History has a way of repeating itself, which means that if military historians and strategists peer back far enough, certain precedents can be found to illustrate patterns and models useful for the prediction of the near-term future.
Unfortunately, as retired Brigidier General W. Chris King told members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka on Jan. 4, there is no historical precedence for what the nation and the world face in the future from the combined forces of climate change, overpopulation and resource depletion. “We have nothing on which to base projections,” he said. “We have to assume climate change is going to make everything worse. And there’s no easy, immediate fix. It’s a really, really hard problem.”
King, chief academic officer for the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, said that while the idea of climate change seems addressed to our times, it was already being discussed back in the 1970s and 1980s. The problem was, nobody was listening, least of all the U.S. military. Nor did the military consider them worthy of study.
“These subjects were not well received because [the authors] had patches on their sleeves and they didn’t get along with the military,” King said.
That began to change when one of the leading environmental scholars of the time, Norman Myers, characterized the impending shortage of resources as a national security issue on par with hostile nations. “It relates to watersheds, croplands, forests, genetic resources, climate and other factors that rarely figure in the minds of military experts and political leaders,” he wrote in The Environmentalist.
That assessment was mirrored in the latest National Security Strategy of the United States, dated May 2010, which declared “the danger from climate change is real, urgent and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe.”
The bottom line, King said, will be more failed states, more tension and conflict, and higher demand for military forces. “So now it’s my business,” he said. “Everything I do in the Department of Defense has been to address the threats identified in the National Securities Strategy, to protect the nation against all enemies.”
The primary culprit is climate change, he said, but it’s driven by population. Since 1950 the world’s population almost tripled from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion, and projections estimate an additional billion people every decade and a half.
Space is already at a premium, he said, and many parts of the world have already reached or exceeded their carrying capacity. “Where do you put all those people?” King asked. “All the good spots are already taken.”
Much the world’s population lives along coastlines and many others live by necessity on marginal lands susceptible to flooding or weather extremes.
With sea levels rising, the Alaskan town of Newtok is predicted to be underwater by 2017, earning residents the unfortunate status as the first climate refugees in America. The loss of living space and freshwater salination hold potential catastrophic outcomes, as would the collapse of estuarine fisheries. The loss of ice and snow in the arctic poses additional security problems of an open, unregulated and unguarded northern border. Rising temperatures will trigger fluctuations in extreme weather by increasing intensity and frequency as well as expanding areas at risk. Precipitation patterns will also change, impacting water, sanitation and food sources.
The military needs to adapt to changing climate and its associated global threats, and to develop strategies for action, King said. “When you dial 911 on a national level,” he said, “you call the military. Nobody else has the logistics capacity to move people and supplies on so vast a scale.”
Already worldwide 780 million people lack access to clean water, he said. More than three million people die each year from causes related to water or sanitation. Basic sanitation is lacking for two and a half billion people, and more than one billion people suffer from chronic hunger; most are children.
Compounding the problems, he said, is that many of these countries have the highest birth rates.
“Even if climate change didn’t exist, the 7.2 billion people and the limited resources to produce food and clean water to meet basic human needs is a disaster that’s coming at some rate which we don’t know yet,” he said. “And climate change is going to make it worse.”
The military response must be in less emphasis on force-on-force and more on humanitarian assistance, developing strategies for handling huge refugee and migration populations and to provide massive amounts of water when needed during emergencies, King said.
The solution, he added, isn’t up to the military. “We have to partner with the State department, economics, agriculture and other parts of the government that are going to have to adapt and develop,” he said.
The key is education. Kansas State University is now helping developing countries to move to sustainable systems rather than resource mining, he said. Overall, government agencies and organizations are trying to initiate a basic sustainable-needs model that will guide them into the uncertain future.
“This is our biggest threat,” King said. “But we’re not managing the planet that way.”
W. Chris King is Chief Academic Officer for the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. This article reports on a talk King gave to members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their annual convention in Topeka on Jan. 4, 2014. King retired from active duty at the rank of Brigadier General in August 2006—after more than 32 years of active service—and is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal. Source: the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal, February 17, 2014. http://www.hpj.com/archives/2014/feb14/feb17/0203KFUConference1PIXsr.cfm
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