Is a cold war still possible in an overheating world?
In recent months, Washington has had a lot to say about China’s ever-expanding air, naval, and missile power. But when Pentagon officials address the topic, they generally speak less about that country’s current capabilities, which remain vastly inferior to those of the U.S., than the world they foresee in the 2030s and 2040s, when Beijing is expected to have acquired far more sophisticated weaponry.
“China has invested heavily in new technologies, with a stated intent to complete the modernization of its forces by 2035 and to field a ‘world-class military’ by 2049,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified in June. The United States, he assured the Senate Armed Services Committee, continues to possess “the best joint fighting force on Earth.” But only by spending countless additional billions of dollars annually, he added, can this country hope to “outpace” China’s projected advances in the decades to come.
As it happens, however, there’s a significant flaw in such reasoning. In fact, consider this a guarantee: by 2049, the Chinese military (or what’s left of it) will be so busy coping with a burning, flooding, churning world of climate change — threatening the country’s very survival — that it will possess scant capacity, no less the will, to launch a war with the United States or any of its allies.
It’s normal, of course, for American military officials to focus on the standard measures of military power when discussing the supposed Chinese threat, including rising military budgets, bigger navies, and the like. Such figures are then extrapolated years into the future to an imagined moment when, by such customary measures, Beijing might overtake Washington. None of these assessments, however, take into account the impact of climate change on China’s security. In reality, as global temperatures rise, that country will be ravaged by the severe effects of the never-ending climate emergency and forced to deploy every instrument of government, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to defend the nation against ever more disastrous floods, famines, droughts, wildfires, sandstorms, and encroaching oceans.
China will hardly be alone in this. Already, the increasingly severe effects of the climate crisis are forcing governments to commit military and paramilitary forces to firefighting, flood prevention, disaster relief, population resettlement, and sometimes the simple maintenance of basic governmental functions. In fact, during this summer of extreme climate events, military forces from numerous countries, including Algeria, Germany, Greece, Russia, Turkey, and — yes — the United States, have found themselves engaged in just such activities, as has the PLA.
And count on one thing: that’s just the barest of beginnings. According to a recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), extreme climate events, occurring with ever more frightening frequency, will prove ever more destructive and devastating to societies around the world, which, in turn, will ensure that military forces just about everywhere will be consigned a growing role in dealing with climate-related disasters. “If global warming increases,” the report noted, “there will be a higher likelihood that [extreme climate] events with increased intensities, durations and/or spatial extents unprecedented in the observational record will occur.” In other words, what we’ve been witnessing in the summer of 2021, devastating as it might now seem, will be magnified many times over in the decades to come. And China, a large country with multiple climate vulnerabilities, will clearly require more assistance than most.
The Zhengzhou precedent
To grasp the severity of the climate crisis China will face, look no further than the recent flooding of Zhengzhou, a city of 6.7 million people and the capital of Henan Province. Over a 72-hour period between July 20th and July 22nd, Zhengzhou was deluged with what, once upon a time, would have been a normal year’s supply of rainfall. The result — and think of it as watching China’s future in action — was flooding on an unprecedented scale and, under the weight of that water, the collapse of local infrastructure. At least 100 people died in Zhengzhou itself — including 14 who were trapped in a subway tunnel that flooded to the ceiling — and another 200 in surrounding towns and cities. Along with widespread damage to bridges, roads, and tunnels, the flooding inundated an estimated 2.6 million acres of farmland and damaged important food crops.
In response, President Xi Jinping called for a government-wide mobilization to assist the flooding victims and protect vital infrastructure. “Xi called for officials and Party members at all levels to assume responsibilities and go to the frontline to guide flood control work,” according to CGTN, a government-owned TV network. “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and armed police force troops should actively coordinate local rescue and relief work,” Xi told senior officials.
The PLA responded with alacrity. As early as July 21st, reported the government-owned China Daily, more than 3,000 officers, soldiers, and militiamen from the PLA’s Central Theater Command had been deployed in and around Zhengzhou to aid in disaster relief. Among those so dispatched was a parachute brigade from the PLA Air Force assigned to reinforce two hazardous dam breaches along the Jialu River in the Kaifeng area. According to China Daily, the brigade built a one-mile-long, three-foot-high wall of sandbags to bolster the dam.
