Col. Larry Wilkerson: Pentagon Plans for Climate Change Despite White House

army, Houston flood

A recent report from the World Bank says that climate change could displace as many as 143 million people by 2050, generating geopolitical instability and posing new threats to national security. Can the Pentagon properly manage the threats with a climate denialist in the White House? We speak to Col. Larry Wilkerson

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Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for the Real News from Montreal, Canada. In a business as usual scenario, climate change could displace as many as 143 million people by 2050, according to a recent report by the World Bank. As sea level rises, many of those climate refugees will be displaced from coastal areas around the world, including in Florida and Louisiana. Despite the geopolitical and instability that such a displacement is likely to generate, the Trump administration recently removed climate change from the list of threats to national security. But has that altered the U.S. military’s preparation and management of climate change risk?

With us to discuss this and related issues is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. Larr is former chief of staff to the Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thank you so much for joining us again, Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Dimitri.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Larry, what did you see today as the biggest national security challenges arising from climate change.

LARRY WILKERSON: You just enumerated some of them. Certainly the one in our face right now, for example in the Norfolk shipyards, the most important shipyards in the United States arguably, sea rise is a threat. It’s already there. As one woman said to me recently in a briefing in a theater in Norfolk, don’t tell me about the future. The water is in my backyard right now. That’s a reality. It is also keeping fighter planes from taking off Langley Air Force Base, for example, when there’s 16 to 20 inches of water on the runways. It’s there. It’s with us right now.

The other threat, though, that looms large, besides increased frequency of storms, which the military will have to have a large budget to meet the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief response to, is conflict. Increased conflict around the world caused in part, at least, if not major part, by the people who will be on the move. We already have in the world today, as you indicated, 65 million people on the move largely because of lack of food, lack of potable water, or lack of any water at all, or because of conflict, or all the same time. Syria is a good example . We’re going to have a period where the military is called on again and again and again because of these mobile populations, many of which will have young men in them under 35. And many of them will be carrying a Kalashnikov, an AK-47, at least 20 rounds of ammunition. This is very destabilizing, and it’s going to cause a lot of conflict.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: During the past several years, as we all know, Europe, and this is something the Real News has reported extensively on, Europe has been at times convulsed by the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. And this is, you know, this has actually generated quite significant strains within the union. If the world continues with a business as usual scenario in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, how do you think future refugee crises will likely compare with what we’re seeing today in the Mediterranean region? And do you think that European policymakers are prepared for what is likely to come?

LARRY WILKERSON: I don’t think they’re prepared. I think some of them, and I’ve talked with some of them, and I know this, realize the gravity of the situation. But I think just like as in the United States, although not so much so in Europe, political action is a different matter altogether, and the money behind that political action even a different matter. What we’ve got as a potential, for example, Center for Naval Analyses just ran a series, a two-year long series of simulations, using people from all over the world. Former military, former political, academics, experts in climate change, and climate in general. Meteorologists and so forth involved in these games, in these simulations. And what they, one of the scenarios they came up with in the decision-making process associated with the games, was in 2065-2070 or so, a period preceded by the peer powers, the North American, Moscow, Japan, Berlin, Paris and so forth, who initially are impacted positively by climate change, increased growing seasons, higher temperatures, raising wheat, for example, in Canadian provinces where it’s never been done before. And longer growing seasons are associated with more water. If you can handle that more water, you might have 27 straight days, for example, of multiple inches of rain in a day. If you can handle that water you can actually have a better situation with regard to food production.

Well, it’s not true in the south. Sub-Saharan Africa, Southwest Asia, that’s where this is going to really start. Desertification, no water. Euphrates and Tigris are already drying up, for example. Marsh Arabs are probably going to be out of living space and another generation, if not quicker. You’re going to have these people on the move. If they don’t have water to drink and they don’t have food to eat and they don’t have any prospects, they’re going to be on the move. We’re not talking about 65 million we have on the move today. We’re talking about 400-500 million, half a billion people on the move.

This presents an enormous problem for the peer powers. And in these simulations what happens is that for about 30 years or so we try to run these huge refugee camps. We try to take care of these people. Then about 20 65-2070 political will is no longer there. We’re being overwhelmed, and so we start building walls and we put machine guns on top of those walls. That’s a possible alternative in the future if we don’t do something about climate change.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Do you think that despite the Trump administration’s removal of climate change from the national security risks that the Pentagon continues to take this problem with the seriousness that it deserves? And if so, how can the Pentagon manage the threat properly without the cooperation of America’s climate denialist president?

