Defense One Radio, Ep. 87: Climate change vs. everyone

In this episode, we review how our understanding of the threats posed by human-caused climate change is evolving, and we look at some ways the U.S. could more smartly compete with China.

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Defense One's Patrick Tucker helps explain the U.S. military's growing climate security portfolio (at the 4:05 mark); John Conger of the Center for Climate and Security joins us later (at 14:28), followed by Gabriel Collins of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy (at 23:38).

Extra reading:

  • Read Conger's Defense One op-ed;
  • Find the report Gabe co-wrote on U.S.-China competition (PDF);
  • Read more from Tucker's interview with Richard Kidd, the deputy assistant defense secretary for environment and energy resilience.

A transcript of this episode is below.

It’s not too often that a tornado comes ripping across America’s East Coast cities. This week, one did just that in Annapolis, Maryland, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. 

On the same day, the same storm—Hurricane Ida—sent record-breaking rains to New Jersey and New York City, flooding the subways and major roads, with some places like Central Park recording more than 3 inches of rain in a single hour. So far nearly four dozen people across Jersey and New York have reportedly died in the storm, and a state of emergency is in effect across both states as we post this episode. 

Here’s New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio speaking to the public on Thursday, Sept. 2. 

De Blasio: “We are truly all in this together. Storms affect all of us. What we’ve got to recognize is the suddenness, the brutality of storms now– it is different. A record set two weeks ago, another record set now, rainfall like we haven’t seen ever before.  This is the biggest wake-up call we could possibly get. We’re gonna have to do a lot of things differently and quickly.”

Down south, around 6,000 National Guard troops are currently helping with relief efforts around Louisiana, where Hurricane Ida left nearly a million people without electricity.   

To the west, more than 1,200 other Guard troops are helping fight wildfires across California, Oregon and Washington. They’ve even dispatched an MQ-9 Reaper drone for fire-mapping.

About those wildfires…Last year was the worst season on record for California. This year is on track to shatter that record as scientists watch jet streams change course due to what they believe are the effects of human-caused climate change shifting the currents linking Arctic and tropical air. 

Here’s California National Guard Army Maj. Gen. Dan Baldwin speaking to reporters Wednesday. 

Baldwin: “The fire situation here in California remains pretty dire. We have 16 major fires burning throughout the state. Now, that didn't mean not seem a lot, you know, 20 or 30 years ago, we'd have many more fires burning. But the significant difference is these fires are huge. As a matter of fact, the fires are making runs of 20- and 30,000 acres per day. And 20 or 30 years ago, a big fire was a 20,000-acre fire that burned for several weeks. But now we're seeing in a single day, that kind of massive growth than the big fires that we've got going. The other thing that's happening is the first time I've ever seen it in my career dealing with forest fires, is fires will start on the west side of the Sierra and burn up and over the top and into the east side of the Sierra. That's never happened before.

But that’s not all that’s gotten worse lately. 

Hokanson: Now, the thing that we've learned about forest fires, and wildfires is previously we kind of looked at a wildfire season. You know, it started usually in June, July, and went until October. 

That’s National Guard Chief Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson.

Hokanson: But under the current conditions, and the winds and the things that we're facing, and the extended drought periods, those fire seasons literally go without end, they they start early in the year, they go late into the year. And so it's more of what we call a fire year. And so this is the first year that we've really taken the opportunity similar to like hurricanes, and we met in March with the National Interagency Fire Center to identify those capabilities. And in most cases, it's not just ground crews, but it's primarily air crews as well. And we identified the fact that the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade out of California would be gone. And so states across the country identified air crews and trained them in advance so that as California needs them, that they can get there in a timely manner to make a difference.

And these wildfires, no one’s under any illusion that they’re gonna be over soon. Here’s Maj. Gen. Baldwin again.

Baldwin: And so in terms of length of the mission last year, we had soldiers and airmen in California fighting fires on Christmas Eve. So we're, we have many months ahead of us of this.