These units were soon supplemented by others, and eventually some 46,000 soldiers from the PLA and the People’s Armed Police were deployed in Henan to assist in relief efforts, along with 61,000 militia members. Significantly, those included at least several hundred personnel from the PLA Rocket Forces, the military branch responsible for maintaining and firing China’s nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
The Zhengzhou disaster was significant in many respects. To begin with, it demonstrated global warming’s capacity to inflict severe damage on a modern city virtually overnight and without advance warning. Like the devastating torrential rainfall that saturated rivers in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands two weeks earlier, the downpour in Henan was caused in part by a warming atmosphere’s increased capacity to absorb moisture and linger in one place, discharging all that stored water in a mammoth cascade. Such events are now seen as a distinctive outcome of climate change, but their timing and location can rarely be predicted. As a result, while Chinese meteorological officials warned of a heavy rainfall event in Henan, nobody imagined its intensity and no precautions were taken to avoid its extreme consequences.
Ominously, that event also exposed significant flaws in the design and construction of China’s many “new cities,” which sprouted in recent years as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked to relocate impoverished rural workers to modern, highly industrialized metropolises. Typically, these urban centers — the country now has 91 cities with more than a million people each — prove to be vast conglomerations of highways, factories, malls, office towers, and high-rise apartment buildings. During their construction, much of the original countryside gets covered in asphalt and concrete. Accordingly, when heavy downfalls occur, there are few streams or brooks left for the resulting runoff to drain into and, as a result, any nearby tunnels, subways, or low-built highways are often flooded, threatening human life in a devastating fashion.
The Henan flooding also exposed another climate-related threat to China’s future security: the vulnerability of many of the country’s dams and reservoirs to heavy rainfall and overflowing rivers. Low-lying areas of eastern China, where most of its population is concentrated, have always suffered from flooding and, historically, one dynasty after another — the most recent being the CCP — has had to build dams and embankments to control river systems. Many of these have not been properly maintained and were never designed for the sort of extreme events now being experienced. During the Henan flooding in July, for example, the 61-year-old Changzhuang Reservoir near Zhengzhou filled to dangerous levels and nearly collapsed, which would have inflicted a second catastrophe upon that city. In fact, other dams in the surrounding area did collapse, resulting in widespread crop damage. At least some of the PLA forces rushed to Henan were put to work building sandbag walls to repair dam breaches on the Jialu River.
China’s perilous climate future
The Zhengzhou flooding was but a single incident, consuming the Chinese leadership’s attention for a relatively brief moment. But it was also an unmistakable harbinger of what China — now, the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases — is going to endure with ever-increasing frequency as global temperatures rise. It will prove particularly vulnerable to the severe impacts of climate change. That, in turn, means the central government will have to devote state resources on an as-yet-unimaginable scale, again and again, to emergency actions like those witnessed in Zhengzhou — until they become seamless events with no time off for good behavior.
In the decades to come, every nation will, of course, be ravaged by the extreme effects of global warming. But because of its geography and topography, China is at particular risk. Many of its largest cities and most productive industrial zones, including, for example, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Tianjin, are located in low-lying coastal areas along the Pacific Ocean and so will be exposed to increasingly severe typhoons, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise. According to a 2013 World Bank report, of any city on the planet, Guangzhou, in the Pearl River Delta near Hong Kong, faces the highest risk of damage, financially speaking, from sea-level rise and associated flooding; its neighbor Shenzhen was described as facing the 10th highest risk.
Other parts of China face equally daunting threats from climate change. The country’s densely populated central regions, including major cities like Wuhan and Zhengzhou as well as its vital farming areas, are crisscrossed by a massive web of rivers and canals that often flood following heavy rainfall. Much of China’s west and northwest is covered by desert, and a combination of deforestation and declining rainfall there has resulted in the further spread of such desertification. Similarly, a study in 2018 suggested that the heavily populated North China Plain could become the deadliest place on Earth for devastating heat waves by century’s end and could, by then, prove uninhabitable; we’re talking, that is, about almost unimaginable future disasters.
China’s distinct climate risks were brought to the fore in the IPCC’s new report, “Climate Change 2021.” Among its most worrisome findings:
• Sea-level rise along China’s coasts is occurring at a faster rate than the global average, with resulting coastal area loss and shoreline retreat.