LARRY WILKERSON: I do think the Pentagon is still the leading force in our country with regard to climate change and its connection to national security. I applaud Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, because despite the White House’s moves he left everything in the Pentagon’s instructions with regard to treating climate change as part of national security and dealing with it.

At the same time, I realize the difficulty that he will have operating within this environment, where you have an EPA adviser, administrator, for example, who doesn’t believe it’s even happening, and you have other people like that in the administration. I will say I drew some confidence and some optimism from the budget report I got recently, which essentially shows that the Trump administration zeroed out or reduced significantly almost every element of the budget aimed at dealing with this threat with this challenge. The Congress either put the money back in or plussed the money up, in some cases as much as 60-70 percent plussed up.

So somebody gets it in the Congress. And I do know that even my party, the Republican Party, there are members of the Climate Caucus in the Congress now even from my party. I say even from my party because the most Luddites seemed to be in my party. So there is some recognition that this is a national security challenge and that something needs to be done. Not sufficient enough yet in my view, but I’m, I’m encouraged by the fact there is some recognition. And certainly General Mattis, Secretary of Defense Mattis, stands out in that regard.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: I understand, in fact, you’re a member of the Climate Security Working Group. Could you tell us about that organization and what it hopes to achieve nationally and internationally?

LARRY WILKERSON: Yes, I can. We’ve just changed our moniker and just changed some of the focus. But it’s essentially the same. It’s a group of retired admirals and generals and others who are interested in this threat to the country and to the world. It’s a group of people who have worked hard to fashion the kind of policy response that should be the U.S. response, so much so that we helped write the National Security memorandum that President Obama issued right before he left office and called climate change what it is, a national security threat, and directed the federal agencies to deal with it.

Trump, I’m told, has thrown all that out but we’ll get back to it as soon as somebody with some sense comes into the White House. So I’m not too worried about that. In the meantime both the international and domestic parts of our organization are still working away, developing policy recommendations, studying the phenomena, looking at the computer models, which are becoming more and more sophisticated. And I must say that as we’ve looked at computer models, and as they become more sophisticated, which simply means they take into consideration more and more variables as we discover them, the computer models are not proving climate scientists meteorologists and others, the bulk of scientists, they’re not proving them wrong, except that they were wrong about the rate at which it’s happening. Which is very frightening.

In other words, when we find the mistake in the model, when we see that computer might have predicted something inaccurately, it’s usually predicting it inaccurately in our behalf. That is to say, it’s not nearly as bad as the later, more sophisticated model tells us it is. Ice melt is a perfect case in point. Five years ago we had models that were telling us the Arctic and the Antarctic were doing this, doing that. Greenland was doing this, and so forth. Now, with more sophisticated modeling, we find out that we were right about the trend but we were wrong about the speed. It’s far faster than we thought it was. So we’re looking at possibilities where sea rise, for example, might be in excess by an order of five or six times what we thought. That puts places like Louisiana, Miami, the East Coast of the United States, the Outer Banks, Bangladesh, for example, probably one third of that country, under real threat. And all of that threat brings, as I said before, the potential for conflict with it.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And lastly, you know, you’ve indicated that the few people who get it in this administration, certainly leaders of the military amongst them if not the ones who get it the most, but is a militarized approach to dealing with the unfolding climate crisis ideal, in terms particularly of, for example, water scarcity and mass displacement of human beings? I mean, isn’t it, if we’re ultimately going to deal effectively with this crisis don’t we need to get the civilian branch of governance fully engaged? Is the military capable of dealing with it?

LARRY WILKERSON: Yeah, absolutely. I can’t count the military out of course, because that’s where your helicopters are. That’s where your massive lift capability is in terms of aviation, ships and so forth. So they’re going to have to be a part of it. But I, I frankly am very alarmed. 31 years in the United States Army, military professional in many respects, that’s me. But I’m very alarmed that the country seems to be incapable of finding good civilian leaders and good civilian agencies and activities. It has to constantly turn to the military. That’s nonsense, and it carries with it, as your comments imply, some very dangerous things for this republic. We do not need a military dictatorship, and the more power we give the military and all the civilian functions, the more apt we are to have such a thing.

So yes, it needs to be the full federal bureaucracy. FEMA, Homeland Security, everyone who has a dog in this fight needs to be involved, and needs to be involved competently and constantly.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: We’ve been speaking to Colonel Larry Wilkerson about a new report from the World Bank predicting massive displacement of humans as a result of climate change. Thank you very much for joining us today, Colonel Wilkerson.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. Always a pleasure to be on the Real News.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting from Montreal, Canada for the Real News.

<i> Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Paul Flipse </i>