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Conscripting Climate: Prospects for Defense and Urban Adaptation

Conscripting Climate: Prospects for Defense and Urban Adaptation
Contributors (2)
Mar 30, 2018

(Header image: The City of Norfolk, home to the largest naval station in the world, floods regularly from climate change enhanced storm surge and precipitation. Source: U.S. Navy, Public Domain)

We began organizing the symposium Conscripting Climate: Environmental Risk and Defensive Urbanism before the now infamous American election of 2016. At that point, we were seeking productive debate over the ways in which defense and national security institutions were entering the urban climate adaptation arena, taking both the risks and opportunities of these collaborations seriously.

After the election, the topic gained urgency and relevance as the Trump administration baldly laid siege to the EPA, appointing a renowned, activist climate skeptic to the top job, proposing to slash the budget, and intimidating staff to undermine their environmental expertise (Bomberg 2017; Hejny 2018; O’Grady 2017). As the administration similarly appointed leaders to most federal agencies to dismantle previously enshrined agendas, the fact that the new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, acknowledged that climate change was real and a threat to national security emerged into a new light (The Economist 2018). Mattis’s modest acknowledgement of climate change would have been no surprise before 2017. The Department of Defense had been taking climate change seriously since at least 2003, when two Pentagon futurists produced a dystopian report on national security threats (Schwartz and Randall 2003). The agenda had been gaining momentum since 2007 when former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Sherri Goodman applied the term “threat multiplier” to climate change, strategically positioning the concept for uptake among a range of security-focused think tanks (Diez, von Lucke, and Wellmann 2016; CNA Military Advisory Board 2007). In this context, Mattis’s perspective merely reflected DoD policy, which had been evolving toward including climate risks in installation assessments, codes, and engineering for almost a decade (Resetar and Berg 2016).  

With the EPA in a weakened position, the possibility emerged that the DoD could become the stronger environmental champion (Gurley 2017). This prospect was not new, and had already been debated at length in academic literature ranging from military geography to landscape history and security studies. Some historians and geographers argued that acknowledging the complexities of contemporary environmental governance, military institutions and lands could have some environmental benefits, while others took the stronger view that in spite of net zero and natural resource initiatives, the military and sustainability were anathema (Chaturvedi and Doyle 2015; Coates et al. 2011; Pearson 2012; Woodward 2014). Most strikingly, in Hijacking Sustainability, cultural critic Adrian Parr argued that looking to the military for sustainability was equivalent to the Orwellian fiction that “war is peace (Parr 2009).”

Cultural critic Adrian Parr argues that “military sustainability” is as contemptible as Orwellian doublespeak. Source: CC by Mark Hillary.
Cultural critic Adrian Parr argues that “military sustainability” is as contemptible as Orwellian doublespeak. Source: CC by Mark Hillary.

Complicating matters, in the realm of realpolitik, national security advocates declined to be conscripted as “environmental champions,” concerned that the taint of leftist tree-huggers would undermine their legitimacy (Interviews, 2017). For them, climate change is a national security issue, full stop.

But in urban scholarship, experts have long insisted that neither security nor climate can be so neatly circumscribed; measures taken in the name of national or urban security tend to have broad repercussions for spatial stratification, segregation, and injustice. Over twenty-five years ago, geographer Mike Davis crystallized the tendency to “fortress urbanism,” decrying the rampant privatization and surveillance of public space in downtown Los Angeles in the name of urban revitalization (Davis 1990). Others have extended this critique of defensive urbanism, warning against “the architecture of fear” (Ellin 1997) and “cities under siege” (Graham 2010). In a similar vein, David Harvey has critiqued Haussmann’s vivisection of Paris: cutting wide boulevards through the medieval urban fabric simultaneously dismantled spaces of protest, facilitated troop movement, and created the enduring bourgeois ideal of the dense, spectacular City of Light (Harvey 2008, 2003).

Almost a century later, the defense department-driven highway system radically reconfigured the American landscape; highways designed to allow for the efficient movement of tank traffic also fostered urban dispersal, which while ostensibly reducing the nuclear risk to dense urban centers, created outlets for a post-war culture of consumption (Dudley 2001; Farish 2003; Sert 1944).

