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A window for thinking about “the” military and climate change … and the importance of careful discussions

December 6th, 2011 · 3 Comments

Too often, people point to statements and actions by civilian leadership to state “the military” thinks this or that about energy and climate issues. While  the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) spoke of climate change as a national security issue,  the QDR is always a highly political document driven by civilian (political appointee) leadership even with much uniformed influence.  This often masks more conflicted (or even opposing) concepts and thinking within the uniformed services and leadership.

Consider the following parameters as circles in a Venn Diagram:

  • Wall Street Journal reader,
  • Fox News watcher,
  • Evangelical (Christian),
  • Educated,
  • Republican.

And, consider these within the context of views on and understanding of climate science:

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these parameters, put together, provide a very high likelihood that the person in question is a global warming science denier (or, as some might put it, suffers from anti-science syndrome).

Returning to the start of the post, the truth is that these bullets describe a notable share of the U.S. military officer corps with a meaningful share (higher, I believe although there is limited ‘polling’ data within the military to know this for sure, than the general public) falling into that global warming denier sweet spot. In my experience, a substantial portion of the U.S. military (and even more so within the retired officer community) is in a mental trap of being so extremely questioning of climate science to merit the term ‘denier’.

To be clear, this description (just as the Venn diagram) does not capture the totality of the U.S. officer corps.  There are officers who could make Al Gore sound conservative when it comes to the Anthropocene Era.  There are many seriously concerned about humanity’s impact on the climate and see serious impacts from this on future military requirements.  And, there are many who are well-educated and deeply thoughtful and have taken the time to educate themselves with an open mind.  As a matter of fact, one of the most effective speakers (to broad audiences) on climate change is such an officer. Rear Admiral Titley, head of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force Climate, started off a presentation in 2010

As I go around the country, I find that there are still a fair number of people who believe this is all some vast left-wing conspiracy, that climate change is a hoax. I am not going to ask for a show of hands or anything like that, but I hope to convince you that climate is in fact changing and that, at the global level, it is actually pretty simple to understand. …

And, he then calmly looks at climate change from multiple evidence paths to show how a scientist — looking at the evidence with an open mind — has no choice but to join the ‘consensus’ behind The Theory of Global Warming even as Titley openly states that he hopes we pull a rabbit out of the hat to disprove the science:

I wish climate change were not happening, but it is happening, and unfortunately, as long as we keep accelerating the rate at which we are putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we in the Navy at least will need to continue to develop adaptation strategies and probably more aggressive adaptation strategies as the decades go on. I hope that is not true. I hope that either there will be some tremendous fix or we are missing a huge piece of the science, but until we see that, we are going to have to continue to plan based on what we now know.

Using “the” when describing any institution or society with millions of individuals creates challenges — even in an institution like the military which seeks to make the individual a servant of the whole.  Thus, when it comes to “climate change” it is inappropriate to state that “the” military (if referring to the people) understands climate change even as major documents (like the QDR) address climate change as an issue of concern.  On the other hand, it is inappropriate to state that “the” military are global warming deniers.

Admiral Titley’s studied and thoughtful presentations are strongly adapted for this difficult terrain. Understanding that significant portions of the military (of the Navy) are, at minimum, skeptical about climate science, Admiral Titley =addresses, directly, that there are those who deny climate change. He then, in a quite deliberate fashion, works his way though multiple ways of looking at the science in such a way that all but those must caught in confirmation bias will end up with him at the conclusion that a warming planet and projections into the future demand, at the minimum, that prudent military planners address these issues.  And, then he turns to “plan(ning) based on what we now know”.

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