27 June 2022

Defence agencies ‘accelerating’ risk of ‘Hothouse Earth’, US military study warns

The actions of government military and intelligence agencies are increasing the ‘hyperthreat’ of climate and environmental change, according to new research.

by Nafeez Ahmed, first published at Byline Times

A new landmark study published by the US Marine Corps University concludes that the activities of government military and intelligence agencies over the next decade are accelerating the likelihood of triggering a worst-case ‘Hothouse Earth’ scenario that would make the planet “unliveable for most species”.

These agencies, the study argues, have become the biggest danger to planetary security, by in effect working to accelerate the “hyperthreat” of climate and environmental change.

The research study – published in two parts in the US Marine Corps University Press’ digital journal and in the Spring 2022 edition of its peer-reviewed Journal of Advanced Military Studies – applies war theory and military strategy to the dynamics of the climate and ecological crises.

Based on a PhD thesis by former Australian Army officer Dr Elizabeth G Boulton, who is also the study’s author, it finds that the vast national security sector (encompassing the world’s militaries, intelligence agencies, foreign affairs strategies and associated think tanks) has been “unwittingly aiding the hyperthreat”. 

The Hyperthreat

The hyperthreat is the unprecedented “combined impacts of rapid global warming and the unravelling of Earth’s ecological systems”, according to the study.

It warns that the hyperthreat’s most “dangerous course of action” is to “provoke cascading tipping elements, accelerating a transition to a ‘Hothouse Earth’ state, which is uninhabitable for most species”. And that, without “concerted global action between 2022 and 2025, the most dangerous course of action is also the most likely course of action”.

The hyperthreat has “war-like destructive capabilities” that make it hard to recognise the enormity of its destructive impacts or “who is responsible for its hostile actions”. This is a phenomenon that humanity has never encountered before.

The idea of understanding the ecological crisis as a ‘hyperthreat’ builds on the work of philosopher Timothy Morton, who framed global warming as a “hyperobject” – something humans are unable to fully conceive, see, or manage, which requires a new, non-human-centric worldview.

In her PhD research, Dr Boulton integrated the concept of a hyperobject with the traditional war strategy theory of Carl Clausewitz.

The hyperthreat’s main centre of gravity, according to the study, is “its freedom of movement, which is enabled by its hyperobject-like invisibility and unknowability and by human hesitancy to respond”.
“Human activity that fuels the hyperthreat is often legal, has social license, and is understood as legitimate business or security activity; its contribution to slow violence is often obscured,” the study adds.

That kind of ‘legitimate’ activity is focused around “plans to exploit fossil fuel resources and natural ecological systems at rates and scales that will see safe planetary boundaries exceeded”. The intention behind such plans “may be to move rapidly before humanity imposes defences or outmanoeuvres it via alternate technologies”.

Indeed, while declaring all manner of ‘net zero’ commitments, oil and gas firms continue to plan vast fossil fuel production projects. If executed, these would drive climate change beyond internationally-agreed temperature limits, leading to potentially catastrophic impacts. 

The Enemy Within

By seeking to protect the existing fossil fuel system, humanity’s security agencies are in effect “working for the enemy,” states Dr Boulton. This is not happening consciously, but because national security institutions are entangled with the status quo.

After the Second World War, military strategy traditionally involved securing resources and protecting supply chains – all considered crucial to post-war rebuilding and prosperity narratives.
But it is now clear that this very system, which military and security strategies are designed to support, is the primary driver of global insecurity.

The continued expansion of traditional military strategy threatens to accelerate the hyperthreat. Resources and extractive methods once regarded as ‘good’ – critical for the functioning and maintenance of the global system – now threaten all forms of planetary life.

“By applying economic, diplomatic, military, and other tools of force and power to participate in the ‘race for what’s left’ of Earth’s resources, humanity is unwittingly aiding the hyperthreat,” the study warns.

This is perhaps the first time that a US military institution has published research so outspokenly critical of conventional military thinking, and the very act of going to war.

The Marine Corps University, which published the study, is operated by the US Marine Corps. Its primary purpose is to educate and train active-duty US marines at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, but its students come from all branches of the US Armed Forces, including civilian US Government officials and even military officers from foreign allied governments around the world. 

Plan E

Dr Elizabeth G Boulton is a former army major in the Australian Defence Force who served in East Timor and Iraq, as well as in Africa and the Pacific Islands. She later became a research officer in Australian Army headquarters. In her PhD, she developed the idea of ‘Plan E’.

Plan E calls for a radical transformation of our security paradigms.

The next eight years, her study says, is going to be pivotal. All large-scale responses to the hyperthreat must occur before 2030 to meaningfully mitigate the risk of ‘Hothouse Earth’. This “hyper-response” to the hyperthreat must involve creating “a safe path to safe Earth”.

What Dr Boulton goes on to lay out for ‘Plan E’ is an unapologetically bold and imaginative roadmap for how humanity’s defence resources can be recalibrated to 2100 in a “whole of society” approach.

Plan E, she explains, uses military theory to explore how to leverage Earth’s entire human population as an asset: “Like an ant, a single human has little power or agency against the hyperthreat, but when humans amass and align their goals, they can achieve remarkable outcomes.”

Plan E therefore needs to operate at all scales, “from homes, communities, and workplaces through to the geopolitical level”.

The three core goals of the Plan E hyper-response are to make the hyperthreat “visible and knowable”; to reduce its “freedom of action”; and to achieve “mass and speed of response”.

In this transformed approach to security, the world’s militaries would have a new main mission: to create the stable conditions that can allow the civilian-led hyper-response force to undertake its work.

This may involve standard peacekeeping tasks, such as protecting oil rigs being dismantled from attacks by black market mercenaries. Or it might involve protection of critical environmental assets such as fisheries or forests, demining activities, preventing ecocide, safeguarding water supplies, or stopping illegal timber or wild animal trade involving international crime groups.

More broadly, Dr Boulton told Byline Times, the defence industry should urgently transition all bases, equipment, vehicles and so on onto the best available zero emission designs.

There is also huge scope for defence innovation in ecological emergency capabilities. Dr Boulton mentioned all sorts of “crazy” ideas like ruggedised renewables which can withstand bullets and extreme weather, or emergency eco-accommodation for people and wildlife that can be airdropped into different theatres.

She also referred to retired US Army general Stanley McChrystal’s “team of teams” approach to complexity, which invokes the goal of generating “shared consciousness”.

There are many other ground-breaking proposals put forward. Among them is the idea of establishing a global climate emergency peace treaty from 2022 to 2030 to allow nations to focus on emergency hyper-response.

Another is to use international diplomacy to create a new, neutral, rules-based governing architecture for the world based on “ecological survival and safe Earth requirements”. For this, we need to reimagine the role of great powers in the world, realigning geopolitical security with the overarching aim of containing the hyperthreat.

Dr Boulton also explores how ecological thinking can be used to reinvent traditional political institutions. Multilateralism should become ecomultilateralism to facilitate cooperation on caring for ecosystems and disaster response. ‘Earth citizenship’ could allow nations to mobilise the world’s 18 million work-ready forcibly displaced people in hyper-response work.

Overall, although it cannot be taken as representative of the official opinion of the US Government or military, this seminal study suggests a sea-change is quietly beginning inside the world’s leading military institutions.

Conventional military strategies have propped up a system that has led us to an unprecedented planetary emergency. We cannot win against the resulting hyperthreat unless we fundamentally reshape the institutions that got us here.

This new study shows that – empowered with the science, data and the right assumptions – new military theories can and must be leveraged to accelerate the transformation we need to get to ‘safe Earth’.

 More information

Republished with permission of the author.