Cherry Picking Risks

In the Guardian, Jules Boykoff takes stock of the seriousness with which national security experts inside and outside the U.S. military view climate change, a subject I’ve often take up here and elsewhere. As Boykoff drily notes:

This isn’t a tree-hugging festival. It’s the US military and its partners making clear-eyed calculations based on the best available climate science.

So, why this quiet camaraderie between scientists and military higher-ups? The answer, most certainly, is uncertainty.

Uncertainty is an inherent element of honest science. But in the political sphere, uncertainty has been harnessed as an alibi for denial and inaction. The military, however, operates under conditions of uncertainty all the time. Like scientists, they wade through the unknown to assess varying degrees of risk. As CNA Corporation put it, military leaders “don’t see the range of possibilities as justification for inaction. Risk is at the heart of their job.”

This is an issue that really should be aired out more in the climate debate. It would also be an opening for a much wider discussion on the whole spectrum of risk and climate change that some are claiming (legitimately, in my mind), is not being addressed:

There is a mismatch between the analysis of the severity of climate security threats and the political, diplomatic, policy and financial investment countries expend to avoid the attendant risks.

Boykoff, in his Guardian piece, says that Republican military hawks in Congress who are hostile to climate science are letting ideology trump national security concerns:

Climate cranks ““ many of them the same people perpetually hectoring us about the perils of national security ““ are choosing to ignore the seriousness of climate change even when the national-security experts they champion are telling us to do just that. Talk about cherry-picking data.

He makes a suggestion that I would second (but put differently):

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been holding shambolic hearings on climate change, should invite climate-minded national security gurus to testify. Perhaps they can lob some reality into the ideological fortress of denial before whipsaw climate volatility becomes our everyday reality.

First of all, there have been previous climate-related Congressional hearings, which have included testimony from both the intelligence community, and the U.S. military, on the implications of climate change for U.S. national security.

What would be better is a future hearing devoted just to the nexus of national security, energy and climate change, that is framed around risk scenarios that the U.S. military is taking seriously.

45 Responses to “Cherry Picking Risks”

  1. TimG says:

    The military see climate change as a possible risk that they must prepare for.

    The republican political leadship sees climate chnage as something they cannot do anything about.

    The two views are not incompatible. In fact, they are basically the same.

    The problem with the climate debate are alarmists who insist that a refusal support massive government intervention automatically means that one does not believe that climate change is a risk.

    The risk is real but the risk of great harm being caused by alarmist “solutions” is much higher.

  2. Marlowe Johnson says:

    “The risk is real but the risk of great harm being caused by alarmist “solutions” is much higher.”
    Any evidence to back that one up?

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    That’s a good starting point for a freewheeling discussion, if one is to develop.

    Let me say that you have a most charitable view of what the Republican political leadership thinks about climate change. It’s pretty well documented by now that they are outright dismissive of climate science. For example, Huntsman’s recent statement to Time magazine (which I mentioned in a previous post this week) is way out of step with his party.

    But let’s say we get past that, so that the debate can be about solutions commensurate with risk scenarios (which are informed by climate science and national security experts). That’s a debate worth having, it seems to me.

    Read the testimony I linked to by Fingar and Titley. They’re taking climate science seriously and incorporating it into future strategic planning.

    Let me ask you this: is that wise of them to do, or are they wasting their time and govt resources?

    Also, what “alarmist solutions” are you referring to? Can you be specific?

  4. Banjoman0 says:

    So, it seems to me that a discussion with national security types would include topics on adaptation, not simply emissions reduction/ decarbonization or, god forbid, “geoengineering.”  I don’t see the CAGW community prepared to be so engaged.

  5. Keith Kloor says:


    Absolutely, that adaptation will be part of the debate. Geoengineering will too (at least pretty soon), but that will be more in the realm of geopolitics.

    I suppose that the Morano/Watts wing of the climate skeptic community would choose to throw spitballs at this discussion with national security types, dontcha think? So maybe they can be caged off with the members of the “CAGW community,” whoever they are, so they can continue to fight it out over all the stuff they like to fight over.

  6. NewYorkJ says:

    Global warming is an issue that intersects other national security issues associated with fossil fuels.  Reducing emissions from transportation fuels, for example, would help with global warming, and reduce the massive costs of military required to secure access to certain resources.

