Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review - All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 3:55am

SWJ Book Review - All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change

Nathan P. Jones


Klare, Michael T. All Hell Breaking Loose:  The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019 [ISBN: 1627792481, Hardcover, 304 Pages]

The Pentagon has long been beyond political posturing on the climate change issue and has used euphemisms to avoid the political quandary it poses.   So argues, Michael T. Klare who illuminates the prescient warnings the Pentagon has issued to the United States national and homeland security apparatus.  As he describes, his own voice is limited as he consciously tries to let the official documents and statements of senior officials speak for themselves.  And they do.  Professor Emeritus Klare, of the Five Colleges Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, emphasizes that the Pentagon views its mission as focused on great power threats including: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, but that climate change might hinder its power projection capacity to address those issues.  Further, the Pentagon has recognized climate change as a “threat multiplier” that would exacerbate other issues such as state fragility and ethnic divisions.  All Hell Breaking Loose joins another recent report from the Army War College, which predicts potential military collapse in 20 years due to the stresses of climate change.[1]

One of the most impressive things about this book is its readability.  Reading government reports is dry stuff.  Yet here, Klare has carefully gleaned the Pentagon’s view of Climate Change from abstruse and difficult to come by reports to give us a highly readable 20,000-foot view of the literature.  I read it leisurely in just over two days in my free time.

Structure of the Book

The book has eight chapters in addition to an introduction and conclusion, covering various topics including: (1) “the climate threat to American National Security,” (2) the US military role in humanitarian relief, (3) climate change exacerbating fragile state conditions, (4) pandemics, food shortages, energy crises, “and mass migrations,” (5) great power clashes with a focus on competition over the arctic, (6) “domestic climate disasters” and the military response, (7) climate threats to defense facilities and (8) the military use of alternative energy sources as a national security imperative and “change agent.” This book is a good starting point for assessing the impact of climate change on defense policy.  It builds upon his earlier works on environmental security Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict and Rising Powers and Shrinking Planet to form a valuable resource for those interested in climate security, and analysts with an interest in defense policy and courses in political science, security studies, environmental studies, etc.[2]

In the first chapter “A World Besieged, Klare takes the “ladder of escalation” concept from Cold War military thinking and repurposes it as a way to describe military thinking on climate change (p. 29).  “During the Cold War military analysts used the term ladder of escalation to describe the increasingly intense and destructive stages of combat…” Here he applies the ladder of escalation to climate change defining it as “a spectrum of increasingly severe disasters resulting in ever more complex and demanding missions for American military forces” (p. 29).  Moving up this ladder of escalation could eventually lead to “All Hell Breaking Loose…” and provides a useful overarching framework throughout the book.

Pentagon commissioned reports of the 2000s predicted many of the calamities we experienced in the 2010s.  As wide swathes of Australia burn, All Hell Breaking Loose is apropos.  As has been widely reported, the Australian fires are now so large they create their own weather systems replete with thunderstorms that ignite more fires.  The Pentagon predicted this type of self-reinforcing systemic calamity and scholars and policymakers should pay attention.  Klare also introduces us to Pentagon thinkers with nicknames such as Yoda, that predicted climate tipping points that would lead to extreme results such as the shutting down of the “Atlantic Ocean’s underlying current system” (p. 37).

In chapter 2 “Humanitarian Emergencies,” Klare looks at the Pentagon’s perceived lowest rung of the lower end of the “ladder of climate escalation,” the military’s need to engage in humanitarian relief as it did in the Philippines after major Typhoon Haiyan in 2013  (p.43).  The Pentagon has long seen warming ocean waters as increasing storm strength and frequency.  As the lowest rung on the ladder, the Pentagon views the need to provide humanitarian assistance highly probable but generally something that can be done quickly.  The Pentagon anticipates that may not always be the case as crises worsen—a problem tightly interlinked with poor governance—a subject he takes up in the next chapter “States on the Brink.”

The Pentagon sees “States on the Brink” (Chapter 3) as vulnerable to climate change. Klare provides a case study of the Sahel region and the Taureg rebellion against the Mali government.  The Tuaregs announced “an independent state, Azawad,” which radical Islamists including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) flocked to.  While the military acknowledged the Mali conflict was not directly caused by climate change the fact desertification had increased and rainfall diminished, forced the nomadic Tauregs to range further south coming into conflict with “sedentary agriculturalists, who fought back” (pp. 65-66).  The Tuaregs that did not fight abandoned their herds and went to cities, putting greater social strain on urban institutions.  Thus, climate change functions as a “threat multiplier” for weak states whose citizens are often already frustrated with government “incompetence and corruption” among other factors (p. 67).