The broad effects of climate change are pretty well known among the Defense Department—and our listeners, as well. We’ve covered the basics back in episode 41

Among the biggest and more recent climate-change price tags I’ve seen, Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base was hit with $5 billion in damage from the 2018 category 5 hurricane Michael. The next year, portions of Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base flooded after heavy rains, causing about half a billion in damages. Offutt is home to America’s nuclear forces headquartered at what’s known as U.S. Strategic Command.

For years, scientists have warned that storms will become more intense and possibly more frequent if we can’t slow down how much carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere. 

Those warnings have only grown louder in the last few years. And one of the more dire warnings came in the middle of August with the release of a new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

In that report, we’re told there are several effects of human-caused climate change that we simply cannot stop at this point—stuff like rising seas and melting ice caps. But there are other things we can help slow if nations kind of get in gear and sincerely work to reduce their carbon footprints. The report is almost 4,000 pages long and gathers up at least eight years of new climate research. 

But there’s another, less-talked-about report I just learned about recently thanks to reporting from my colleague, Patrick Tucker, Defense One's science and tech editor. 

Watson: Patrick, thanks for letting me call you up.

Tucker: Hey, thank you for calling me.

Watson: Very good, Happy Friday to you just before Labor Day weekend. Okay. So tell me about this International Military Council on Climate and Security report. This thing came out in June, and you wrote a little bit about it as you were preparing for your own reporting recently. What can you tell me about that thing?

Tucker: Well, it touches on many of the same themes that you'll find in the UN report, but with a special focus on the military. And the key finding is that there is significant or higher risks to security under an advanced climate change scenario. So the convergence of climate change and other risks, creates what they refer to as compound security threats for states and societies. Everything that might cause geopolitical disruption is exacerbated under a more intense climate warming scenario. So you have migration that becomes larger, that becomes a more pressured migration, you have potential drought issues, which reinforce the migration activity, you have the possibility for violence or sectarian violence, that rises up as different groups try to acquire territory relating to water resources, or other resources, you have flooding, you have food insecurity, you have all of this stuff that can feed geopolitical crises, just getting worse is the main thing that they found. And this group also looks at the costs of climate change to militaries directly in terms of basing, in terms of moving resources that belong to the military. And there, too, you're looking at increased costs to militaries as they deal with more and more crises, geopolitical uncertainty and other issues as a result of climate change.

Watson: Alright, so you spoke recently to a Pentagon official about a lot of this stuff, too. I've got a transcript here, but I'm wondering what stands out to you about that conversation?

Tucker: Right. So I spoke to Richard Kidd, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for environment and energy resilience. And one of the things that struck me is the degree to which climate change is already affecting the way the military does things and affecting military missions. So you're watching the National Guard, for instance, sort of stretched to the brink.

Kidd: So if you track the number of National Guard days or at National Guardsmen have been mobilized to provide defense support for civil authorities last year was the highest year on record. Now, some of that was due to the guard being called up for some civil unrest issues. But this year, we're already on track to exceed that mountain. Alright, so these are national guardsmen, basically fighting forest fires. Likewise, the Corps of Engineers responds for hurricanes or droughts in support of the National Response through FEMA. So you saw the Corps of Engineers going into New Orleans, you saw the Corps of Engineers going in New Jersey. So we absolutely predict that those demands, that demand set will only increase.

Tucker: And you are going to see more of that in addition to some of the things that the report talks about in the future—larger geopolitical risks, food insecurity, possible large migration events, which also have a military dimension to them. So what I was most affected by is the realization that the U.S. military because it is at the forefront of stability and ensure that everyone is safe and makes making sure that light feels normal for people is going to be the entity at the forefront of dealing with climate change.

Watson: Yeah. So this is like civil humanitarian kind of work, really, I mean, stuff that we're seeing in Louisiana now. For example, clearing roads, something as simple as that.

Tucker: Yeah. And I think that that's important for a couple of reasons, because it reinforces the idea that the military is going to always have a big role to play in making sure that society can function. And that role is going to grow, regardless of the presence of conflict, even though climate change does increase the possibility of conflict.