    Actually, TimG, most Republican leaders (Huntsman and a few others aside) don’t believe human activities cause global warming to any significant degree, or that CO2 is good, and thus risks are negligible at most.  They are mainly puppets reflecting their anti-science base.

  7. Tom Fuller says:

    I see no need to consider high profile Republican comments in a serious debate about climate change or risk management. Even if they had the temperament and time to get briefed and formulate a considered opinion, political realities guarantee that they will not come forth with anything of substance.
    So I’m happy to ignore the Pawlentys and Romneys on this. (Actually, I’m happy to ignore them period.)
    As for the military evaluation, if they are doing a standard matrix evaluation that follows an ‘if-then’ risk response narrative, it would be useful to see that laid out. What would be more interesting would be to see an overlay on other risk scenarios, where differing degrees of climate change either exacerbate or ameliorate other threats.

  8. jeffn says:

    Republican leaders have never opposed taking the type of action that’s actually effective- as even George Monbiot has been advocating recently. The GOP’s primary difference with George is that you don’t need a carbon tax or an international treaty to get started, but for some reason the “climate concerned” have decided to wait for a specific political package rather than action.
    Some other aspect of the national security angle that get short shrift in the discussion:
    – China’s predicted response to any serious demand regarding emissions reductions – especially any tariff penalties. Wars have started over tariffs before and will again.
    – Balance of power shifts from shifting energy sources. Think- what happens in a few years when the UK can’t keep the lights on with windmills and has to go begging in desperation for natural gas on the spot market? Russia Picture a world where shale gas and deep ocean drilling have made Arab nations less strategically important.
    – Stability questions as more and more countries discover the depth of the huge waste in spending on the issue. Think of the billions spent in the UK and Netherlands on windmills, the bizarre taxation (the Dutch pay a 100% sales tax for cars), the outrageous subsidies for rooftop solar in Germany and everything in Spain. Now, think Greece.
    – Brushfire wars and emerging terrorist threats as the international community tries -in the name of environmentalism – to prevent economic growth in the third world or, worse, tries to push population control measures on them.

  9. Tom Gray says:

    Why is becoming a “Bash the Republican” thread? How will this help?

  10. Tom Gray says:

    Looking at Boykoff’s piece, I see a narrative. The ostensible discussion of the national security implications of AGW is merely a device to create another  part of the  “Bash the Skeptics” narrative.
    Why do some members of the AGW camp think that this will convince anybody of anything. It is just a morale boosting piece for the current believers. What has really marked the  AGW issue is the clumsy, ham fisted communication strategy of the AGW proponents. The RealClimate strategy of the appeal to authority with the “Climate Scientists Are Smarter Than You Are” meme has been disastrous. Why does this failed strategy keep being used?

  11. Tom Gray says:

    Canada did have a contingency plan drawn up to invade the US. As I recall it was called the Purple Plan. Military lanners plan.

  12. Tom Gray says:

    Military Planning

    Canadian military plan to invade the US – Defense Plan 1

    US military plan to invade Canada as part of a war with the UK – Plan Red

  13. Tom Gray says:

    Boykoff in his price wrote:
    This isn’t a tree-hugging festival. It’s the US military and its partners making clear-eyed calculations based on the best available climate science.

    The word “climate” is present only once in the document that Boykoff is referring to.  The document is a pretty standard piece urging the use of soft power againts the hard power of the Realist school of Kennan

    I really do not see what Boykoff is referring to. AGW is not the central focus of this paper. it is not even a primary focus

  14. Jeff Norris says:

    Proponents should be very careful about using the Military as a magnifying glass or crystal ball.  The military is and should always be considered a hammer.  Mr. Titley’s testimony regarding the arctic mentions the Navy’s Arctic Strategic objectives and then the arctic roadmap, and dovetails nicely with Keith’s previous post.
    After reading these docs put your Military hammer hat on and think of how these guidelines will be accomplished.  For example
    -Operations and Training: Developing competency in accomplishing Arctic missions assigned by combatant commanders.
    -Investments: Providing weapon, platform, sensor and C4ISR capabilities, installations, and facilities required to implement Navy, DoD, and National policy regarding the changing Arctic region.