Eisenhower advocated the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways partially as a means of transporting military supplies and troops. Source: Federal employee, public domain
Eisenhower advocated the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways partially as a means of transporting military supplies and troops. Source: Federal employee, public domain

In the context of adaptation, geographers Hodson and Marvin have developed a robust critique of the tendency to form “premium ecological enclaves” that ensure infrastructure for elites in the name of urban security (Hodson and Marvin 2010, 2009).

Now, as think tanks and policy-makers mobilize a climate security agenda to galvanize support for climate action (American Security Project 2018; The Climate and Security Advisory Group 2018; Sorkin 2017), and defense installations partner with local communities to plan for adaptation (Vergakis 2016) we know that it remains essential to engage with these critiques.

Flooding will block access to a wide range of community assets in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. This map is an early step in Hampton Roads’ regional adaptation planning involving municipalities and local installations. Source: Norfolk and Virginia Beach Joint Land Use Study, AECOM.
Flooding will block access to a wide range of community assets in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. This map is an early step in Hampton Roads’ regional adaptation planning involving municipalities and local installations. Source: Norfolk and Virginia Beach Joint Land Use Study, AECOM.

Further highlighting the contradictions in this arena, some scholars, journalists and experts have revived longstanding debates over the environment as a factor in conflict, raising the concern that the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis were exacerbated by extreme drought linked to climate change (CNA Military Advisory Board 2014; Dunlop and Spratt 2017; Pemberton, Powell, and Doctor 2016; Selby et al. 2017).

In our contribution to this evolving debate, we define “conscripting climate” as follows: defense institutions deploying climate change as a rationale for developing policy, plans and infrastructure to enhance security. This process operates at a number of scales from local installations and communities to global strategies, and these scales continuously intersect and influence each other. In this context, we focus on three salient tensions: 1. the tension between defense and sustainability values and objectives, 2. the tension between national or urban security and equitable, sustainable urban development, and 3. the tension between physical climate and economic development as determinants of conflict.

As a result, we pose four framing questions: 1. How do institutions dedicated to employing military force simultaneously make a substantive contribution to sustaining human and non-human life? 2. Distant and recent history demonstrate that security strategies tend to exacerbate urban injustice, so will adaptation confirm this or are there viable possibilities for “just security” in the built environment? 3. Closely linked to colonial environmental determinism, the argument that “the environment” is a cause of conflict has been widely rejected; in that context, is it possible to ascribe physical impacts of climate change a role in current conflicts while also adequately addressing the role of economic development? 4. Finally, how should scholars and policy-makers position themselves in relation to these ethical dilemmas? The contributions to this volume offer provocative explorations of these questions.

In Tides of Sand and Steel: Desertification, Defense Management and Resilient Planning, Rouzbeh Akhbari attests that research on urbanization and climate change is consumed with the specter of sea level rise, while overlooking the equally threatening encroachment of desertification. Just as the territorial impacts of desertification have gone underexplored, so has adaptation to desertification. In response, he probes the defensive urbanization measures involved in desert rehabilitation in a northern Chinese province bordering the Gobi desert, arguing that these are as problematic as more commonly understood forms of the “securitization of nature.” Specifically, government efforts to “reclaim” and urbanize desert landscapes operate through military tactics, disrupting and displacing traditional land users. Akhbari argues that planners and other experts involved in these geographies should attend to vernacular approaches to desert management rather than embracing the seductive “battle against nature” which so conveniently relies on military language and strategies. Thoughtful practitioners willing to invest in understanding the nuance of these sandscapes might pave a way toward a more tempered form of environmental security.

In Badia Landscape Imaginaries: Competing Worldviews on Climate Change and Environmental Degradation in the Syrian Crisis, Andrea Margit and Lizzie Yarina argue that in Syria, climate change is too expediently ascribed a causal role in conflict, but that the climate itself is not a “warmonger.” Rather, the national elite contributed to the environmental and social vulnerability in the Syrian Steppe through misguided technocratic management, exacerbating climate impacts. While they diagnose this approach as part of an “extractive commodity” imaginary, more importantly, they identify a competing, persistent “cyclical tradition” landscape imaginary which might contribute to recovery and resilience. Rather than condemning environmental factors as a cause of conflict, they argue that the social-ecological negotiations evident in indigenous imaginaries could constructively shape climate adaptation.