Watson: Yeah, interesting. Richard Kidd had mentioned and you too, as well, and, of course of our talking a moment ago, the military knowing that it needs to reduce its carbon footprint. He mentioned carbon sequestration as an option, right? Do you know anything about that, how that would, how that could be done?

Tucker: The Department of Defense can play a big role in carbon sequestration, just based on how it sources things like wood and timber. We wind up using a lot less trees through having cross laminated timber. And that lets you raise trees that you're not chopping down in the same way as you would like regular timber. And so the trees suck the carbon and sequestered inside themselves that way. There are a lot of techniques that science has looked at for sequestering carbon under the ground, possibly in subterranean caverns and things like that. Not a ton of really great, cost effective ideas, but the costs of carbon sequestration are potentially coming down. It's a tricky subject, because just trying to put that on top of energy is the cost of energy, like a lot. And so that's one of the things that's sort of controversial about climate change mitigation ideas. But, you know, the military is a leader in a lot of different areas of science technology, that if we transition to it would decrease carbon footprint, such as deployable nucular, you know, the U.S. military has aircraft carriers that run on nuclear power and submarines that run on nuclear power. And so while it's impractical, probably to run smaller vehicles on that the use of nuclear power by the military safely for decades now really highlights the applicability of that, and I think offers for many folks that are so skeptical of nuclear power, a use case that shows that really, it can be used in a wide variety of ways, very safely, as long as you design your plant, so that your backup generators are above sea level in the event of a tsunami.

Watson: I want a nuclear powered four-wheeler. Maybe if you could get a safe version of that this idea will take off like innocuous wildfire.

Tucker: Yeah, you can probably have smaller nuclear power plants. The military is looked at potentially deployable nuclear generators for bases. Which is the thing that the Army has done actual research into; it was a DARPA program.

Watson: Would it just take a mortar like a good well placed mortar round to make that a history?

Tucker: There was a lot of volatility; there's a potential instability side effect. There's obviously that. You can, you can shoot in. Then there's the problem of potentially bringing  radioactive material into a country that you might wind up evacuating under less than ideal circumstances, and

Watson: What are you talking about?

Tucker: Yeah. So that I get kind of got scrapped. But for domestic use, I think that you're gonna see just a much more strong advocation of nuclear power as a climate mitigation necessity than you have seen previously. And the military with all of its research into deployed nuclear power has a lot to potentially say about how to do that well, and also the benefits of that.

Watson: Fair enough. All right. Patrick Tucker is Defense One's science and tech editor. Patrick, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it.

Tucker: Hey, thanks for talking to me.

John Conger is a former Defense Department official who now directs the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C. John, welcome back to Defense One Radio.

Conger: Thanks so much. I'm happy to be here.

Watson: Very good. All right. So it's been over two years since you and I have spoken about this issue. But you have done quite a bit of thinking about it. In the meantime, all the while, and you had written a piece in Defense One, not that long ago, that kind of elaborated a couple of a couple of interesting positions. For me as somebody who considers the future of defense. And it's about kind of like compounding problems, making things worse, like multitude of issues happening at once, and I kind of bring it up because there are, you know, just in the world of the military helping fight, for example, while wildfires, there had been recently, you know, wildfires in the United States. There were wildfires in Turkey, the Russian military centenary helicopter over there to help and that crashed. And then, of course, Russia has had a lot of wildfires as well, and the Siberia region this year, I think, record levels. I'm wondering, can you explain a little bit about how climate change amplifies the threats that the United States faces?

Conger: Sure. And I think it's important to recognize that it's not an either/or with climate change—it's an and. It's a layer on top of other risks and other threats that we're dealing with. And so some, some people like to ask the question, are you more interested in focusing on China, or Russia or climate change? And how can you possibly say climate change? Well, the answer is, it's not a choice. It's everything. And so climate change, for example, layers in on Russian behavior, because with the Arctic ice melting, they're having to deal with not only opportunities in the high north, because there's more resources that they might have available and more trade routes, but also an increasingly vulnerable border, which used to be the case that that they didn't have to defend. China is wrestling with how they're going to feed and provide water to a billion and a half people in an environment where food security and water scarcity are both going to be increasing major issues, you have to sort of bring it all together. You look at a place like North Korea, we recently put out a report sort of highlighting the climate stresses that they will feel and how their food production is going to be reduced, and half will have high probability that they're going to have a failure of food production in the coming decades. And what happens then. So you can't segregate it, you can't separate the climate threat from all the other threats you're facing. It's part of the environment.