  15. TimG says:

    Keith Kloor,

    What the Republicans believe and what they say are likely quite different things (the same is true of Democrats).

    Ever conservative I have encounted privately acknowlegdes that climate change is a risk. The only thing that seperates them from the more excitable Democratics is their asseassment of that risk compared to other risks that face the country (e.g. the deficit).

    The debate really is not about accepting that a risk exists – but being willing to use the power of government to reduce that risk. The universal belief amount conservatives is that the government cannot do anything about the climate change risk so we just have to live with it.

    The opinion of experts on climate risk really has no bering on whether there are any pratical solutions available.

  16. Sashka says:

    The world most famous oxymoron: military intelligence.

    We had a similar discussion before. OK, once again:

    Why should we be interested in the opinions of a bunch of generals about things that they have no idea about? These people won’t know best science from worst in broad daylight. Clear-eyed calculations? Please … These guys most likely never even took a class in calculus or physics.

  17. PDA says:

    The debate really is not about accepting that a risk exists ““ but being willing to use the power of government to reduce that risk. The universal belief amount conservatives is that the government cannot do anything about the climate change risk so we just have to live with it.
    No, I don’t agree. The debate is about the magnitude of the risk, and whether uncertainty decreases or increases the uncertainty for action.
    Most conservatives I know would strongly object to being painted as defeatist. A strong case could have been made, for example, that the government couldn’t do anything about the risk posed by highly-resourceful, fanatical non-state armed groups seeking to do harm to Americans. But the danger was seen as great, and as a result I now have to submit to a colonoscopy before boarding the Delta Shuttle.
    It’s not about the risk. Conservatives believe the risk is small, and they believe – as you suggested – that doing anything to alter our current consumption patterns will be disastrous. However, there’s been very little study done to support the second proposition, and considerable work has been done which casts doubt on the first.
    It’s about belief.

  18. PDA says:

    “…whether uncertainty decreases or increases the urgency for action.”

  19. willard says:

    The millitary is a very, very, very small unit of intelligence.

  20. Tom Gray says:

    re My own 13
    Before anyone comments on Boykoff’s piece, they shroud, read the document that he points to.
    There is only one mention in it of climate. Climate change is not a focus of this piece. It is only one example among many.
    Only one use of the word climate — only one

  21. Lazar says:

    “they believe ““ as you suggested ““ that doing anything to alter our current consumption patterns will be disastrous. However, there’s been very little study done to support the second proposition”
    It is easier to mix a gas than to unmix it.
    We can gradually, cautiously increase restrictions on GHG emissions, monitor and control the situation, react and loosen restrictions if the economic pain begins to get too much.
    Once the gas is up, if the results are bad, it’s a hundred years of pain.
    Maybe more.
    Politicians worrying about the economic impacts in wealthy industrialized nations is bizarre, talking at most of percentage reductions in growth among the most fabulously wealthy and comfortable civizlizations the world has ever seen. Most individuals have more wealth than they can usefully spend and the surplus wealth ain’t making them any happier. We could live comforably for the next hundred years with zero growth. But tell that to a politician of either stripe and they’ll faint. Or we can risk wiping out much of ocean life. Tell that to a politician and they’ll shrug, y’know, maybe we will maybe we won’t, but what about the economic growth!

  22. PDA says:

    Only one use of the word climate “” only one
    Correct: there is only one use of the word ‘climate’ in the first one of the six separate documents he points to.

  23. Lazar says:


  24. kdk33 says:

    “Most individuals have more wealth than they can usefully spend and the surplus wealth ain’t making them any happier”

    Holy crap!  Who appointed you happiness czar? 

  25. kdk33 says:

    I think it’s incredibly dangerous when some group of bozos suddenly decides they get to know when people are, and what makes people, happy.

    For crying out loud…  I still can’t believe I read that.

  26. bigcitylib says:

    There is a wonderful documentary I saw once about the  Mt. Pinatubo eruption.  The US military was on-site, acting on the authority of a team of volcano scientists.  The scientists made hte call to evacuate then, when flying over the volcano, scaled down the warning.  They met with the military types, and when flying back over the volcano on the way back to their camp, noticed that the mountain was ready to blow. They had to fly back for a further emergency meeting, made their pitch, and when flying back over the volcano, noticed that…  and etc. for the better part of a day.

