What is shocking, however, is that not a single word—not a single word—was given to China’s role in accelerating climate change, which will represent the greatest threat to our security in the coming years.
Why should a Department of Defense report on security developments relating to the People’s Republic contain information on climate change? There are three reasons why it should have received in-depth attention in addition to inclusion.
The PRC was responsible for 33% of the world’s CO2 emissions in 2021, compared to 15% from the US and 11% from the EU, according to the 2022 edition of the World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency.
In a 2021 assessment of the military’s vulnerability to climate change, the Pentagon released more details on such “partner engagements.”
China is not now a participant in either of the initiatives supported by the Pentagon related to climate change.
Given the confidentiality often granted to the military and the propensity of government officials to manipulate data to suit their interests, intelligence errors are not uncommon in this nation’s security matters. For instance, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 based on assertions that Saddam Hussein, the country’s leader, was creating or already had WMD. These assertions, however, were eventually revealed to be untrue. Similarly, only because of drastically exaggerated intelligence assessments of that government’s strength did the sudden collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, when the United States finished withdrawing its forces from that nation, come as a surprise. This time, the Department of Defense’s massive intelligence failure involved China’s potential threat to American security.
According to the statute, the Pentagon must annually report to Congress and the general public on “military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China,” or PRC, over the following 20 years. The 196-page, in-depth report from 2022, released on November 29 last year, concentrated on the military threat it poses to the United States today and in the future. We are confident that in 20 years, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), will be well-prepared to confront the United States should a confrontation over Taiwan or South China Sea maritime rights occur. What is shocking, however, is that not a single word—not a single word—was given to China’s role in accelerating climate change, which will represent the greatest threat to our security in the coming years.
It should be evident that climate change poses a severe threat to our security at this time, given that California has recently been hit particularly hard by punishing winds and intense rainstorms brought on by a moisture-laden “atmospheric river” flowing over large portions of the state. In contrast, much of the country has experienced severe, frequently fatal floods, tornadoes, or snowstorms. But those storms, together with the ferocious wildfires and unrelenting heat waves of recent summers, not to mention a megadrought in the Southwest that set a record 1,200 years ago, is just a taste of what is to come. By 2042, the nightly news could be nearly entirely devoted to such incidents, which are already oversaturated with storm-related catastrophes.
All true, but what relevance does China have to all of this, one may ask? Why should a Department of Defense report on security developments relating to the People’s Republic contain information on climate change?
There are three reasons why it should have received in-depth attention in addition to inclusion. First, despite previously being the largest emitter, China is currently and will continue to be the world’s top producer of climate-changing carbon emissions, with the United States remaining in second position. Therefore, any effort to decrease the rate of global warming and improve this country’s “security” must include collaborations in energy decarbonization between the two biggest polluters on the planet and a strong drive by Beijing to reduce its emissions. Second, China will experience severe climate change effects in the following years, which will substantially hamper the PRC’s capacity to carry out ambitious military objectives like those outlined in the Pentagon assessment from 2022. The American and Chinese military forces will devote most of their time and resources to disaster relief and recovery by 2042, reducing their desire for war and their ability to wage it.
China’s Significant Contribution to Climate Change
According to experts, human greenhouse gases (GHGs) lead to global warming because they trap the sun’s reflected energy in the atmosphere. Most GHGs—carbon and methane—are produced during the extraction and burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas); other GHGs are generated during industrial and agricultural operations, particularly during steel and cement manufacturing. Such emissions will need to be drastically decreased to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius over the preindustrial era, which is the maximum increase that scientists estimate the earth can tolerate without experiencing disastrous effects.
The primary GHG emitters historically have been the United States and the EU countries; however, their emissions have decreased in recent years and are anticipated to continue to fall in the following decades (though they will need to do more to keep us below that 1.5-degree warming limit).
China, which entered the industrial age relatively late, is historically accountable for “just” 13% of total global CO2 emissions. However, in recent decades, it has dramatically increased its reliance on coal to produce energy, leading to ever-increasing CO2 emissions to speed up its economic growth. China now consumes an astounding 56 percent of all the coal made worldwide, which helps to explain why it currently dominates the list of the top carbon emitters. The PRC was responsible for 33% of the world’s CO2 emissions in 2021, compared to 15% from the US and 11% from the EU, according to the 2022 edition of the World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency.
China, like the majority of other nations, has committed to upholding the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and implementing economic decarbonization as part of an international effort to limit global warming. However, as a condition of that agreement, China designated itself as a “developing” nation with the capacity to increase its reliance on fossil fuels for roughly 15 years until reaching a peak in CO2 emissions in 2030. The PRC will continue to be the world’s top emitter of CO2 for years to come, saturating the atmosphere with enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and supporting an ongoing increase in global temperatures, barring some unexpected occurrences.
Yes, the EU, Japan, and the US should all work more to cut their emissions, but even if they continue to fall at their current rate, it won’t be enough to counteract China’s enormous CO2 emissions. To put it another way, the Pentagon’s 2022 assessment of security developments in the PRC list many tanks, planes, ships, and missiles as a threat to US security, while the IEA estimates that China emits 12 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide yearly. If we avoid the worst effects of climate change, American policymakers will need to pay close attention to them.
