Could hyping climate change with warlike rhetoric spur military conflict with China or Russia?

President Biden calls climate change the “existential threat of our time”  Indeed, he says it is our “biggest threat to national security,” and he’s made climate change the “center” of his national security policy.

Furthermore, his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance states that “if we fail to act now, we will miss our last opportunity to avert the most dire consequences of climate change for the health of our people, our economy, our security, and our planet.”

Just how far is the President and the U.S.’ powerful national security apparatus prepared to go to “avert the most dire consequences of climate change for the health of our people”?  Does using rhetoric historically reserved for adversaries against whom the US must be prepared to wage war indicate the U.S. is thinking in terms of a militarized response to climate change?

The key question:  Is using such militarily provocative language the right approach to solving the world’s climate change dilemma? 

How could this approach play out?  Consider, for example, the evidence showing air pollution as being directly linked to climate change.  It’s lethal as well: according to Time, air pollution kills 1.8 million people around the world each year, including about 155,000 Americans.

There are a number of sources of this deadly phenomena, but the planet’s main one seems to be China.  Is China then our climate-change “enemy”?

China

According to reporting from Phys.org, China is the world’s biggest polluter.  Its dangerous greenhouse gas emissions are “twice as much as [those of] the United States.”

Furthermore, “in 2020 China opened three-quarters of the world’s newly funded coal power plants…and accounted for more than 80 percent of newly announced coal power projects.”

All of this is physically harming Americans.  One source puts it this way:

Because of [the westerlies], the pollutants from China have caused a 65% increase in the Western Ozone – or, as it’s also referred to, smog.  One study shows that 29% of the particulates in smog in San Francisco come directly from China’s coal plants.

So it appears we know which country is most responsible for the “biggest threat” to U.S. national security, and we know that what is coming from that country is already imperiling the lives of Americans (and, likely, those of our allies).

Could—or should—this killer smog become a casus belli?   Put another way, doesn’t the use war rhetoric suggest the US might consider it as such?

Is that the reading we want, or does the warlike language the Administration employs raise the risk of misinterpretation and miscalculation?  Is it really impossible to imagine a shooting war erupting when America says climate change is an “existential threat” so dangerous it is the “center” of its national security policy?

Russia

If it does, China may not be the only adversary.  Russia is the world’s fourth largest polluter, but more than that, oil and gas “are responsible for more than 60% of Russia’s exports and provide more than 30% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).”

It would seem then that Russia has little incentive to see the world turn away from the fossil fuels so important to its economy, notwithstanding their obvious adverse effects on climate change.

Moreover, despite the fact that Russia itself could suffer negative consequences from climate change, it is also one of countries that could benefit from the global warming that results.

Last December the New York Times Magazine published an article (“How Russia Wins the Climate Crisis“) that found that “[c]limate change and its enormous human migrations will transform agriculture and remake the world order — and no country stands to gain more than Russia.”  The article explains:

[Russia’s] crop production is expected to be boosted by warming temperatures over the coming decades even as farm yields in the United States, Europe and India are all forecast to decrease.  And whether by accident or cunning strategy or, most likely, some combination of the two, the steps its leaders have steadily taken — planting flags in the Arctic and propping up domestic grain production among them — have increasingly positioned Russia to regain its superpower mantle in a warmer world.

The Arctic 

Another result of climate change is the melting of arctic ice.  While this will be disastrous for many countries, others – especially Russia – could benefit.  Such benefits could be substantial.

Experts say the Arctic “holds an estimated 22% of Earth’s oil and natural gas resources.”  In addition, as “Arctic ice melts, sea routes will stay navigable for longer periods, which could drastically change international trade and shipping.”

Unsurprisingly, “Russia has launched an ambitious plan to remilitarize the Arctic.”  In fact, just a few weeks ago CNN reported “Satellite images show huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic.”  The Center for Strategic & International Studies describes the scope of Russia’s actions:

Russia’s military posture in the Arctic emphasizes air and maritime early warning and defense, highlighted by the reopening of 50 previously closed Soviet-era military posts. This includes the refurbishment of 13 air bases,10 radar stations, 20 border outposts, and 10 integrated emergency rescue stations. Russian special forces units are also part of an Arctic Brigade and have deployed to the region for exercises and training.

Most worrisome, Russia has tested new Arctic-based military capabilities such as hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. Senior U.S. military leaders have expressed growing concern about the prevalence of these Russian cruise missiles in the Arctic and their “avenue of approach” to the United States.

China, which has declared itself a “near-Arctic” nation, also sees benefits in the Arctic melt that climate change is causing.  A 2018 article in Foreign Policy—“China’s Ready to Cash In on a Melting Arctic—pointed out that China’s Arctic policy white paper “envisions a ‘Polar Silk Road,’” a valuable trade route only made possible by the loss of Artic ice packs.

China also undoubtedly has interests in the Arctic’s oil and mineral wealth whose exploitation climate change enables.  Among other things, China is keenly aware that climate change is making access to Greenland’s valuable minerals viable.  Consequently, the Wall Street Journal noted on April 9th that China has “ambitions to develop a massive rare-earth mine” there.

