War and Peace in the Time of Climate Change
By Cathye Williams | Nov. 18, 2023
This year the November flurry of events to honor veterans gave me pause, set as they were against the backdrop of the brutal wars going on in Gaza and Ukraine. It has me thinking about the differences between military service and the broader concept of militarism and where our priorities lie. One appears to be driven by a genuine desire to serve and protect, while the other honestly leaves me cold.
I wouldn’t presume to speak about any servicemember’s motivation for joining the military, but I can speak for their actions. And their actions show me that the veterans I know are extremely skilled, talented, and dedicated to an ideal that puts service above self, in or out of uniform. In a word, honorable.
There are many ways to honor vets for all that they have given. Parades, potlucks, and pancakes feel good. Listening and sharing their unique stories—also good. If one is able, giving generously with time or money to help vets directly or through supportive organizations with whatever challenges they face—very good.
But after doing any of the above, perhaps take a moment to consider another way to support our troops: by working for a cleaner and more peaceful world.
National security should include solid military installations, reliable intelligence, cutting-edge technology, and ever vigilant well-trained personnel. But does it also have to include building our destructive capacity beyond all reason and spending more on our defense budget than the next 10 countries combined? (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2023) There’s not time or space to share my many thoughts on arms stockpiles, arms sales, and who profits, but suffice to say none of it makes me feel any safer.
Nor does the fact that in spite of all the weapons buildup and multiple conflicts around the world, currently the largest security risk to the American military is climate change—something that increases the likelihood of conflicts but that a missile cannot destroy. The continued spending on the expansion of militarism seems nonsensical in the face of it.
Climate impacts such as sea-level rise, intensifying tropical storms, and other extreme weather events threaten U.S. military fleets and infrastructure around the world. Just like their civilian counterparts, soldiers’ health and ability to train and do their jobs is affected by heat waves, air pollution, and wildfires.
Military and National Guard troops are being stretched thin providing relief in the wake of more natural disasters. Even the Arctic is getting dicey, as melting sea ice opens rich waters to superpowers (Russia, China, and the U.S.) competing for resources and trade routes. Indeed, trade and diplomatic relationships with both allies and foes could grow unpredictable and complicated as nations are affected and adapt to global warming in different ways.
What about the role of climate change in extremist ideologies and the threat of terrorism? Certainly climate change further degrades already poor living conditions in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. As food production goes down, access to clean water goes down, and disease goes up, large populations move, searching for resources.
These shifts lead to instability, unrest, and conflict, conditions that terrorist groups “are more than happy to take advantage of” (Erin Sikorsky, director, The Center for Climate and Security). During her time at the National Intelligence Council, reports from all her security analysts led Ms. Sikorsky to treat climate change “not as a distant threat, but as an acute risk.” She believed that to be effectively prepared in facing a changing world, a “climate lens” should be used and integrated into all aspects of defense operations. Because that is the reality we are dealing with, not something we’re guessing might happen.
Given all this, I’m reflecting on what we can do to honor our veterans’ sacrifices and increase our security. Would it be more funding for bombers, carriers, and missiles? Or would it be more funding for rebuilding and strengthening our home against all threats, thereby keeping our troops safer so they can keep us safer?
I believe our best hope for peace relies on that rebuilding and strength more than on our capacity for destruction. I have heard about extremely smart people at Defense and State and other departments who are working on climate strategies to save lives and build national security. I plan to tell my members of Congress to keep that going—more money for engineers and less for explosives. It would be wonderful to see our priorities shift.
For further understanding of weapons buildup and militarization in America, dust off an old high school history book and start with the bit on the “industrial military complex” and President Eisenhower’s warnings about the “unwarranted influence“ of private industry (defense contractors) over decision-making in the military and Congress.
Cathye Williams serves as volunteer and media liaison for the Grand Traverse and Manistee chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. She writes from the northern corner of Manistee County.