Armed Lifeboat: Government’s Response to Natural Disaster

Whether Washington’s response to natural disaster caused by climate change will rely on social solidarity, or on militarized borders and government surveillance, depends on what happens now, says Christian Parenti.


| September/October 2013


The U.S. government is dead serious about climate change, but not in the way you might think. While carbon taxes and green grids remain decidedly out of reach on Capitol Hill, planners at the Pentagon have been quietly preparing to take charge of a planet shaken by climate chaos. Predicting ever more extreme weather, famine, and social collapse around the globe, high-level experts like former CIA director James Woolsey and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan outline a chilling vision of endemic violence and “militarized adaptation” to disaster. As hunger and disease turn to conflict in the Global South, planners inside and outside the Pentagon are preparing to shut borders, control population movements, and intensify U.S. intervention abroad.

The plans go back to 2004, when the Department of Defense funded a study on how climate change would impact national security. The results, compiled by security experts at the Global Business Network, evoke a Hobbesian landscape in which desperation and dislocation fuel permanent worldwide conflict. “Once again, warfare would define human life,” the authors ominously warn. Subsequent reports by Pentagon insiders and think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies echo those apocalyptic proportions. Their prescriptions are also familiar, if disturbing: on a violently warming planet, the U.S. will need to escalate its military presence at home and abroad to protect key interests, secure borders, and contain conflict. More often than not, planners point to counterinsurgency (COIN), a strategy that sees civilians as a primary threat, as their weapon of choice.

Investigative journalist Christian Parenti refers to plans like these as “the politics of the armed lifeboat.” It’s this dark vision that forms the opening chapters of Tropic of Chaos, his searing study of how climate change plays out on a violently unequal planet. Although it affects everyone, Parenti argues, climate change has a dramatically uneven geography—and the areas most deeply affected by a warming atmosphere are also those least able to respond. Devastated by centuries of colonialism, proxy wars, and neoliberal economics—and now climate change—the Global South seems to be edging toward the social collapse Pentagon planners predict. Meanwhile in the U.S., state surveillance, border militarization, and the militarization of local police hint at a creeping authoritarianism on our own soil.

But that’s by no means the whole story. The armed lifeboat may play into ongoing crises and pathologies, says Parenti, but it’s certainly not the only way for the government to respond to disaster. “In a moment of crisis the state will step in,” he explains over the phone. “The question then becomes, what kind of state?”

Afghanistan’s Wardak Province may not sound like an obvious place to study climate politics, but in fact extreme weather has much to do with the ongoing violence there. In the autumn of 2004, Parenti made the first of several trips to Afghanistan to report on the region’s booming opium trade for the London Review of Books. The center of Asia’s “golden crescent,” Afghanistan produces more than three-fourths of the world’s opium, even as the country is torn apart by war. Even more remarkable, the cultivation continues amidst diligent eradication efforts by government and NATO counterinsurgents who seize crops, arrest traffickers, and destroy fields. Meanwhile Taliban warlords offer opium planters credit and defense against government forces.

The LRB story wasn’t really about climate, but while interviewing poppy farmers, “the word drought kept coming up,” says Parenti. “At the time I wasn’t even aware that there was a big drought. It turns out, lo and behold, Afghanistan has been going through the worst drought in living memory that has coincided with the entire NATO occupation.” Left with little alternative, impoverished farmers embraced poppy, a crop that uses just a sixth of the water needed for wheat. This in turn fueled violence between NATO forces and the Taliban, which profits from the opium trade. “Read the history of the war in Afghanistan,” Parenti writes in Tropic of Chaos, “and a climate angle emerges.”