In The Age of Consequences, “the only border which is real is the atmosphere.
Everything else is permeable.” – Radm. David Titley, United States Navy
As a student partner of the graduate training program Economics for the Anthropocene, I’ve struggled with how best to articulate the knowledge I’ve gained over the last few years of study. It has been particularly difficult in the present political climate as issues related to environmentalism and even scientific integrity sadly continue to be contested. While books, scholarly presentations, and documentaries on climate change can be eye-opening and educational, the audiences of those knowledge platforms are typically well acquainted with the subject matter, which is what most likely drew them to it in the first place. It wasn’t until seeing The Age of Consequences that I felt the gravity of the climate crisis was truly portrayed, and moreover that the film might just present an effective enough narrative to really breach ideological divisions since it is presented through the lens of U.S. national security and the stability of our globalized systems.
In a profoundly provocative new film, director Jared P. Scott delivers a frighteningly illuminating portrayal of climate change’s role in national and international security. Through a series of interviews featuring distinguished American military personnel and veterans, national security advisors, researchers and authors, the film discusses the enormous range of threats that anthropogenic climate change presents, and expresses urgency in the need to address “the most difficult collective action problem we’ve ever faced” (M. Breen, Frmr. Captain, U.S. Army).
U.S. Military Intelligence Recognizes Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier; Accelerant to Instability
The first national report on climate change, entitled An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security, was published in 2003. The report discussed the potentially destructive impacts of global warming on food production and on the human carrying capacity of the planet. Following this cautious warning, additional reports were published and by 2014 climate change was labeled a threat multiplier thought to “aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence” .
When I was leading paratroopers in in Afghanistan, if 98-99 percent of my intelligence told me that I was driving my platoon down a road, and that two miles down that road, there’s an ambush waiting for me, I don’t get to say – ‘yeah but there’s that 1% that says there’s no ambush, so to hell with the other 99%, we’re going to keep going down the road’… that’s negligence on an unfathomable scale. That’s the debate we’re having right now with regard to climate. – M. Breen
A shift in climate stability is observed by U.S. military intelligence as a catalytic agitator that challenges national and international security at unprecedented scales and timelines. What’s more, as effective responses to the climate crisis continue to be contorted through politicized debate, climate change impacts will only increase in intensity, causing resource constraints and limiting adaptive capacities. This is particularly apparent in the latest report by global insurance network Climatewise which sites a $100 billion (USD) annual climate risk protection gap, quoting a 5-fold increase in total losses since the 1980’s. Furthermore, our financial, social, and material means may not be sufficient should we pass the 2oC limit and breach the threshold standing between us and runaway climate change.
The resources and timescale to act are stretching thin, and it has become prudent to motivate both societal and political will for concrete, decisive action that propels a strategic road to a decarbonized economy. Scott’s film offers a diligent, systems-oriented overview of the risks our society faces in an age where climate destabilization has palpable, concrete implications – in an age of consequences.
Lessons Learned from the ‘Age of Consequences’
What follows is a list of key climate change impacts discussed in the film and their potential military-grade implications.
Global Food Market: Citing a 2010 drought that devastated Russia’s, Ukraine’s, and China’s wheat crop, Scott’s film stresses the interdependence of climate, politics, and economics, and asserts food as political. Due to the 2010 drought, for example, Egypt’s wheat prices jumped 300%. Food prices are predicted to rise between 3-84% by 2050 due to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, and what’s more, we will bare witness to an enormous shift in the quantity, quality, and location of our current food sources.
Migration: As the world experiences the worst refugee crisis since WWII, it becomes paramount to understand the triggers behind these mass movements, and identify the most vulnerable locations and populations. By the end of 2015, 65.3 million people had been displaced worldwide, making one in every 113 people on the planet “either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee – putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent” . And yet, as the climate system continues to destabilize, a refugee crisis of “unimaginable scale” is set to transpire throughout the 21st century that senior military figures view in horror. The film shows how changes in the climate system alter once habitable landscapes and inevitably forces mass evacuations.
Democracy and the Stable State: At almost the exact same time, on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, two great civilizations fell due to systematic drying and warming of the climate: the Tang Dynasty and the Mayan Civilization. In the post-war age of globalization, it is difficult to imagine the fall of entire states. But Tim Synder, author of Black Earth, points to Hurricane Katrina as an informative example of how “climate-related events can create massive distress on a scale of a whole urban area, and that that massive distress can involve the collapse of state structures”. Interestingly, Scott’s film challenges the role of political borders in effectively addressing the climate crisis. Leon Feurth, Frmr. National Security Adviser for the White House (93-01) observes that political borders create the tendency to separate domestic issues and international events “as if [they were] a real barrier”. Storms, droughts, and floods know no border. Addressing the climate crisis will require cooperation and collaboration on a global scale, dissolving political borders and divisions.