Watson: Just since you and I've talked to yours, have I bring this up? Because there's been kind of changes within people I've known. I'm just wondering if there've been ] changes within people that you know, you're familiar with much more expertise on this thing. But it's surprising to me how laymen as it were are waking up to the compounding effects of climate change. This week, I think we've had floods in New York City and Tennessee; more, almost two dozen people died in Tennessee from it. I'm wondering, though, has there seemingly been any kind of growing acceptance of the need to take a broader range of actions because of climate change that you have noticed in the past two years?

Conger: Yes. And I think that where you find it is in the political realm. It was just starting, I think when we had our podcast, I was listening to it. And you had [retired U.S. Navy] Admiral [David] Titley, on. And he had made the point of watching the Republicans and sit on Capitol Hill and seeing how they reacted. I think that we moved in the last couple of years from debates over the science and whether climate change was real into debates over what to do about it, which is a much healthier place to be. You don't hear debates about the science any longer. You hear debates about what action to take. Resilience was always something people felt comfortable talking about. Resilience was something that DOD has been thinking about for a long time. And they've called it different things. 'Mission Assurance' is a is a term that DOD has used for forever and ever. And one of the things that can impact your ability to conduct your mission is extreme weather, or other climate impacts. And so talking about resilience to those climate impacts is natural for the department, talking about mission is natural for the department. But watching the political folks say know that we have to pay attention to this has been an emerging consensus. Certainly in the security realm, you have basically pragmatic, reasonable strategy, questions; reports required resilience measures, new authorities, and defense authorization bills written by both Republicans and Democrats over the last several years. And so that has indicated progress. You had during the Trump administration in 2020, the Secretary of the Army put out a climate change directive. And so you have high-level Trump administration officials recognizing the issue. So those are big changes. I think it's, you know, in fairness to the Biden administration, they brought in big changes, too, because when the President and when the White House and when the Secretary of Defense and other senior cabinet officials are prioritizing climate change, it does change the focus of everybody in the department. It changed, you know, when what's the old saying, 'When something interests my boss, it fascinates me.' I think that when the president says that climate change is one of his priorities, one of his very small shortlist priorities, then people are going to pay more attention studying the issue. And so it's going to get more resources financially, it's going to get more and more resources in time and focus, leadership attention, and so on and so forth. But let me put an asterisk on the resources bit just before I finish this thought, because if you look at the additional resources that have been attributed to climate issues in this year's budget request, they are all about mission capability—it's just a different aspect of mission capability. 'How can I continue to do my mission in the face of this risk or that risk?' And so, you know, can I make my engines more capable? Or more efficient? Sure. But I'll get more range out of them as a consequence. Those are the kinds of questions they're focusing a little bit more on now. And it is leading to just a different place on the priority list.

Watson: Yeah, I see some of these lawmakers that you had highlighted in a recent piece on was talking about two Republican lawmakers in particular, Rep. Joe Wilson and, and Rep. Jason Crow, South Carolina and Colorado respectively. And both of them were kind of wanting some of this seemingly related information in certain points, in particular, was Rep. Wilson was wanting projections on sea level rise and rising temperatures and hurricane behavior. And then representative Crowe was looking for things more related to I guess, military installations, master plans, and so forth. So it does seem like a coalescing.

Conger: I think that it's important to recognize that the military has always cared about weather for operations. And, you know, D-Day was driven—the date was driven by weather forecasts and weather impacts, every battle. And so at a tactical level, weather is very important. But at a strategic level, these climate change impacts are very important. And so putting together a strategy and thinking about the globe strategically, cannot help but be informed by these issues. And these phenomena, if you don't pay attention to them, then you put yourself at a disadvantage, because your adversaries are probably paying attention to these issues. And so you need to be able to pull it in to your global picture. It's not an or, it's an and.