    The military UNDERSTOOD: the world is fucked up.   And everyone got out in time.  Having the military on-board is probably the best news these days in fighting AGW.

  27. TimG says:


    There is no evidence of any conscious anti-CO2 policy anywhere resulting in meaningful reductions in emissions. The only policy that works is an economic collapse a la USSR.

    IOW, there is plenty of evidence the policies will do nothing useful. We also have lots of evidence that increasing the cost of energy will only hurt the economy. So it is fair to say that risk of adopting anti-CO2 policies far exceeds any possible benefit. The assessment of the risk from climate change does not affect the risks associated with engaging in futile actions.

    Of course, most alarmists live in an Orwellian fantasy land where higher energy prices will not hurt economic growth. This makes it difficult to have a rational discussion on the topic.

  28. NewYorkJ says:


    The only “alarmists” I know of are those who think a gradual reduction in emissions that comes with moving towards cleaner sources of energy will bring society back to the stone age.  Progress does happen.  Sometimes it needs a good incentive, especially in the case of long-term problems that require concerted and coordinated efforts.

    EU-15 has reduced emissions below 1990 levels, yet have had net positive economic growth since 1990.  The idea that future economic success is tied to perpetual fossil fuel usage at existing levels or more is sky-is-falling alarmism.

  29. Stu says:

    The Australian Army has a number of programs dedicated to revegetation of bushland and things like that, which I thought was kind of strange but apparently it makes some kind of military sense to do so. I’m certainly not complaining.
    I wonder about the CO2 emissions the US Army creates in all of their activities and whether if serious about climate change they will try to reduce them? Probably a good litmus test for concern.

  30. TimG says:


    The EU “success” as reducing emissions was built entirely on things that had nothing to do with climate policy. e.g. the collapse of the eastern block countries or the “dash for gas” in the UK.

    In recent years the performance of the US with no climate policy has been similar to the EU so it is reasonable conclude that climate policy had nothing to do with the modest reductions.

    More importantly, the EU has no credible plan on how to reduce its emissions further and there are signs that Germany is abandoning its targets in order to meet its goal of shutting down its nuclear plants.

    Lastly, the question is not whether reducing fossil fuel usage is a worthy goal. The question is whether government can do anything about it. So far the evidence seems to suggest that governments can affect the margins but in the end CO2 emissions cannot be significantly reduced without hurting economic growth.

  31. Jeff Norris says:

    All the US armed forces are currently testing various bio fuels to power military vehicles.  Interesting Bio Fuels, Nuclear and a Military presence in the Arctric are some of the recommendations in a report cited by Mr. Boykoff
    The U.S. government should make an
    informed decision about siting nuclear reactors
    on military bases as a means of generating carbon-free energy
    U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM)
    should be assigned the role of the supported
    commander on issues related to the Arctic.

    So the question then is, will proponents who are joyous of this new found military support be willing to follow the military’s rather mitigation solutions.

  32. Lazar says:

    “Who appointed you happiness czar?”

    Let me know when you understand the difference between an observation and an edict.

  33. Lazar says:

    On disparaging attitudes toward military intelligence;
    Running a war is a complex task.
    U.S. military have done the task sufficiently well to keep you guys free and safe for a very long while against some serious enemies.
    For a government agency they are relatively meritocratic and face the highest consequences for failure.
    I would certainly prefer the intelligence of the average general over the average politician, Democrat or Republican.

  34. harrywr2 says:

    Every quote I have seen with the military bathering on about climate change is cloked in ‘resource scarcity’. Water being one of the resources.
    We’ve had how many years of ‘war’ in the ‘Oil Patch’?
    In any case, the vast majority of Military Spending is based on ‘potential conflict’. There is no shortage of generals who are quite happy to list as a potential conflict any potential conflict some members of Congress want to believe in.
    Africom if the Militaries latest regional command, it has to fight for budget dollars with every other regional command(Centcom getting the bulk at the moment). Food and Water scarcity are already major issues in some parts of Africa.

  35. Pascvaks says:

    Military Planning includes everything.  EVERYTHING!!! AND ANYTHING!!!  And, when you throw in Congressional Budget negotiations (aka – The Art of Making Sausage From Everything & Anything) it gets real, real complicated.  Don’t ever ASSUME anything when it comes to the military.  Assume Everything AND anything!!!

