Planning for climate change: lessons from the US Army War College

Planning for climate change: lessons from the US Army War College

There are problems with getting to grips with climate change. The remoteness of the data, and of those people who generate it, makes quick and easy understanding quite difficult. There are many people and groups who benefit from rubbishing the conclusions of experts. There are as many people who have decided that, in the words of UK minister Michael Gove, “we have had enough of experts”. And, of course, the gravest consequences seem a long way off. In a time when most people are not even planning for their own pension, how are they to get to grips with concepts of sea level rise in 2100?

Were it better known, the US Army War College report on the implications of climate change for the US Army, released in October this year, should be the breakthrough in getting people to understand the real, immediate risks. It is written for one of the few state bodies still to retain genuine respect and affection. Its authors range from the US Army to NASA to the Defence Intelligence Agency. It deals with real consequences and real situations. It is clear, and unambiguous. It is absolutely terrifying.

Quick headline? Within twenty years, climate change impacts could cause the collapse of domestic water, power and food systems. War, mass migration and disease on a large scale could break out. The military itself could collapse. All of these consequences take place in America itself – and all will impact countries round the world where the US Army has to operate.

The thoughtfulness of the analysis is impressive. It is the first place I have seen a proper assessment of the impact of salt water intrusion into coastal areas and changing weather patterns on the availability of fresh water in the context of supplying large numbers of people: “a significant logistical burden” added to the already complex problems of managing a force on the modern battlefield.

One has a certain sympathy for the authors when they say “It is useful to remind ourselves regularly of the capacity of human beings to persist in stupid beliefs in the face of significant, contradictory evidence.” The paper simply accepts that climate change is happening and will happen: “The analysis assumes, based on the preponderance of evidence available, that significant changes in climate have already occurred, likely to worsen in the years ahead.” Being concerned with effects rather than causes gives the authors an intellectual freedom precisely because they do not need to defend their base assumption that climate change exists. This feels quite revolutionary, as if we are finally moving on from arguing about why something is happening and onto how to deal with it.

The report addresses three challenges.

Challenge 1: The Physical environment.

Rising seas will change coastal geography, displacing many millions, rendering coastal cities and farmland uninhabitable. Military installations on the coast will be put out of action (indeed, a forefather of this report was a US Navy analysis a few years back on how to defend ports and harbours against the rising sea). The opening of the Arctic will raise geopolitical issues which simply did not exist when the top tenth of the world was enclosed in ice. Methane release, the desire to get at the fifth of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves currently sequestered in the Arctic, the opening of sea lanes all make the Arctic a point of particular concern. Additionally, “Russia’s current Arctic plans include the opening of ten search and rescue stations, 16 deep water ports, 13 airfields and ten air defense sites.” – enough to give any commander cause for concern. The distribution and prevalence of endemic diseases will change, including malaria, dengue fever, Chikungunya, Leishmaniasis, Lyme disease and Zika. Fresh waterwill be less available: “By 2040, the global demand for fresh water projects to exceed availability.” There will be a decrease in food security and in food security, with knockon effects on social order (“During a global food crisis in 2007-2008, social unrest was reported in 61 affected countries.”). There will be an increase in extreme weather. There will be stress to the power grid.

Challenge 2: the Social, Economic and Political environment

As if the challenge 1 section were not sufficiently intimidating, the authors analyse what the implications are. Intriguingly, they view the social factors in a way that demands a response from the US military itself – in a society concerned about climate change, how does one of the most polluting organisations, dependent entirely on fuel oil, respond? Brief, pithy analyses of the responses of the market, of regulation and of technology, all point up the authors core message: climate change is more than just change, it is also how an organisation responds to change.

Challenge 3. Organisational confusion

“During this study, we were struck by how much many people knew about parts of the phenomena, but we were also surprised by the lack of a holistic view of the problem, and a sense of how some areas would relate to each other. Climate change is a common cause linking a disparate set of challenges, but we currently have no systemic view to assess and manage risk. In contrast, in China, systems science and engineering is considered so important to the future of China that this is a course of study required for all cadres in the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School in Beijing.”

In other words, there is no structured response currently in place for this very real thing coming down the track. There are lots of studies (“In the past two decades, the DoD has been under increasing pressure from Congress to prepare strategies, plans and capabilities necessary to ensure preparedness for the wide array of potential impacts on weather resulting from climate change.”) but no joined up thinking.

A set of recommendations for the issues identified is brief, practical, time-defined, and prioritised. And a conclusions section basically says “even if this isn’t exactly what’s going to happen, something like it is, and we must be ready”.

For us at SAMI, it is a good to see such forthright acts of foresight. We moved climate change last year from one of our drivers of change to a factor in every study we do: no longer a possible but an actual. That felt then like a principled decision, but it is reports such as this one which make clear that we were right. Foresight and futures work looks at a range of things that might happen, preparing scenarios and possible alternate futures to enable our clients to think about and prepare for the future such that they can make “robust decisions in uncertain times”.

Implications of climate change for the US Army is a model of how reports should be written. Not a word is wasted. It is brief, logical and compelling. It is also terrifying, more so because it is not a wake up call, but a reasoned list of events, their consequences, and the actions needed to deal with them. Get past the title, and read it. I suspect it may be one of those papers that we end up citing widely in ten years time – unfortunately, probably wishing we had followed its recommendations when we still had time.

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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