Watson: John Conger directs the Center for Climate and Security in Washington. John, thanks so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.

Conger: Absolutely happy to do so.

While most of our talk this episode has been focused on the U.S., it’s worth remembering that this problem reaches around the globe. And halfway around the world is the planet’s largest greenhouse gas emitter—China. 

And so you might think that it would really be helpful if countries like America could … say … partner up with China to somehow cut greenhouse gas emissions. That’s part of what the Paris Climate Accords were about. Of course, President Trump was no fan of those, so the U.S. basically hit pause on all that for a couple of years. With a new president in office, both America and China are taking a slightly different tone when it comes to responding to human caused climate change.

Just this week, for example, China’s Foreign Minister reminded the U.S. that climate change is an area the two nations could fight together—but things need to improve between Washington and Beijing first. 

Is there a way forward for the U.S. and China when it comes to climate change? When it comes to the world’s two most powerful nations, it’s just simply not that easy. 

So this week I called Gabriel Collins of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He just co-authored a 60-plus page report in which he warns U.S. policy makers against what he calls “China’s climate cooperation smokescreen.” 

Gabe Collins, thanks for letting me call you up. 

Collins: Thank you, sir. And glad to be with you guys today.

Watson: So I’m reaching out because it’s not often that we’ve gotten into climate change discussions that extended beyond America’s borders. Mostly it had been how does this affect stateside bases and quote unquote resilience. But climate change of course is an enormous challenge that affects the entire globe. And China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. And in that way it may be seen as having a kind of leverage. Can you tell us then what you mean by a “climate cooperation smokescreen”?

Collins: What we mean by “climate cooperation smokescreen” is the massive schism that currently exists between China's international climate rhetoric and its domestic actions, which basically each year continue to see about 4 billion tons of coal burned. And then there's other emissions-intensive activities, as well. And what really motivated us to draft this report is what we see is a situation right now on the international stage of very divergent priorities when you look at the national government level in each country, where climate is becoming a central priority for many aspects of United States foreign and security policy. And for China, there'll be things said, but it's also very clear that if there was to be any type of cooperation, there would be a severe geopolitical price that would have to be paid for that. One would have to agree with what's going on in Hong Kong, with what's going on in Xinjiang, what's going on in the South China Sea and so forth. And this is—it's not a position, it's not a trap that the United States should allow itself to fall into. We believe competition can be used instead to establish leverage, and then later hopefully, create that both make emissions progress in the meantime. But create a better, more even playing field for real negotiations later, instead of the extractive ones that China wants to pursue right now.

Watson: So a kind of competition instead of a cooperation, given the kind of understanding that we've had more refined in the last couple of years about transactional ism almost across the board, and certainly with countries where they may be in fundamental opposition, the US and China in this instance.

Collins: Absolutely. Cooperation is for interactions with friends and allies, if we want to cooperate with the Canadians, with the Mexicans, with the Japanese, the South Koreans, our partners in Europe, and so forth, where one side is not fundamentally trying to extract big geopolitical gains at the other side's expense. But I think it's become very clear that that is not the case with China. And so that's why we very strongly advocate starting with competition first.

Watson: So on this very note, it's of course, what I found maybe most fascinating about this report. I would love to hear you kind of elaborate on I believe this sentence I’ve isolated says “Climate competition specifically leveraging the threat of carbon taxation is the only ‘Archimedean lever’ powerful enough to incentivize a timely transformation.” So carbon taxation within this context of competition, can you tell me what you mean by that?