• The number of ever-more-powerful and destructive typhoons striking China is destined to increase.
• Heavy precipitation events and associated flooding will become more frequent and widespread.
• Prolonged droughts will become more frequent, especially in northern and western China.
• Extreme heatwaves will occur more frequently, and persist for longer periods.
Such onrushing realities will result in massive urban flooding, widespread coastal inundation, dam and infrastructure collapses, ever more severe wildfires, disastrous crop failures, and the increasing possibility of widespread famine. All of this, in turn, could lead to civic unrest, economic dislocation, the uncontrolled movements of populations, and even inter-regional strife (especially if water and other vital resources from one area of the country are diverted to others for political reasons). All this, in turn, will test the responsiveness and durability of the central government in Beijing.
Facing global warming’s mounting fury
We Americans tend to assume that Chinese leaders spend all their time thinking about how to catch up with and overtake the United States as the world’s number one superpower. In reality, the single greatest priority of the Communist Party is simply to remain in power — and for the past quarter-century that has meant maintaining sufficient economic growth each year to ensure the loyalty (or at least acquiescence) of a preponderance of the population. Anything that might threaten growth or endanger the well-being of the urban middle-class — think: climate-related disasters — is viewed as a vital threat to the survival of the CCP.
This was evident in Zhengzhou. In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, some foreign journalists reported, residents began criticizing local government officials for failing to provide adequate warning of the impending disaster and for not taking the necessary precautionary measures. The CCP censorship machine quickly silenced such voices, while pro-government media agents castigated foreign journalists for broadcasting such complaints. Similarly, government-owned news agencies lauded President Xi for taking personal command of the relief effort and for ordering an “all-of-government” response, including the deployment of those PLA forces.
That Xi felt the need to step in, however, sends a message. With urban disasters guaranteed to become more frequent, inflicting harm on media-savvy middle-class residents, the country’s leadership believes it must demonstrate vigor and resourcefulness, lest its aura of competency — and so its mandate to govern — disappear. In other words, every time China experiences such a catastrophe, the central government will be ready to assume leadership of the relief effort and to dispatch the PLA to oversee it.
No doubt senior PLA officials are fully aware of the climate threats to China’s security and the ever-increasing role they’ll be forced to play in dealing with them. However, the most recent edition of China’s “white paper” on defense, released in 2019, didn’t even mention climate change as a threat to the nation’s security. Nor, for that matter, did its closest U.S. equivalent, the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, despite the fact that senior commanders here were well aware of, even riveted by, such growing perils.
Having been directed to provide emergency relief operations in response to a series of increasingly severe hurricanes in recent years, American military commanders have become intimately familiar with global warming’s potentially devastating impact on the United States. The still-ongoing mammoth wildfires in the American West have only further reinforced this understanding. Like their counterparts in China, they recognize that the armed forces will be obliged to play an ever-increasing role in defending the country not from enemy missiles or other forces but from global warming’s mounting fury.
At this moment, the Department of Defense is preparing a new edition of its National Defense Strategy and this time climate change will finally be officially identified as a major threat to American security. In an executive order signed on January 27th, his first full day in office, President Joe Biden directed the secretary of defense to “consider the risks of climate change” in that new edition.
There can be no doubt that the Chinese military leadership will translate that new National Defense Strategy as soon as it’s released, probably later this year. After all, a lot of it will be focused on the sort of U.S. military moves to counter China’s rise in Asia that have been emphasized by both the Trump and Biden administrations. But it will be interesting to see what they make of the language on climate change and if similar language begins to appear in Chinese military documents.
Here’s my dream: that American and Chinese military leaders — committed, after all, to “defend” the two leading producers of greenhouses gases — will jointly acknowledge the overriding climate threat to national and international security and announce common efforts to mitigate it through advances in energy, transportation, and materials technology.
One way or another, however, we can be reasonably certain of one thing: as the term makes all too clear, the old Cold War format for military policy no longer holds, not on such an overheating planet. As a result, expect Chinese soldiers to be spending far more time filling sandbags to defend their country’s coastline from rising seas in 2049 than manning weaponry to fight American soldiers.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.