Deployed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, US military forces hadn’t even completed their assignments when they were hurriedly dispatched to Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands to face Irma, the fiercest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Florida Governor Rick Scott, who had sent members of the state National Guard to devastated Houston, anxiously recalled them while putting in place emergency measures for his own state. A small flotilla of naval vessels, originally sent to waters off Texas, was similarly redirected to the Caribbean, while specialized combat units drawn from as far afield as Colorado, Illinois, and Rhode Island were rushed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, members of the California National Guard were being mobilized to fight wildfires raging across that state (as across much of the West) during its hottest summer on record.
Think of this as the new face of homeland security: containing the damage to America’s seacoasts, forests, and other vulnerable areas caused by extreme weather events made all the more frequent and destructive thanks to climate change. This is a “war” that won’t have a name—not yet, not in the Trump era, but it will be no less real for that. “The firepower of the federal government” was being trained on Harvey, as William Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), put it in a blunt expression of this warlike approach. But don’t expect any of the military officials involved in such efforts to identify climate change as the source of their new strategic orientation, not while Commander in Chief Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office refusing to acknowledge the reality of global warming or its role in heightening the intensity of major storms; not while he continues to stock his administration, top to bottom, with climate-change deniers.
Until Trump moved into the White House, however, senior military officers in the Pentagon were speaking openly of the threats posed to American security by climate change and how that phenomenon might alter the very nature of their work. Though mum’s the word today, since the early years of this century military officials have regularly focused on and discussed such matters, issuing striking warnings about an impending increase in extreme weather events—hurricanes, incessant rainfalls, protracted heat waves, and droughts—and ways in which that would mean an ever-expanding domestic role for the military in both disaster response and planning for an extreme future.
That future, of course, is now. Like other well-informed people, senior military officials are perfectly aware that it’s difficult to attribute any given storm, Harvey and Irma included, to human-caused climate change with 100 percent confidence. But they also know that hurricanes draw their fierce energy from the heat of tropical waters, and that global warming is raising the temperatures of those waters. It’s making storms like Harvey and Irma, when they do occur, ever more powerful and destructive. “As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating,” the Department of Defense (DoD) bluntly explained in the Quadrennial Defense Review, a 2014 synopsis of defense policy. This, it added, “may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities”—just the sort of crisis we’ve been witnessing over these last weeks.