Collins: Yes. And what we mean by carbon taxation is it draws on this concept of border adjustment. Basically, if you and I are countries that trade with each other, if your energy systems based on coal, any sort of goods that you're producing, are likely to have a much higher proportional emissions footprint, versus my country where we use natural gas we use when we use other cleaner sources. And so there's two things here. One is I don't want my manufacturing enterprises disadvantaged by your ability to access cheap, high emissions energy. And secondly, what my structural advantage does is it allows me to turn that into a leverage point, because if I'm one of your big export markets, and you want to access all the consumers in my marketplace, we say, Great, that's fine. But if we've started putting a price on carbon content and carbon emissions, here in my country, we're going to apply an adjustment price when you import essentially, that's where the carbon tax comes in, that will put you on par economically, your manufacturers with where mine are, and what the idea is, hopefully, is that this creates a long term incentive for you to move toward an energy sourcing structure that is cleaner, like the one that already exists in my country in my system.

Watson: Is there a decent example for carbon taxation that's already in place, I just simply don't know of that you could kind of lift a template from to execute this plan?

Collins: So that this, this is very much a dynamic situation in the sense that the first international attempted implementation we're seeing of this is actually what the European Union is doing right now, with its carbon border adjustment tax initiative. And so where we are right now, it’s a pretty sophisticated base there; but it's just starting to actually be put into action in practice. And so there's going to be a lot of learning that happens. I don't think we have, at least to my awareness, any sort of macro-scale, pre-existing template that we can draw experience from. This experience is going to be earned through blood, sweat and tears and hard work, day to day at this point.

Watson: Interesting. It feels like you're hacking through the jungle with a machete like Merrill's marauders here trying to carve a path.

Collins: Oh, yeah. I'm a fan. I'm a fan of Kukri knives, but absolutely.

Watson: It's interesting. The U.S. and China had I guess, what in 2005—I mean, 2015—had worked together for these Paris Climate Accords. And then the next president comes down and kind of, you know, knocked out that momentum.

Collins: Well, you know, I'm actually glad you raised those earlier dates, even though I'm giving you a slide on the flight correction, because there's a whole other aspect to this. And it actually shows the shift that we've seen, at least in China's messaging. If you think back as recently as 2009, not only was the Chinese delegation intensely disrespectful of President Obama at the Copenhagen Corp climate meeting in 2009, but they also did everything they could to sabotage the negotiations in a fairly overt way. And what we've seen an evolution since then, where they continue being very carbon-intensive domestically, but they've substantially shifted—especially in the last five years—their climate rhetoric on the global stage.

Watson: Yeah, I'm fascinated with messaging, I had done public affairs in the Army. And so I love watching this stuff; I kind of just can't help watching the way that messaging just works, certainly at the top levels like this. And what you know, we understand with transactionalism and simple, you know, humans interacting with others. So I'm intrigued that the change in openness towards working with climate change as an issue with the U.S. and China with that foreign ministers remarks, and then, of course, what Andrew Erickson had highlighted, as well, your co-author, in a tweet highlighting that, you know, I believe the foreign minister himself, like had pointed out in May, there must be concessions in some way. 

Collins: I think what what Foreign Minister Wang Yi statement is really saying, if we distill it into plain terms, is that ‘We are fully willing to weaponize the climate issue to try to extract concessions from the United States, and implicitly its partners in the Indo-Pacific region. And that climate is not even—though we say it's a priority, this very next statement that comes out of our mouths, it says you must concede on issues xy and z, for us to fully engage with you on climate,’ I think speaks volumes about where it falls on China's priority list, which is a very important thing to think about as we consider our own high-level diplomacy on this issue.

Watson: Yeah, I think that's probably the biggest realization, right reminds me what I've been hearing a lot more lately, especially with, you know, the ascendancy of the Taliban, which is, you know, ‘Let's pay attention to what they do, instead of the things that they say.’

Collins: You can't live I and I think this is one of the lessons that comes out of Afghanistan is putting putting on rose colored glasses never ends, well, it's much better, even if reality is a little bit unpleasant, sometimes better, better to take that pill upfront, fully embrace reality, and then structure your policies based on that.

Watson: Gabriel Collins is a Baker Botts Fellow in Energy and Environmental Regulatory Affairs at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Collins: Thank you. Appreciate the opportunity.