Climate Change and China’s Exposure
Any meaningful study on security issues concerning the PRC should have included an evaluation of that nation’s vulnerability to climate change and specific information on China’s outsized greenhouse gas emissions. It ought to have explained how future effects of global warming would influence its capacity to gather resources for a demanding, pricey military conflict with the US.
China will experience severe consequences from rising global temperatures in the following decades, including extreme storm damage, protracted droughts and heat waves, catastrophic flooding, and rising seas, just like the United States and other continental-scale nations. Worse yet, the PRC has several unique characteristics that will make it particularly vulnerable to climate change. These include a densely populated Eastern Seaboard exposed to rising sea levels and stronger typhoons, a vast interior with portions that are already significantly dry and will be susceptible to full-scale desertification, and a crucial river system that depends on unpredictable rainfall and increasingly endangered glacial runoff. China’s social, economic, and political institutions, including the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will face significant challenges as global warming intensifies and the country is subjected to a rising climate attack.
China’s critical infrastructure, such as port facilities, military bases, transportation hubs, and low-lying urban centres along its densely populated coastline, will be under threat from two main directions, according to a recent study by the Center for Climate and Security titled “China’s Climate Security Vulnerabilities.” These threats include growing internal instability brought on by rising economic instability, food scarcity, and governmental unrest.
Significant portions of China’s coastline could be completely underwater by the second half of this century, necessitating the potential relocation of hundreds of millions of people and the reconstruction of vital infrastructure valued at billions of dollars. China’s coastline already experiences heavy flooding during severe storms. Such responsibilities will undoubtedly need the entire focus of Chinese authorities and significant deployment of military assets at home, leaving little room for overseas exploits. Why could the Pentagon’s assessment of potential future Chinese capabilities not contain a single syllable?
Beijing finds the potential impact of climate change on the nation’s stability even more concerning. According to the climate centre’s analysis (but not the Pentagon assessment), “Climate change impacts are likely to jeopardise China’s economic growth, food and water security, and attempts to eradicate poverty.” As a result of these events, “the country’s vulnerability to political instability is likely to increase, as climate change affects the government’s capacity to meet its residents’ needs.”
The report makes the severe threat of global warming to food security a point of particular concern. It states that China must feed almost 20% of the world’s population while only using 12% of the world’s arable land, much of which is prone to drought, flooding, extremely high temperatures, and other catastrophic climate effects. Beijing may experience public discontent, perhaps revolution, as food and water supplies decrease, mainly if the government doesn’t act quickly enough. This will undoubtedly require the CCP to deploy its armed troops around the country to maintain order, leaving fewer and fewer of them available for other military uses—another scenario that the Pentagon did not consider in their analysis.
Of course, when climate change worsens, the United States will also experience its effects and may not be able to participate in international conflicts. However, the Pentagon paper makes no mention of this possibility.
Prospects for Cooperation on Climate
This yearly report is mandated by law to assess China’s military prowess and “United States-China involvement and collaboration on security matters, including through United States-China military-to-military interactions.” The version for 2022 does mention that Washington understands such “engagement” to entail cooperative efforts to avoid unintentional or accidental confrontation by taking part in high-level Pentagon-PLA crisis-management plans, such as the Crisis Communications Working Group. The report states that “regularised mechanisms for conversation to pursue agendas linked to crisis prevention and management” are provided through repeated exchanges [like these].
Any effort to keep the two nations from fighting is unquestionably worthwhile. However, the research also assumes that such military conflict is now unavoidable and that the best-case scenario is to avoid the outbreak of World War III. But given what we’ve learned so far about the threat that climate change poses to China and the United States, isn’t it time to go beyond simple conflict avoidance and instead focus more coordinated efforts—military and non—to decrease our shared climate vulnerabilities?
Sadly, at the moment, such relationships seem improbable. But it shouldn’t be the case. After all, the Department of Defense has already classified climate change as a vital threat to national security and has called for joint efforts between American forces and other countries to confront climate-related hazards. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated in March 2021, “We will elevate climate as a national security priority, integrating climate considerations into the Department’s policies, initiatives, and partner engagements.”
In a 2021 assessment of the military’s vulnerability to climate change, the Pentagon released more details on such “partner engagements.” In that study, it was said that “there are various avenues for the Department to integrate climate issues into international partner activities, including supporting interagency diplomacy and development projects in partner nations [and] sharing best practices.” The Pacific Environmental Security Partnership, a network of climate experts from that area who convene yearly at the Pentagon-sponsored Pacific Environmental Security Forum, was mentioned as one such initiative.
China is not now a participant in either of the initiatives supported by the Pentagon related to climate change. However, information-sharing on climate-response “best practices” will make much more sense than preparing for war over Taiwan or small uninhabited islands in the East and South China Seas (some of which will be completely underwater by the end of the century), as both countries experience increasingly severe impacts from rising global temperatures and their militaries are forced to devote ever more time and resources to disaster relief. The Pentagon and the PLA are more similar in how they address the climate crisis than the majority of the military forces in the world. Thus, it should be in the interests of both nations to foster cooperation in this crucial area for any government in our time.
Consider it a sign of the times that a Pentagon assessment of relations between China and the United States cannot even consider such a scenario. Congress should mandate an annual Pentagon report on all pertinent military and security events involving the PRC, given China’s growing influence in world affairs. You can be sure that one will seem like an all-too-serious joke in the future if it only focuses on examining what is still considered “military” advancements. If the planet is to withstand the impending climatic onslaught, we must do better.