Global Warming and the Stresses of War – A Post Bin Laden Perspective

NWF   |   May 12, 2011

What follows in an excerpt of a soon-to-be-published forum proceedings paper (September 2011) by Lise Van Susteran, MD and Kevin J. Coyle, JD on the many psychological effects of global warming.  Here we see the discussion on war and hostilities offering a different perspective on terrorism and conflict in the context of the recent death of Osama Bin Laden and its implications.

[Forum Paper Excerpt]

Global Warming and the Stresses of War

The link between global warming and future wars and conflicts may not be immediately apparent but it is now a major driver in the policies and strategies of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs.  Dr. Lise Van Susteren introduced the sobering subject of the relationship of global climate change to war and national security, quoting the findings of the Military Adivsory Board that  climate change is a bigger threat to national security than terrorism.  The Military Advisory Board report recognizes “that unabated climate change could bring an increased frequency of extreme storms, more  drought and flooding, rising sea levels, and the rapid spread of disease.These projected effects are more than environmental challenges, the Military noew sees them as security risks brought on by .  “massive migrations, increased border tensions, greater demands for rescue and evacuation efforts, and conflicts over essential resources, including food and water,” ultimately requiring direct U.S. military involvement.

Forum participant William Becker added that the 11 former military leaders’ believe the U.S. military must do its part to help the nation shift away from fossil fuels and that national security is not solely the responsibility of our military.  They recognized that American civilians will help our country in times of need.

Climate Change Literacy Will Mean Not Fighting the “Last War”

Lt. General Dan Christman (Ret.), Vice-President for International Affairs for U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spoke to the group about steps the military has already taken to address global climate change.  He reminded the forum that the military constantly strives to operate on current assumptions and not engaged in “fighting the last war.”  Several examples showed what a challenge this has been in the face of changing technologies and world ideologies and conditions. He sees addressing global warming as a critical means and “opportunity to avoid fighting the last war”

As the U.S. military looks ahead to the likely causes of war in the next 30 years, Christman noted, “global warming is front and center.” In the view of the Army and other branches of the armed forces Climate change will, be the number one underlying reason that the U.S. goes to war.  Scarce resources exacerbated by global warming will be the major reason that conflicts arise in the world.  “Fragile states will  become failed states” according to Cristman. Both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are examples of states that, destabilized, have become seedbeds of terrorism.  General James L. Jones, President Obama’s former national security advisor, included stability assessments in all daily presidential briefings.

As early as 2006, the leadership of today’s army has been working to incorporate a deep understanding of the importance of climate change into its proactive and defensive strategies.” Christman says.  He specifically pointed out that service-wide doctrinal manuals have redefined stability operations to take climate change into consideration. When it comes to global warming, the risks are immense  and disasters such as Hurricane Katrina  are modest in  comparison to what could be ahead in many nations. The destabilizing impacts these incidents would have on nations are indisputable. The U.S. military, Christman warns.  must learn how to prepare for and respond in military planning to the human suffering that will be on a new scale

Christman presented evidence of the military’s concern about global climate change, beginning with the new Unified Command Plan that covers how military is organized geographically.  The U.S. military, recognizing how climate change will be the driving force behind the destabilization of nations, realigned its regions to coincide with those of the State Department.  Because preventive measures and economic and environmental factors will be critical to avoid conflict in the U.S. military recognized that a military response alone will not achieve lasting security.

Army manuals 3-27 and 3-07 address military operations in this arena.  They include guidance on assuring that young officers understand global climate change through the lens of stability, and guidance on  the proper training, equipping and planning of  military operations and services. (Department of the Army, 2008)

To Illustrate, Army Manual 3-07 states: “Peace becomes sustainable when the sources of conflict have been reduced to such an extent that they can be largely managed by developing host-nation institutions. This facilitates the subsequent reduction of external actors to levels that foster the development effort with minimal outside presence.”  The main threats to world security and U.S. security will come from countries that are fragile and become destabilized. This lack of stability will permit external (sometimes criminal) forces to take control and create conflict – such as we saw occur in Afghanistan with the takeover by the Taliban.