  36. kdk33 says:

    Is this also an observation:  “We could live comforably for the next hundred years with zero growth”

    Suffice it to say that the folks in the developing world would disagree.  The vast majority in the developed world would also.  Limiting growth is a big deal, a real big deal, it is, literally, life and death.  But, since Lazar knows when people are happy and what makes them happy, he probably knows who deserves to live and who doesn’t.

  37. NewYorkJ says:


    Since 1990, both EU-15 and the U.S. have had solid economic growth.  EU-15 has had a net reduction in emissions.  So blaming the EU-15 drop all on economic conditions is like deniers blaming global warming on ENSO.  The U.S. has had a net increase in emissions.  Now emissions in the U.S. have dropped in very recent years, partly due to economic conditions but also partly due to a shift away from coal.  Some individual U.S. states have enacted emissions reduction policies, and coal has been under great fire from environmental groups.  So while it’s been a more grass roots effort here, there’s been some success vs business-as-usual, although clearly national policies would be more effective.  At any rate, concluding that climate policy has had no effect on European emissions is naive. 

  38. Lazar says:

    “Suffice it to say that the folks in the developing world would disagree.”
    I wonder if you are dishonest or merely sloppy… I wrote “wealthy industrialized nations”… not zero growth in the developing world.
    “The vast majority in the developed world would also.”
    That would require the “vast majority” to believe that they are presently living in material discomfort That is not what the “vast majority” tell me.
    “he probably knows who deserves to live and who doesn’t.”
    Indeed I do. Life is sacred. No one deserves to die.

  39. Lewis Deane says:

    It is interesting how much the Pentagon and the military take cognizance of this obscure subject – is it because they really take it seriously – I mean, they must produce thousands of reports and on various subjects and it is only because of our interest that we alight on this one? But, assuming they do:- In other words, for the military, taking the old dictum of ‘planning for uncertainty’, it, therefore, does not mean that they endorse any particular view of this phenomena but rather that they would rather be for-armed than for-warned! In other words, the ‘precautionary principle’, for the military, is taken to it’s n’th degree, that the target is always on their backs. Therefore, your conclusions are wrong or based on very shaky foundations. It isn’t even that the military believes this’ but, rather, without touching the forelock again, what will the military not ‘entertain’. Think!

  40. Lewis Deane says:

    And, really, without patronizing you, I sometimes wonder if you don’t know how ‘existantial’ this is or pretends to be (because I believe, in an old Marxist sense, that whatever one wishes, history will happen):- Whatever one believes it must mean ‘carry on the same’, BIS; or, continue but modify; or, which is in fact the same, change your life (after Rilkes’ Archaich Torso of Appollo!). Have we so radically failed that we must change? And is our failure moral or merely technical? What does it mean to ‘change your life’? And is such a thing possible? These questions and many more trouble me.

  41. Lewis Deane says:

    Blue stars in the verdigris,
    The upturn silver of the Rowan tree –
    Is nature a kind of disease,
    The rose a virus?
    Or is mankind? Or, better still,
    A Hegelian copulance
    making something greater.

  42. JD Ohio says:

    The idea that the military can provide a serious contribution to climate change analysis and policy is silly.  1.  The military, for funding reasons, will tend to cater to the policy preferences of the people in power.  2.  The military plans for emergencies.  Therefore, its analysis would not be comprehensive.  For instance, it wouldn’t look into the benefits of climate change and the chances of less conflict in those areas benefitted by climate change because those areas would not be venues of military conflict.  3.  I would add that, if asked, the military would probably say that the offshoring of American manufacturing capabilities that is inherent in taxing or reducing CO2 would not be beneficial to the military strength of the U.S.  There could come a time when we lack the ability to manufacture necessary components of military equipment.  In any event, military strength has tended to be a component of economic strength and many “remedies” for global warming involve reducing economic activity.

  43. Sashka says:

    @ Lasar

    I agree that the politicians are probably even dumber and more ignorant. How does it follow that we should listen to the generals?

  44. Jon P says:


    Nice way to show your ignorance and disdain for those who serve. We still are proud to have served to protect your ignorant arrogant ass.

    Here is dumb ignorant General for you:

    and anotherL

    People like you really just tee me off.

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