By Mark Hughes, SanDiego350

(Originally published in the East County Magazine on 3/5/2017)

On February 21, 2017, an audience of approximately 75 attended the Security & Climate Change: Issues and Perspectives conference, held in the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park. Organized and funded by The Center for Climate and Security (with the support of The San Diego Foundation and Skoll Global Threats Fund). The program focused on the threat climate change imposes on world stability, the burden it puts on the US military, and what they, as well as our local and state governments, are doing to plan for the consequences. The conference was followed by a screening of a new documentary entitled “The Age of Consequences.”

Veteran's Museum

Veterans Museum in Balboa Park. Photo courtesy of the author.

The Mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer, started the conference by noting that the city has been diligently working toward sustainability. Evidence of that effort, to name only two, include the city’s enforceable Climate Action Plan (CAP) as well as the largest water recycling effort in the western hemisphere. These projects could not be done without the close cooperation of the military based here (1 in 6 of the Navy’s personnel reside in San Diego, 1 in 4 of the Marines). San Diego, he said, sets the bar, leads the way toward positive, innovative change.

Speakers at the event included representatives from the upper echelons of both active and retired military, the U.S. diplomatic corps, the city of San Diego’s Sustainability program, the governor’s Office of Planning and Research, and the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative.

San Diego Foundation Logo

The San Diego Foundation

These statements were made concerning climate and the world’s situation:
  • There are strong ties between climate, world political stability, and US national security
  • The military views climate change as a threat multiplier. Rainfall variability, for example, contributes strongly to civil war risks in Africa
  • The Syrian drought is the worst in the instrumental record. That, combined with unsustainable farming practices, contributed to their civil war
  • The Republic of Kiribati, also known as the Gilbert Islands, is undergoing an existential crisis – their lands are no more than 1 meter above sea level,are disappearing, and their population of 100,000 must soon evacuate
  • In Bangladesh, 20 million people live at 1 meter above sea level. They will also be forced to migrate as the sea rises. India is already responding – by building a wall to keep them out
  • 1/3rd of the world’s population relies on the Tibetan glaciers for their water supply – and because of climate change, those glaciers are disappearing
  • The facts are that governments must choose winners and losers. Some of those now denying climate change, or doing nothing to combat it, will ultimately be some of its biggest losers
  • “Failing, failed, and feckless” states are all feeding into the world’s instability and it largely falls to the US military to try and maintain order, as well as perform humanitarian missions in times of crisis. The question, far too often, comes down to: who gets saved, and who doesn’t? For the future it will be: who will we save and who will we let go?
Sea Level Inundation with 6' Rise

Effects of 2 meter sea level rise. Blue indicates inundated areas, green is low-lying areas affected by high tides. Map courtesy of NOAA.

National and local concerns:
  • The effects of climate change will not only be felt in Syria, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands – it will be felt here as well. We will see migration in our own country as Miami, New Orleans, Houston and other low-lying areas are inundated by the sea
  • Coronado, San Diego Bay, Mission Bay, and our airport are all threatened by sea level rise
  • $7 billion in real estate is at risk in Coronado alone and will dissolve into nothing as the sea levels rise
  • 1 meter sea level rise will reduce the size of the training area on North Island to 29% of its current – with an dramatic negative effect on the area’s viability as a training site
  • Aquifer loss in the China Lake area will soon have a markedly negative effect on the military’s ability to maintain a presence in the region, primarily in terms of the loss of training capability

In response to these international and local risks, it was stated that if the military is to fulfill its task it cannot blind itself, on an ideological basis, to the reality and predicted effects of climate change. Math and science are instrumental in formulating its plans for the future. As one participant said, we must work with the adults in the room if we’re to have a chance of avoiding unthinkable consequences. These are the steps the military and others have been taking:

  • Plans for the evacuation of Pacific islands are being formulated. Plans for dealing with large populations like as Bangladesh are overwhelming
  • Oil transport in the desert is one of the military’s most dangerous missions. This has led to their ever-increasing reliance on alternative energy sources (largely solar energy)
  • The US military has been transitioning toward reliance on renewable fuels since 2003 – because they view energy supply diversity as essential to supporting their mission; reliance on a single fuel source is tantamount to failure
  • The military has long served as a test bed for renewable energy projects, many of which have then moved into mainstream society
  • San Diego’s CAP calls for 100% renewable electricity by 2035
  • To pass budget items that underwrite research in renewable energy or other diversification projects, the military must use euphemisms in their descriptions so as not to set off politicians who want to hear no word about climate change, to acknowledge its reality
  • When asked in Washington about his three top funding priorities, one retired military commander said he replies: Science, Science, and then Science
  • $3 billion/year is spent on energy in San Diego and most of the money leaves the area; switching to locally produced renewable energy would keep those funds in our economy
  • The Marine base at Miramar is currently operating at 50% renewable energy and plans to operate as a microgrid, able to supply all its own power if the need arises. The base is also working to recycle as much of their water as possible
  • The Climate Collaborative is working on fourteen projects designed to deal with sea level rise by boosting coastal resilience in the area
  • The military is in the process of transitioning non-tactical vehicles from gasoline fuel to battery electric
  • The military’s Southwest region (9 bases) has reduced its water consumption by 1.6 billion gallons/year. This represents about a 25% reduction, and the goal is to reduce it another 25%
  • While the federal government dithers and denies, the state of California is working with 176 partners worldwide – including regions in China – to implement climate change mitigation policies in support of the IPCC’s Paris agreement
Final notes:
  • In California, climate change is driving a level of cooperation and collaboration between towns, cities, and regions on a level not seen since WWII
  • Solar energy is California’s fastest growing industry – faster than high tech and biotech – at a rate of 17%/year. Nevada, on the other hand, killed the state’s solar industry with the passage of one bill

The US military focuses on preparedness, on completing their mission. This approach requires them to ignore and work around the political aspects surrounding climate change in favor of the using the best scientific knowledge that’s available. San Diego (and California) are traditional leaders in innovation, have fully embraced renewable energy, and are working closely with the military toward dealing with this common problem.

The most sobering statement made during the conference, one challenged by none, is that in some circles the conversation is not only past discussing whether climate change is real, it’s even past what we can do to mitigate it in time to avoid major instabilities, civil wars, mass migration, and food shortages. The conversation the adults in the room are having now is: how do we deal with the consequences and who do we save?

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