Energy: An inextricable link exists between energy and security, says Breen. In a globalized marketplace, geopolitical events and decisions continuously impact the supply, price, and access of energy sources at localized, domestic scales. Climate change inevitably threatens this access, and in some cases, completely redefines the geographical map from which energy is sourced. Furthermore, military efforts are continuously deployed to protect and ensure the flow of fossil fuel resources (the U.S. alone spends $85 million) – a finite energy source wrought with environmental degradation and political conflict. But there is an opportunity for change: through energy independence, regions can take control of their own energy system by investing in alternatives. Public Policy Fellow of the Wilson Center Sherri Goodman observes: “The flipside of the climate threat is the energy and resilience opportunity. The more diversified we are in our energy sources, from a whole array of renewables to innovative technologies, the sounder, stronger, more secure we will be.”
Confusing Lifestyle for Life itself: What is necessary? What is enough? What is fair? These are the questions to ask in the age of consequences. To effectively address the climate crisis, our globalized society must reject today’s carbon-intensive, consumeristic way of life. Indeed, the Global Footprint Network declared August 2, 2017 as Earth Overshoot Day – the day the human economy took more from nature on a global scale than our planet can renew in an entire year. The demands on our planet are unsustainable and risks climate catastrophe for all, yet environmental consciousness has been tainted with accusations of threatening personal freedoms and free market-given rights. Snyder observes: “In advanced societies, we’re very vulnerable to confusing lifestyle with life itself”. Nevertheless, a highly materialistic, resource- and carbon-intensive lifestyle is fundamentally incompatible with living sustainably on a finite planet.
The bad news: sacrifices must be made. It is likely that we will be spending more of our time and money on food and localized household and community building, and less on non-essentials like clothes, entertainment, and travel. At one point or another, we won’t be able to afford not to. The good news? It turns out the socially and environmentally exploitative, materialistic Western lifestyle that many are concerned about preserving in the wake of the climate crisis is actually both socially and self-destructive. One of the most encouraging aspects of the sustainability movement is the accompanying societal transformation that converts members of the public from passive consumers into active and engaged citizens.
Facing the Consequences not with Military Action, but Political Activism
The most pivotal part of the film was the acknowledgement that it will not, and cannot, be military might that comes to the rescue in tackling the climate crisis. Breen notes: “Every military is ultimately in the business of preventing, hopefully, or prosecuting and winning wars. And war is a destructive human activity. Militaries are not going to solve this for us. An armoured division is not going to defeat climate change”. Instead, The Age of Consequences advocates for civic and political engagement, community building, and institutional overhaul that stems from grassroots movements. It will take long-term coordinated, collective action – similar, in fact, to the urgent mobilization efforts required during wartime, as 350.org’s Bill McKibben points out in his 2016 article. Though the initial victims of this battle are those most vulnerable and least implicated, no one is immune; every single aspect of civilization today is under threat from a destabilizing climate system.
It is strictly up to us, the public voice, to motivate the political will required to address this crisis – or to find a political body willing to do so. Government structures were built with the intention of protecting the interests of its people, but the policy paralysis at play in the wake of the climate crisis is only worsening our chances to adequately adapt to the coming changes. Senior Advisor to New America Sharon Burke acknowledges one major take-away from military strategy that directly reflects the kind of preparedness that public and political bodies should be advocating for: “Resilience and improving our ability to respond – those are the least that we should be doing. That’s, in military parlance, the first line of defense”. If we expect to preserve any semblance of a habitable society, sustainability becomes the only economically viable option. Feurth reflects: “If we fail, then it is possible that we can never again, at any price, obtain the kind of future that we may be able to secure for ourselves if we succeed. The technological means are at hand. The wealth exists. The question always is, is whether or not the wisdom exists”.
Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess about it;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?
– Philip Larkin
For more information about the film, visit The Age of Consequences.
A special thank-you to Sophie Robinson, Executive Producer of The Age of Consequences for answering my many inquiries and providing the still shots for this blog post.
 Department of Defense of the United States of America (2014). ‘Quadrennial defense review 2014’. Accessed May 2017 at https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/QDR/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf.
 (2016). Edwards, A. ‘Global forced displacement hits record high’. UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency. Accessed June 2017 at http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/6/5763b65a4/global-forced-displacement-hits-record-high.html.
Sophia Sanniti has just completed her Masters in Environmental Studies at York University in partnership with E4A. She is now commencing a doctoral degree in Ecological and Social Sustainability at the University of Waterloo.