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Climate change could cause U.S. military collapse, new report warns

The Trump administration may still be denying the impact and very existence of climate change, but the United States Army certainly isn't ignoring the problem. The military branch commissioned a report on how climate change may affect the Army's operations. The findings were not promising. Potential scenarios presented by the study included drought and famine, war and outbreaks of disease, failure of out power grids and the complete collapse of the US military — all of which the report warns is possible within the next 20 years.

The report, titled Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army, focuses primarily on doomsday scenarios, though they aren't presented as some far-flung dystopia. Rather, the report approaches the situations as realistic possibilities that we may face in the coming decades if the global temperature continues to increase and we aren't able to reverse course on our level of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Failing that, we'll be facing down a considerable number of unintended consequences that could overwhelm even the most well-funded and prepared military in the world. The combination of humanitarian aid and intervention in foreign regions combined with domestic issues may stretch the military to its breaking point, the report warns.

For that to happen, we'd have to experience a multitude of issues caused at least in part by climate change. The first is conflict and crisis caused by extreme weather events like droughts and floods that could destroy major crops and food sources in different regions around the world. Should that happen, the report warns that the Army will need to prepare to participate in more acts of interventionism, similar to the presence that was maintained in Syria until recently. While the civil war in the region has many causes, research has suggested that drought, made worse by climate change, caused mass migration that is at least a contributing factor to the conflict. More situations like that may be on the horizon. The report signals Bangladesh, a nation of nearly 165 million people, as a country that could be the most vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels could worsen devastating flooding that is already experienced in the region and displace millions of people — something that is already happening currently, as more than seven million people were displaced because of extreme weather events in just the first six months of this year. Should more of those events occur and plunge countries into humanitarian crises, the U.S. will need to consider its role and potentially lend help. Failure to do so could result in destabilizing already volatile regions and could result in acts of war, genocide and international conflict — though participating presents its own threats for the military, including being stretched thin as it tries to respond to multiple crises and the potential of mission failure due to lack of access to necessary resources including water.

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Domestically, there are a number of risks that we could face. As global warming causes droughts globally, imported foods from those affected regions will dwindle. Flooding could result in challenges for our shipping infrastructure, making it harder to access goods and potentially leading to increased levels of food insecurity. And then there's the power grid, which the Army's report warns could be completely overworked due to climate change. As we face more extreme weather, people will likely put more stress on the grid — extended periods of heat or cold means more people relying on energy-sucking tools that could burden the grid and push it to its breaking point. Should that happen, the fallout could be devastating. Perishable food and medicine would go to waste, clean water would become a scarce resource, communications systems would fail, public transit would shut down, fuel would be rationed and electrical systems would shut off entirely. That would require a nation-wide response from emergency services including the Army, and it may not have the resources to adequately address all of the issues, the report said. The lack of access to necessary resources including water and power sources would also greatly reduce the Army's effectiveness in responding, leaving it stranded in trying to address the widespread issues it is tasked with.

On top of all this, the report rather explicitly states that the risk of the spread of infectious diseases is on the rise because of climate change and the military is not equipped to respond. "It is increasingly not a matter of ‘if’ but of when there will be a large outbreak,” the report stated. Diseases that were previously unseen in the U.S. will suddenly become a rapidly spreading issue, and emergency response will have to be quick if there is any hope of containing the problem.

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As the Army explores challenges it may face as climate change worsens, it should not be lost that the U.S. military is itself a major contributor to climate change. Earlier this year, two separate studies concluded that military operations produce more carbon emissions each year than two-thirds of all countries. Perhaps one of the ways the Army and other branches of the military could prepare to battle climate change would be to stop contributing to it, leaning less on fossil fuels and maintaining costly and pollution-heavy operations overseas. Finding greener ways to operate could also improve the Army's ability to respond to emergencies in areas where resources are scarce, as the military branch will be better equipped to operate under those difficult conditions.

Trump certainly has no problem rebuffing experts and high-ranking members of his own administration, sometimes even using agencies to help spread false information simply to avoid being wrong — remember the fallout from his claim that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian? But the president might have a difficult time dismissing everyone involved in this report. It was commissioned by General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military officer in the country and a Trump appointee. The study was published by the U.S. Army War College in partnership with NASA and relies on expertise from officials in the Army, NASA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Just about everyone within the government — from intelligence agencies, to the military and scientists — are all acknowledging the reality of climate change. Trump himself is one of the last hold outs, and unfortunately he sets the agenda.

At this point, addressing climate change at the federal level falls to Trump, who has yet to go back on nonsensical claims that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government to actually do something about it. Earlier this year, New York University's Brennan Center for Justice warned that the Trump administration's approach to science, including Trump's own climate change denial, has pushed us to a "crisis point" where the federal government is actively undermining objective facts for political gain. But what's worse is that for Trump, it isn't even about scoring points with his base or taking an extreme position to try to shift the conversation. At this point, it seems unlikely that even an impending threat to our armed forces would be enough to make the president admit that he is wrong.