It also reported that Greenland’s government is exploring loans from China to build a major airport, something the paper said “set off alarm in the Pentagon, which worried that if Greenland defaulted on the loans, the Chinese government could claim a strategic air strip just a few hours by flight from the U.S. eastern seaboard.”

A militarized response?

I don’t think President Biden is currently considering using military force to solve the climate crisis.  Yet when the U.S president declares this peril not just the “biggest threat to national security” but also one that puts America’s very existence in jeopardy, it would be wholly understandable if such rhetoric spurs armed forces—ours and those of others–to strategize as to how that danger might be affirmatively eliminated.  That’s how militaries deal with threats.

Far-fetched?  In a 2019 article in Foreign Policy Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt discussed the use of military forces and prophesized that “it’s only a matter of time until major powers try to stop climate change by any means necessary.”  He contends:

The question, therefore, is how far would the international community be willing to go in order to prevent, halt, or reverse actions that might cause immense and irreparable harm to the environment on which all humans depend? It might seem far-fetched to imagine states threatening military action to prevent this today, but it becomes more likely if worst-case estimates of our climate future turn out to be correct.

There are other serious discussions of environmental intervention (see, e.g., here).  A particularly sophisticated analysis is provided by Professor Robyn Eckersley of the University of Melbourne.  She acknowledges that while there are “very good reasons for approaching the question of the use of military force to secure environmental protection with great caution,” there are also arguments supporting it.  She says:

First, while most ecological problems are not amenable to any kind of military response, there are still some ecological problems and risks that do constitute environmental emergencies in the sense that they are grave and imminent and require a military or paramilitary response if they are to be avoided or minimized.

She adds:

Second, exploring the use of military force for environmental protection enables a useful stocktaking and clarification of the relationship between new ecological norms and the fundamental political and legal norm of nonintervention and its corollary, self‐determination.  Such an inquiry provides one significant gauge of the extent to which sovereignty has been, or may be, “greened.” 

Is there any sort of precedent?  Maybe.  In 1982 the U.S. reportedly “slipped…flawed software” to the Russians which caused a Siberian natural gas pipeline controlled by the malware to explode.  The purpose at the time was “to disrupt the Soviet gas supply, its hard currency earnings from the West, and the internal Russian economy.”

Is it possible that someone today might believe a similarly destructive cyber operation was a good way to stop the flow of climate-destroying fossil fuel?  Would that serve to “green” the Russians or could it prompt a decidedly different reaction?

Likewise, is it really unimaginable that a nation, taking the U.S.’ rhetoric to heart, also finds climate change to be an “existential threat” and decides to take military action to “avert the most dire consequences of climate change for the health of [its] people”?

How could they do that?  The 1982 cyber incident suggests a means as experts tell us that many actors today have the capability to launch cyber-attacks on electrical infrastructure.   Consequently, can’t a scenario be conceptualized where a cyber-capable country attacks another nation’s coal-fired power grid contending it was a legitimate act to eliminate the pollution accelerating deadly climate change?  As a justifiable way to force the targeted nation to adopt safer ‘green energy’ sources?

What about tinkering with weather to halt or reverse climate change?  Yes, the U.S. and many other nations are parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.  Would that apply to block the operation?

Perhaps not.  If climate change is an “existential threat” to a country’s national security, how hard would it be to frame a modification of the climate not as a “hostile use” but rather as a pacific one aimed at lessening the effects of harmful climate change?  What, however, might the response be of those nations who perceive they are benefiting from climate change?

The point of this is to suggest that words have ramifications, and the U.S.’s militarized language about climate change could prompt actions with consequences of the unintended and very much undesired kind.

Concluding thoughts 

As Lawfire®  readers know, I’ve long opposed a militarized response to the very real challenge of climate change.  Of course, America’s armed forces need to make prudent resilience plans to mitigate the harmful effect of climate change on their facilities and equipment.  Similarly, strategists need to be alert as to how climate change might cause or exacerbate conflict in many situations around the world.

However, Americans need to disabuse themselves of the assumption that all nations will perceive climate change’s harms as outweighing any benefits they might gain (even if the perception of “gains” is, in the long run, wrong).

The reality is that in the near term some countries—and powerful ones at that—could derive some significant benefits.  Again, does the U.S.’s “national security” posturing about climate change invite thinking in terms of a peaceful resolution, or does it imply a willingness to engage America’s extraordinary military capabilities?  How might the world’s worst climate offenders react?

Let’s face it, the use of war-rhetoric – especially when framed as being the “center” of America’s approach to national security – invites not only the U.S. military but also militaries around the globe—both friend and foe–to look for military answers.  This could take us to a place we don’t want to be.

Leaders can—and should—be frank about the very serious dangers climate change poses, but it is imperative that they correctly contextualize the possible solutions. 

A nation might wish to declare climate change to be a foreign policy or domestic priority, but that is rather different than saying it is the “center” of its national security approach. 

Words do matter, and in a hyper-sensitive world much care must be taken to avoid triggering unwanted and potentially cataclysimic responses.

Still, remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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