In Military Climate Resilience Planning and Contemporary Urban Systems Thinking, James Allen and Brian Deal contend that military planners effectively address resilience at the project and systems levels, but currently miss the importance of the community and regional levels of resilience. In this respect, military planners have much to learn from urban planning’s history of grappling with resilience, its meanings and methods, in order to address the full implications of adaptation to climate change.

While other authors in this journal critique the ways that military planning has too easily slipped into urban planning, Allen and Deal suggest that military planning itself could be made more nuanced through adopting a comprehensive view of resilience informed by sustainability, urban ecology and socio-environmental systems. On the one hand, there is value in resisting the securitization of nature and the militarization of planning, but there may also be value in altering the highly influential paradigm of military planning, thereby shifting the course of its impact on urban planning for resilience.

In Strengthening Collaboration between Military Installations and Their Host Communities: A Practicing Planner’s Perspective, Paul Holland argues that military installations are in a unique position within their host regions to leverage their economic and political power to serve as stewards for land use planning. While this role initially developed through negotiations over noise as suburban areas developed in proximity to air installations, now it has grown to encompass an increasingly complex range of factors including climate change. Even more than other factors that have simultaneously affected installations and the surrounding communities, climate impacts such as flooding and drought will require regional solutions. It remains to be seen whether installations and regions will be able to effectively plan together to address these challenges, but in a resource-constrained environment, the existence of military missions may be a critical advantage for regional planners and decision-makers. In contrast to the papers in this volume more critical about collaboration, Holland introduces the pragmatic prospect that civilian planners may use the available military apparatus as a catalyst for climate planning. 

In The Rise of Environmental Fascism and the Securitization of Climate Change, Henry Mochida and Efadul Huq propose that the recent rise of white nationalism and populism should  be understood as a form of environmental fascism. White nationalists have used the term to denounce the protection of environmental rights over property rights which they see as endemic to mainstream environmentalism; but Mochida and Huq argue that planning scholars and practitioners should reappropriate the term to better define the alt-right forms of environmental governance that are currently emerging. They suggest that events such as the standoff in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge presage subsequent moves in federal environmental policy, where the claims of white property owners “trump” claims by people of color and demands for environmental protection. Provocatively, they extend this critique to the “climate security” policy agenda, suggesting it could become a tool for furthering related forms of environmental governance globally. Rampant exploitation of “the environment” and marginalized populations have been advancing without any injection of a newly minted “environmental fascism,” but their warning suggests the need for further vigilance.

The wide range of positions in these papers helps us to revisit the central concept of “conscripting climate.” Rather than confirming the one-way definition of the term, that defense institutions enroll climate to further pre-existing security agendas, the term might be flipped: actors outside of the defense apparatus might conscript a “climate security” agenda to further more comprehensive climate adaptation aims. Climate security has been roundly and rightfully critiqued for the risk of prioritizing national security over human, environmental, or urban security (Barnett 2003; Dalby 2013, 2009; McDonald 2013), but ultimately it is a malleable concept. Mochida and Huq critique climate security, but at the same time, argue that “environmental fascism” can and should be reappropriated as a critical term from a progressive, humanist perspective. In this vein, climate security might be expanded to include a progressive agenda, open to multiple possibilities of who does the “conscripting.” Surely, the defense apparatus will continue to conscript climate, but urban actors might also conscript defense agendas. Holland’s premise that regional military actors can serve as stewards for land-use planning, and Allen and Deal’s argument that military planning and urban planning have much to learn from each other in the resilience realm, point the way toward this next iteration. With greater knowledge of defense techniques, urban actors from influential decision-makers to grassroots activists could potentially leverage various forms of military presence, apparatus, and politics to achieve a more equitable and comprehensive climate agenda.


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———. 2014. “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change.” Alexandria, VA.

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———. 2008. “The Right to the City.” New Left Review, no. 53: 23–40.

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———. 2010. World Cities And Climate Change: Producing Urban Ecological Security. McGraw-Hill International.

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