The doctrinal manual uses the following definitions:

  •  A fragile state is a country that suffers from institutional weaknesses serious enough to threaten the stability of the central government. These weaknesses arise from several root causes, including ineffective governance, criminalization of the state, economic failure, external aggression, and internal strife due to disenfranchisement of large sections of the population.  Fragile states frequently fail to achieve any momentum toward development. They can generate tremendous human suffering, create regional security challenges, and collapse into wide, ungoverned areas that can become safe havens for terrorists and criminal organizations.
  • A crisis state is a nation in which the central government does not exert effective control over its own territory. It is unable or unwilling to provide security and essential services for significant portions of the population. In crisis states, the central government may be weak, nonexistent, or simply unable or unwilling to provide security or basic services. This includes states that are failing or have failed altogether, where violent conflict is a reality or a great risk.

 States on the brink of economic and political collapse can become destabilized by a number of climate-related factors including: crop failures, water shortages, disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and long term droughts.  Many of these conditions will be made worse by global warming.

 An example of how global warming can cause national destabilization is  the diminishing snow pack in the Himalayas.  The ice and snow on the “roof top of the world” with its partial spring melt, feeds hundreds of rivers that  supply water to one billion people downstream  This ice mass is expected to decrease substantially by the end of the century.  As less water is available to these downstream areas many people will be fighting simply to  survive

 Forum participant Sherri Goodman, JD, is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security.  She agreed that global warming underlies many of the major national security issues we face today because it is a “threat multiplier.”  She quoted retired head of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Senator John Warner, who stated that after his many years in working with military strategy, he considers global warming as important in today’s security and intelligence environment as nuclear weapons were during the Cold War.   During a time when Policy leaders often become paralyzed by the slightest gap in scientific information, Goodman parised our military leaders  She“not waiting for 100% certainty to decide  that the  Unified Command Plan realignments were needed and had to be put in place.. .  She notes that: a) proliferation, b) terror, c) energy and d) global climate change are now the official “big four” in the U.S. strategic environment.

 In fitting emphasis to Goodman’s point, in January of 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency established a new CIA Center for Climate Change and National Security to look at how droughts, rising seas, mass migrations, and competition for resources could affect the nation’s military and economic priorities.

 In December 2001, even in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters, 100 Nobel Laureates declared in a public statement: “The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals but from the legitimate demands of the world’s dispossessed.  Of these poor and disenfranchised, the majority live a marginal existence in equatorial climates. Global warming, not of their making but originating with the wealthy few, will affect their fragile ecologies most. Their situation will be desperate and manifestly unjust.” (Science, 2001)  

 Goodman also pointed to other examples of how consideration for the impacts of climate change has been incorporated into military strategy, planning and operations, citing the National Intelligence Assessment on Climate Change and the report of National Intelligence Council under Admiral Dennis Blair.  In testimony in 2009 before the U.S. Senate, Blair stressedthe importance of addressing energy, global warming and the potential dangers they pose.  Other examples can be found in the National Defense Strategy and the Quadrennial Defense Review.  

 Forum participant, Peter Bourne spoke to the significance of the U.S. military’s being clear about the existence and threat of global climate change. While many Americans might perceive the idea of fighting global warming as politically charged or as representing a liberal cause, having the Joint Chiefs and troops educated and aligned on climate change makes it clear that the issue is not a political agenda 

The U.S. Mental Health Toll of War and Conflict

 The psychological toll from war and conflicts on the U.S. public is profound.  Dan Christman says the US military sees the immediate and lasting psychological damage as a significant problem and believes that more must be done.  While future soldiers and their families may not be fully or immediately aware that the wars they will be fighting grew from the seeds of global climate change and resulting destabilization, they will still experience the usual levels of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression.  From a strategic perspective, the involvement of the U.S. in continued conflicts will challenge the viability of the all volunteer army.

