Threats from war and climate change


in Bombs and rockets, Canada, Economics, Politics, Science, Security, The environment

Bridge undercarriage, Ottawa

Some threats to society strike people as so severe they justify employing large numbers of people, at taxpayer expense, to mitigate them. Chief among these is probably the danger that foreigners will try to kill us. Largely to combat this, Canadians pay for 65,251 active military personnel and 24,300 reservists. We also contribute a bit more than 1% of our gross domestic product.

At best, the operation of these institutions will leave us as well off as we are now. The money spent on bombs and military vehicles is primarily expended so as to minimize the risks associated with being attacked (though domestic industry and humanitarian concern are also factors).

Now consider climate change: probably the greatest threat facing humanity in the foreseeable future. I can’t tell you exactly how many taxpayer-funded agents are working on the problem, but it is certainly a very small fraction of the armed forces total. Should that number not be increased, so as to bring the allocation of resources more closely in line with the suite of threats we face? The case becomes even stronger when you recognize that climate change workers (say, people performing free building retrofits) have all the advantages of soldiers, plus additional benefits. Climate change mitigation is a humanitarian activity – the faster we bring emissions down to a sustainable level, the less suffering will occur in future generations worldwide due to the effects of climate change. Climate change mitigation and adaptation can have domestic economic benefits: not only do efficient buildings have lower year-on-year costs for heating, cooling, and lighting but they may also make those who live and work in them happier and more productive.

The idea of employing, say, 10% as many people to fight climate change as to fight foreigners is not entirely unproblematic. Providing free retrofits might undercut the businesses that perform such operations for profit now. That being said, I am sure careful policy design could minimize such problems. The biggest hurdle to overcome is the psychological block between facing the threat of climate change and employing people to combat it. Actually, rather than a block it might be more accurately referred to as the absence of a connection, between where our likely societal problems lie and where our societal resources are being directed.

Admittedly, you could achieve many of the same outcomes through market liberal climate strategies, such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes. The potential advantage of doing it through government labour is that the market liberal policies are hard to implement: firms often oppose them tooth-and-nail and convince voters that they will cause economic harm to them personally. Given the strength of entrenched interests, it would take remarkable political will to deploy the kind of market mechanism that would produce the required change at an acceptable pace.

Some outstanding questions jump to mind. Would a public climate change service be sensible or useful? What would such a service do? How could unfair competition with the private sector be addressed? Is there a politically feasible way to achieve the same outcomes with fewer problems or lower costs? All of these seem worth debating.

Note also that if you extend the 10% logic to the United States and China, you are talking about huge numbers of mitigation workers. The American armed forces comprise about 1.5 million people, with that many again in reserves. The US spends more than 4% of GDP on them. China has 2.25 million active personnel and 800,000 reservists. They spend about 1.7% of their GDP on them.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 7, 2009 at 9:53 am

Does anyone really believe that Canada might be invaded by foreigners?

Milan March 7, 2009 at 10:10 am

Attacked and invaded are very different things – especially when military alliances mean that, legally, and attack on one of our NATO allies is an attack on us.

Do you think it’s impossible that Russia will attack Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, or Slovenia during the next fifty years or so?

Other sorts of ‘attack’ are also possible. I am not saying there is no reason to have armed forces. I am saying that climate change should be treated with at least a fraction of the same seriousness.

Tristan March 7, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Do you think it’s possible that Canada will be attacked, using conventional land or sea forces, by any states, in the next 50 years? Is there any good reason not to encourage multilateral disarmament?

Milan March 7, 2009 at 9:12 pm

Spending less on the military would be welcome, but that’s really not the issue I wanted to discuss here.

oleh March 8, 2009 at 10:51 am

This is an interesting idea.

I have an idea that involves not spending less on the military but spending some of military spending differently to include the fight against climate change.

I believe that one approach could be to deploy the existing military to fight climate change. There are a number of reasons:

1. Trained Personnel: The Canadian military has a population of 65,000 and 26,000 reservists. They are well- organized, well-trained and adhere to a command structure.

Their deployment to help the prospects of the Red River flood in Winnipeg was illustration of what it can do.

I expect that the personnel within the military also have time or their time can be re-deployed to allow for this to occur.

2. Mission: As a world, we have definitely progressed. The threat of states invading other states, including Canada, is quite low. We can re-define the mission of the military to include the fight against climate change. The effects could include:

a. A greater acceptance that fighting climate change is a priority

b. More Canadians embracing our military.

3. Expenditure: Our governments at this time, even more than at most times, must spend wisely. We are already facing massive deficits which will burden future taxpayers. Although it is too much to expend a massive shift of the military expenditure to fighting climate change at first even only a 5 percent re- allocation would represent the equivalent of 5,000 people.

Also each country in the world has a military of roughly proportionate size, which if replicated elsewhere could extend deployment world wide.

Do you think this idea has merit?

If so, how do you think the military could be must effectively initially deployed to combat climate change?

Milan March 8, 2009 at 12:19 pm

It is interesting to see that, so far, people have generally considered climate change to be a bigger threat to Canada than an armed attack. At the same time, nobody has endorsed a taxpayer funded force that exists specifically to undertake mitigation and adaptation.

I wonder if this is because people see this approach as unlikely to succeed, or whether there is the lingering assumption that a country has to have an army, but a climate change force is novel and probably unwarranted.

Milan March 8, 2009 at 12:35 pm

If so, how do you think the military could be must effectively initially deployed to combat climate change?

I think it’s likely that the military will be involved in relief efforts after events linked to climate change (floods, fires, storms, etc).

That being said, this is the very opposite of being proactive. It is just picking up the pieces after disaster.

When it comes to mitigating climate change, I think the military is a less useful vehicle. For one thing, they are already badly overstretched because of Afghanistan. That is unlikely to end for several years, at which point they may just be sent elsewhere. Secondly, they are trained to kill people, not make buildings more efficient. To use them for the latter purpose risks breeding resentment, as well as wasting a lot of expensive combat training on people whose day-to-day jobs will be very different.

If anything, the army is a less appropriate climate change mitigation force than the police, and it is quite hard to imagine the police doing an especially good job of it.

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