Maeve Higgins: America must stop trying to fight fire with firepower

The US response to the climate emergency is all about security — when it really ought to be framed in terms of climate justice 
Maeve Higgins: America must stop trying to fight fire with firepower

Vehicles abandoned to the floods only hinted at the horror of Hurricane Ida in August as at least 11 people drowned in basement apartments in New York. As the poorest among us suffer the most, we have to switch from a climate security perspective to one of climate justice. Picture: Steve Helber/AP

There were, doubtlessly, a lot of sleepless nights in Washington DC in the run-up to last Thursday, which saw the release of plans by more than 20 federal agencies, outlining the steps each will take to keep up with, and adapt to, the climate chaos that is already engulfing the nation.

US president Joe Biden seems to understand the gravity of the crisis we are living through and is upfront about how bad it will get: 

The nation and the world are in peril, and that’s not hyperbole. That is a fact. They’ve been warning us the extreme weather would get more extreme over the decade, and we’re living in it real time now. 

Just last month in Queens, 11 people drowned in their basement apartments after Hurricane Ida caused parts of New York City to flood.

As he spoke, multiple federal agencies were preparing their plans in line with “President Biden’s whole-of-government approach to confronting the climate crisis, as agencies integrate climate-readiness across their missions and programs, and strengthen the resilience of federal assets from the accelerating impacts of climate change”.

I read through these plans, and they certainly caused me a few sleepless nights of my own. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, a lot of those plans are clearly meant to maintain the status quo and keep things just as they are.

We need radical change

This is wrong because the situation humanity is in today is terrible and perilous. We need to take actions that are radical; we need to change, not keep doing more of the same and hoping for a different result.

We need a just transition to become healthy, viable communities with a sustainable economy, and we need wealth and power to be distributed equally and peacefully — that’s really the only hope we have for a humane future.

Developing a solution to any problem means grasping the scale of the problem and, when it comes to climate chaos, the writing is on the wall all across this massive country.

Nasa breaks the country down into regions, and explains which threats are greatest and where: Heatwaves, heavy downpours, and rising sea levels are challenging people in the northeast, while the northwest is also being battered by rising sea levels, as well as erosion and increasing ocean acidity.

That region is also seeing major tree die-off because of hugely increasing wildfires (in both scale and number), insect outbreaks, and tree diseases.

In the south, declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, and health impacts in cities due to the intense heat are all commonplace.

The midwest faces ongoing battles with extreme heat, heavy downpours, and flooding — all of which will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation, and air and water quality.

So, we can see the variety and scale of the challenges ahead, and now we can see what the US government plans to do about it with the agencies that already exist.

Climate security versus climate justice 

It’s not a pretty picture, in particular the one painted by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

Flames erupt around vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California last month. The US appears to be framing the climate emergency as a security issue, whereas a climate justice approach would direct us towards a more appropriate response. Picture: Noah Berger/AP
Flames erupt around vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California last month. The US appears to be framing the climate emergency as a security issue, whereas a climate justice approach would direct us towards a more appropriate response. Picture: Noah Berger/AP

It seems they are not ready to transform into any kind of helpful entities, but are set to continue along the same path that got us here in the first place, with an emphasis on national security and military responses to any perceived threat.

In March of this year, as the Climate Working Group began to plan, Lloyd Austin, the US Defense Secretary, said that “climate change presents a growing threat” to America’s “defense objectives”. He went on to state that he “will act immediately to include the security implications of climate change in our risk analyses, strategy development, and planning”.

However, in one particularly wild omission from its plan released last week, the US Department of Defense neglects to mention that it is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and, correspondingly, the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world.

The department has been slowly working on improving this by moving to alternative energy sources, but the point made by the authors of a report from Brown University — entitled “Pentagon fuel use, climate change, and the costs of war” — still stands: “All this capacity for and use of military force requires a great deal of energy, most of it in the form of fossil fuel.”

They go on to quote General David Petraeus, who stated in 2011: “Energy is the lifeblood of our war-fighting capabilities.”

Wherever you live on this great big planet, what the US does next will affect you and your surroundings. The actions of this nation have already changed the climate we live with today, because the US is responsible for the largest share of historical carbon dioxide emissions.

This matters because the 1.2C of global warming that has already occurred — the warming that is causing the climate chaos we are experiencing — is connected inextricably to the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the past two centuries.

Because of the size and reach of the US, with its enormous budgets devoted to military spending, this country also sets the trend for so-called climate security planning.

I have a problem with all of this, even the way it is framed. My problem is this, and I will make it as clear as I can so please forgive the broad strokes: The climate crisis will be solved by climate justice, not with climate security.

The story told about climate security ignores the role of the military in causing the climate crisis and it doubles down on the danger of military solutions to climate impacts.

Climate security rewards the corporate interests that profit from such military solutions, including billion-dollar companies such as Lockheed Martin and Shell. Finally, but most importantly, if we respond to the climate crisis with more climate security, the impact on the most vulnerable among us will continue to be horrific.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that the global surface temperature is expected to cross the 1.5C threshold within the next 20 years.

UN secretary general António Guterres stated that it was “a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable.”

He said that the threshold of 1.5C, as internationally agreed upon, was “perilously close”.

A pedestrian takes cover near Columbus Circle in New York on September 1 as Hurricane Ida blasted through the eastern United States. Picture: Craig Ruttle/AP
A pedestrian takes cover near Columbus Circle in New York on September 1 as Hurricane Ida blasted through the eastern United States. Picture: Craig Ruttle/AP

He warned: “We are at imminent risk of hitting 1.5C in the near term. The only way to prevent exceeding this threshold is by urgently stepping up our efforts and pursuing the most ambitious path. We must act decisively now, to keep 1.5 alive.”

The US is preparing for battle...

 Meanwhile, the US is planning on training their soldiers to withstand extreme temperatures around the world so that they can better battle it out with locals for whatever scarce water supplies they come across.

It is wrong and dangerous to devote ever more money and resources to upholding the systems that got us into this terrible mess in the first place.

We need to transform the political and economic systems that caused climate change and, instead of protecting the status quo, we need to prioritise communities bearing the brunt of this crisis and put their solutions first.

Instead of assuming conflict, which is the position the US government takes — a position a small few people will benefit from while the rest of us suffer — we must assume a more humane future for all of us and work towards that.

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