A Climate Disaster Zone, Not a Military Superpower
ByAug. 24, 2021
In recent months, Washington has had a lot to say about China’s ever-expanding air, naval, and missile power. But when Pentagon officials address the topic, they generally speak less about that country’s current capabilities, which remain vastly inferior to those of the U.S., than the world they foresee in the 2030s and 2040s, when Beijing is expected to have acquired far more sophisticated weaponry.
“China has invested heavily in new technologies, with a stated intent to complete the modernization of its forces by 2035 and to field a ‘world-class military’ by 2049,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified in June. The United States, he assured the Senate Armed Services Committee, continues to possess “the best joint fighting force on Earth.” But only by spending countless additional billions of dollars annually, he added, can this country hope to “outpace” China’s projected advances in the decades to come.
As it happens, however, there’s a significant flaw in such reasoning. In fact, consider this a guarantee: by 2049, the Chinese military (or what’s left of it) will be so busy coping with a burning, flooding, churning world of climate change — threatening the country’s very survival — that it will possess scant capacity, no less the will, to launch a war with the United States or any of its allies.
It’s normal, of course, for American military officials to focus on the standard measures of military power when discussing the supposed Chinese threat, including rising military budgets, bigger navies, and the like. Such figures are then extrapolated years into the future to an imagined moment when, by such customary measures, Beijing might overtake Washington. None of these assessments, however, take into account the impact of climate change on China’s security. In reality, as global temperatures rise, that country will be ravaged by the severe effects of the never-ending climate emergency and forced to deploy every instrument of government, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to defend the nation against ever more disastrous floods, famines, droughts, wildfires, sandstorms, and encroaching oceans.
China will hardly be alone in this. Already, the increasingly severe effects of the climate crisis are forcing governments to commit military and paramilitary forces to firefighting, flood prevention, disaster relief, population resettlement, and sometimes the simple maintenance of basic governmental functions. In fact, during this summer of extreme climate events, military forces from numerous countries, including Algeria, Germany, Greece, Russia, Turkey, and — yes — the United States, have found themselves engaged in just such activities, as has the PLA.
And count on one thing: that’s just the barest of beginnings. According to a recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), extreme climate events, occurring with ever more frightening frequency, will prove ever more destructive and devastating to societies around the world, which, in turn, will ensure that military forces just about everywhere will be consigned a growing role in dealing with climate-related disasters. “If global warming increases,” the report noted, “there will be a higher likelihood that [extreme climate] events with increased intensities, durations and/or spatial extents unprecedented in the observational record will occur.” In other words, what we’ve been witnessing in the summer of 2021, devastating as it might now seem, will be magnified many times over in the decades to come. And China, a large country with multiple climate vulnerabilities, will clearly require more assistance than most.
The Zhengzhou Precedent
To grasp the severity of the climate crisis China will face, look no further than the recent flooding of Zhengzhou, a city of 6.7 million people and the capital of Henan Province. Over a 72-hour period between July 20th and July 22nd, Zhengzhou was deluged with what, once upon a time, would have been a normal year’s supply of rainfall. The result — and think of it as watching China’s future in action — was flooding on an unprecedented scale and, under the weight of that water, the collapse of local infrastructure. At least 100 people died in Zhengzhou itself — including 14 who were trapped in a subway tunnel that flooded to the ceiling — and another 200 in surrounding towns and cities. Along with widespread damage to bridges, roads, and tunnels, the flooding inundated an estimated 2.6 million acres of farmland and damaged important food crops.
In response, President Xi Jinping called for a government-wide mobilization to assist the flooding victims and protect vital infrastructure. “Xi called for officials and Party members at all levels to assume responsibilities and go to the frontline to guide flood control work,” according to CGTN, a government-owned TV network. “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and armed police force troops should actively coordinate local rescue and relief work,” Xi told senior officials.
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