chinese youth together to plant trees and build a “Great Green Wall” to contain the Kubuchi Desert. Unlike the Great Wall of old, this wall is not meant to hold off a human enemy, but rather to create a line of trees as an environmental defense. Perhaps the governments of East Asia and the United States can learn from the example set by these children and invigorate the long-paralyzed Six Party Talks by making the environment and adaptation the primary topic for discussion.

The potential for cooperation between both military and civilian organizations concerning the environment is tremendous if the terms of the dialog are expanded. If we can align regional rivals in a common military purpose that requires no “enemy state” against which to close ranks, we may be able to avoid one of the greatest dangers of the current day. The effect of defusing the situation of competition and military buildup would be an enormous benefit in itself, quite distinct from the contributions made by the climate response mission.

The Six Party Talks could evolve into a “Green Pivot Forum” that assesses the environmental threats, sets priorities between stakeholders and allocates the resources needed to combat the problems.

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