A few years back, when global warming was near the top of the national and global agendas, a surprising new activist suddenly took the field: the  Pentagon.  In 2009, it called climate change a “threat” to national security.  In 2010, it lauded the climate with its ultimate recognition, inclusion in the Quadrennial Defense Review.  All of this was uncritically conveyed by journalists on the Pentagon and environmental beats.

Recently, the first effort to test whether climate change in fact has security implications was published by the Journal of Peace Research.  Its bottom line:  

“Only limited support for viewing climate change as an important influence on armed conflict. However, framing the climate issue as a security problem could possibly influence the perceptions of the actors and contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.”


Of course, the climate changesecurity nexus was always speculative  Yet that did not stop the military from jumping on the warming wagon as yet another way of justifying its bloated budgets. More interestingly, at the time, environmentalists widely saluted the Pentagon’s entry into the climate wars.  Here is Sierra Club President Carl Pope in a 2010 press release, complete with hyperlink to the Quadrennial Defense Review:

“In another reminder of the national security and international implications of climate change, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review highlights the risks posed by climate change for the first time ever.  While the Pentagon’s report considers the longer-term risks of climate change, we can’t escape the fact that each and every day we continue to send $1 billion a day overseas to buy oil–much of it from hostile nations.  It’s time we started spending that money to create jobs here at home.”


Who can blame the Sierra Club?  With a heavy-weight institution taking a stand on global warming, environmental fears could be stoked and perhaps even legitimated.  After all, if even the military is taking part, who could deny the pressing need for action?  With the Pentagon on board, new research dollars would also flow, making this move a boon for academics and government contractors as well.  

I don’t claim that global warming is invented.  But I do worry about the threat inflation being used to justify actions against climate change and about the strategic alliances, tacit or otherwise, environmentalists strike to achieve their goals.  The Pentagon is no friend of the environment, as anyone who’s watched the grindingly slow clean-ups of numerous, highly-polluted military bases well knows.  Lending activist legitimation to the defense establishment is likely to be a net-negative for environmental quality.  

Of course, for better or worse, real action on climate change is no longer imminent in the US or most other countries.  A broader lesson remains, however:  The axis of fear is endemic to our politics.  It is the strategy of choice for true believers on all sides of all issues as they seek to sell their causes to the public.  In the incessant competition to draw attention and support, the temptation to inflate threats is ever-present and difficult to resist.  

Alliances of convenience are the order of the day, and the Pentagon, with its oversize booty, is consort of preference even for those who should know better.  So we have environmentalists bedding down with the big boys with their big guns over global warming.  And now we have human rights activists lusting after the big boys with their little drones, notwithstanding the weapons’ mounting toll in lives and liberties at home and abroad.  The Pentagon, always eager for new conquests, similarly keeps its insatiable eye out for anyone hustling the cutting edge of terror, literally and figuratively.  

In all this, the new climate change research offers a breath of rationality.  Now, if only we could fight the axes of fear that pervade any number of other issues:  cyber warfare, hot zone diseases, and most of all terrorism.  All are similarly ripe for careful analysis of actual “threat” levels and concerted efforts to question the politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, and activists who hype them.

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