 At a congressional hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (May 2007), it was concluded that: “hundreds of thousands of military personnel will likely need mental health screening and/or treatment.  Experts report that a sizable percentage of the 1.5 million soldiers that have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan either have returned or will return from battle suffering from mental health difficulties.  U.S. Army surveys from 2004 indicate that 20% of returning soldiers suffered from clinical anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.  More recent assessments have found that half of National Guard troops returning from battle report mental health concerns.  The problems are made worse because of a shortage of  troops; an increasing number of soldiers are serving second and even third deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deployment times are increasing to as long as fifteen months.”  Christman said that the U.S. Army is working to increase the overall size of the recruiting pool so there are more ground troops and therefore fewer and shorter terms of combat duty to try to relieve the stress on military personnel and their families. 

 At the May 2007 oversight hearing it was likewise reported that the number of combat deployments: “dramatically increases the risk that soldiers will come home with mental health problems.”  One of the witnesses at the hearing, Dr. John Fairbank, testified that “multiple tours and extended tours increase … the probability of developing adverse psychological reactions.” The House Veterans’ Health Care Oversight Committee heard the testimony of one soldier, Army Specialist Thomas Smith, who was diagnosed with PTSD but  was ordered to return to Iraq.  Independent experts have identified numerous problems with treatment of mental health conditions by the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration, with the Department of Defense Mental Health Task Force concluding that “the military system does not have enough resources or fully trained people to fulfill its broad mission of supporting psychological health in peacetime and fulfill the greater requirements during times of conflict.” Army Specialists Michael Bloodworth and Thomas Smith described another key barrier to adequate psychological care for ailing soldiers: the stigma that prevents many soldiers from seeking help for mental health concerns.  (House of Representatives, 2007)

 Suicide Rates: More Dangerous to Ourselves Then the Enemy

 A 2010 report by the Army on Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention found that suicide rates among active duty soldiers were at their highest rate since records began to be kept in 1980. While the civilian rate remained relatively stable between 2001 and 2007, both the Army and Marine Corps rate has increased steadily.  The report’s presenter, U.S. Army General Peter Chiarelli, said he “believed, but could not prove statistically, that the overall Army suicide rate had been driven up by the 21 percent of suicides committed by soldiers with multiple deployments.”

 The report also said that if the Army added in accidental deaths, which it said are often the result of high-risk behavior involving drinking and drugs, “fewer young men and women die in combat than die by their own actions.” It concluded: “We are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy.”  According to the Army, roughly 20 out of 100,000 soldiers have killed themselves.  (U.S. Army, 2010)

 The suicide rate among Americans as a whole is generally about 8.9 per 100,000, but the level among veterans has been at least 18.7. That figure rose to a minimum of 22.9 per 100,000 among veterans aged 20 to 24, almost 2.5  times the nonveteran average for people of the same age. Indeed, mental health problems among returning soldiers will have a significant impact on families and on both the veterans and civilian healthcare systems. These illnesses have a devastating effect on soldiers and their families, including many of the 700,000 children in the United States who have had least one parent deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

 Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, described the “ripple effect of mental illnesses on family members,” noting that “this is not simply a problem for the Veterans Administration or the Department of Defense … the burden of illness … will spill over from the public sector to mental health care in the civilian sector.” (House of Representatives, 2007)

 Health professionals who have worked with war veterans know that war produces mental health injuries as debilitating as wounds from bullets or explosions. Troops with mental health problems from wars often feel traumatized in ways they themselves cannot fully express. Post traumatic stress disorder and other mental conditions can take a tremendous toll on the individual service member and his or her family.

 National Guard members’ families experience the same stressors as active duty families before, during, and after deployment, although they do not have anywhere near the same level of support.  Many Guard members and their families report being shunned by the active duty mental health system. Army National Guard Specialist and Iraq War veteran Brandon Jones said that when he and his wife sought post-deployment counseling, they were “made to feel we were taking up a resource meant for active duty soldiers from the base.” In addition to regular service members, a large percentage of military personnel come from the National Guard.  These families typically experience a significant drop in household income when their loved ones are deployed. This financial pressure is an added stressor.

Published: May 12, 2011