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A man inspects parched fields in Raqqa province, Syria, in 2010.

A man inspects parched fields in Raqqa province, Syria, in 2010. (Reuters Photo) Climate change led to an extreme drought in Syria’s breadbasket between 2006 to 2009. Food prices skyrocketed, nutrition-related diseases became widespread, and 1.5 million internal refugees abandoned their farms and flooded into Syrian cities already crowded with 1.5 million Iraqi refugees displaced by the Iraq war. This influx of people exacerbated existing problems like unemployment, corruption and brewing discontent with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which failed to respond to the situation, according to the study. In 2011, the unrest reached boiling point and erupted into the Syrian uprising.

Climate Change: When the Military Makes More Sense Than the Politicians

Maybe the generals can be our Paul Revere’s. Maybe.

Daniel C. Maguire

The American idea was that the military’s zest for battle would be curtailed by a civilian-led government. Now generals Mattis, McMaster, Kelly et al. are seen internationally as the last ditch guarantors of common sense. They have their work cut out for them as King Goofus the Tweet launches adolescent taunts at potential enemies from the Oval Office and calls real national security threats like climate change a “hoax.” The experience of the mad dogs of war often breeds caution and an instinct for danger. Colin Powell warned George W. Bush privately against the crazy invasion of Iraq though he later betrayed his own good sense and joined the gang bang.

Our myopic politicians see Kim Jong-Un, Vladimir Putin, and Bashar al-Assad as the biggest threats facing the nation and the world. It would be so consoling if those nasty people were actually our biggest threat. Those leaders and their nations all have needs that the lost art of diplomacy could find and use that reality constructively.

No, the biggest threat, the biggest threat our species has faced in 10 thousand years, is global warming and the military are again out front. They don’t call it a hoax. In the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review they call the dramatic climate change “an accelerant of instability” and a “threat multiplier.” In October 2015 three former defense secretaries joined other experts saying the climate change is “shaping a world that is more unstable, resource-constrained, violent, and disaster-prone.”

Africa is a case in point. Andrew Holland , writing in Scientific American writes: “In northern Nigeria deforestation, overgrazing and increased heat from global warming have turned what was once productive farmland and savanna into an extension of the Sahara Desert. Lake Chad has lost more than 90 percent of its original size from drought, mismanagement and waste.” The population of already overcrowded Africa is likely to double by 2050 leading to explosive conditions already in evidence.

It is precisely from the chaos of this toxic mix that radical groups like Boko Haram have sprouted. The military know this. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA said that climate change fueled Syria’s civil war . Deep and long droughts drove hundreds of thousands of people from their farms into cities like Aleppo and Raqqa making fertile breeding ground for ISIS. The New York Times reports that as pasture land has dried up in places like Kenya violent and murderous battles are being fought just to get grass for the animals. Climate change is a major causative factor in all of this. It is indeed a “threat multiplier” and the threats do not stay within the borders of the poorest most affected nations. Despair also goes global and explodes in our streets.

President Trump calls anthropogenic global warming “a hoax.” Maybe his generals could sit him down and give him a little primer on this epochal threat to planetary security. We have had 378 months of above average temperatures. That’s no hoax. Scientists say Arctic ice is in “a death spiral.” That’s no hoax. People fish off Bangladesh in what was once a busy market before rising seas claimed it. That’s no hoax. MIT professor Alan Lightman reports: “Due to irreversible erosion, California has been losing its coastline at the rate of eight inches per year.” A home that was thirty feet from a cliff overlooking the Pacific is now three feet from the edge, poised for the plunge. That’s no hoax. Temperatures rose in Iraq and Kuwait to 129 F in July 2016 and to 112 F in parts of France and Italy in August 2017. That’s no hoax. “For every degree Celsius that temperature rises, agricultural scientists calculate, wheat yields drop 10 percent in the Earth’s hotter midriff,” as Alan Weisman reports in his tellingly entitled book Countdown. That’s no hoax. Environmental refugees no longer come only from island states like the Maldives and Tuvalu and from Bangladesh. They come from Houston and will be coming from inundated cities on our coasts. On top of all that we are awakening the sleeping giant in the earth. As vulcanologist Bill McGuire says changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, unleashing forces that make our destructive power seem puny. And that is coming and that is no hoax. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, energized by the heated waters of the sea, are portents of a “new normal.” The records they are breaking are not a hoax.

In just a couple of decades these threats to civilization as we have known it will be irreversible. Republican climate change denialism coupled with their goal of maximizing fossil fuel extraction is in Noam Chomsky’s words “almost a death knell for the human species.” Respected climatologist Michael E. Mann said: “I fear that this may be game over for the climate.”

When we are scared we can act. We got scared of small pox and an international effort ended it. We got really scared with the shrinkage of the ozone over Antartica and we responded internationally. In World War II, the United States stoked by fear transformed its economy and its industrial production in a matter of months.

We need fear. Big fear. Green fear. Maybe the generals can be our Paul Revere’s. Maybe.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Daniel C. Maguire

Daniel C. Maguire

Daniel C. Maguire is a professor at Marquette University where he specializes in religious ethics focusing on issues of social justice and medical and ecological ethics.  He is the author of eleven books including "Horrors We Bless, the PB: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy," "Whose Church?: A Concise Guide to Progressive Catholicism." He is also the author of some 200 articles in professional journals and magazines, including Theological Studies, Cross Currents, Atlantic, The New York Times, Crisis: Journal of the NAACP, and Ms. Magazine.

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