One area where Klare could have expanded and the Pentagon should also consider is how criminal illicit networks will take advantage of climate change.  Scholars such as Sullivan and Muggah (2019) have looked at criminal networks through the insurgent lens and in the case of Felbab-Brown (2017) how illicit networks can take advantage of new markets such as water markets which become ever more valuable in drought conditions.[3]

Klare further describes the Pentagon view of Central America and the Caribbean, which are low lying and vulnerable with the potential second order effect of “mass migrations” to the United States (pp. 49-50).  The Pentagon has already experienced significant deployments to the border to address migrant issues under the Trump administration.  To a certain extent the Trump administration’s ability to leverage the new Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) administration to use its new National Guard for migrant duty, has reduced the flow of migrants to the United States.  This has also exacerbated Mexico’s cartel problem by drawing forces away from the fight against organized crime and toward migration enforcement.[4] 

Klare expands the mass migration discussion in Chapter 4 on “Global Shocks” with discussions of price shocks to food, energy, and the growing geography of pandemics as tropical disease fertile areas travel northward.  In this chapter, Klare masterfully ties together, a 2010 Russian heat wave affecting grain availability and price, to panic buying of wheat in China, and then the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  This exacerbated existing “grievances,” triggered civil unrest, and led to what we now know of as the Arab Spring of 2011 (pp. 95-96).

In chapter 5 “Great Power Conflict,” Klare provides a lucid argument on the potential great power conflicts the Pentagon sees arising as a result of climate change.  First and foremost, the Pentagon foresees the opening of the resource rich arctic with conflict with Russia most likely (p. 123).  Beyond resources the melting arctic provides “a whole new ocean” a new sea-lane for trade which itself could provide strategic advantage (p. 126 quoting Pentagon official Sherri Goodman).  Through an analysis of military exercises Klare demonstrates the Pentagon stores weaponry with allies in the arctic zone to defend against potential Russian incursions (p. 122).

Beyond the arctic, the Pentagon foresees long-term potential great power conflict driven by climate change.  Nuclear armed Pakistan and India may clash over the melting Himalayan ice caps, while India and China may clash over potential Chinese river diversion projects (pp. 140-149).

In Chapter 6 “Homeland at Risk,” Klare describes the Pentagon’s understanding that the military will increasingly be required to respond to more crises at home.  The Pentagon prediction and fear was that crises would occur unpredictably and in quick succession. Those fears came true, in 2017 as Klare describes, with a detailed discussion of the military’s involvement in Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico (pp. 154-156).  Warming ocean waters predictably caused these.  Further, these storms dropped more rainwater than had previously been the norm, increasing the flooding and the damage (pp. 156-159).  As someone who lived through Hurricane Harvey, I was struck by how little discussion in the book and the Pentagon there was of the military interface with altruistic civilian responders.[5]  I will discuss this further in the conclusion.

Following Super Storm Sandy (2012), the Pentagon envisioned “complex catastrophes” that would encompass “several states,” and “cascading failures” across “multiple interdependent critical infrastructure sectors” (p. 162).  The necessity of providing services in these events along with the “specter” of mass migrations of “climate refugees” combine to paint a picture of a military that will become increasingly strained, impacting readiness for core mission areas (pp. 166 and 171). The complexities and interdependence of climate and security issues have been captured by scholars such as Sullivan (2010) who identified the mutually reinforcing nature of climate change effects and conflicts, in addition to providing models for intelligence networks to anticipate and address these effects.[6]

In chapter 7 “No Safe Harbor,” Klare discusses the Pentagon forecasts for its own bases at home.  US military bases themselves will increasingly suffer, degrading homeland defense and power projection capability.  Rising sea levels will inundate bases and leave them susceptible to storm surges.  Hurricanes have already necessitated the evacuation of fighter jets from bases in South Carolina, while the Pentagon has already ordered evacuations from Florida bases (pp. 175-176).

In chapter 8 “Going Green,” Klare discusses US military attempts to forego fossil fuels. In particular military strategic thinkers have long been interested in the “concept of islanding” or making bases “self-reliant” entities not dependent on vulnerable civilian infrastructure like power grids or other critical infrastructure sectors (p. 221).  In one illustrative example, in Iraq (2004) a forward operating base needed fossil fuels to maintain power.  Insurgents attacked the convoys that supplied it, forcing the base to send soldiers to rescue the convoys and expend more fuel (pp. 211-212).  If the forward operating base in insurgent territory had been solar and wind powered, many of the convoys would not have been necessary, saving the lives of many soldiers.  Thus, net-zero initiatives are not just about signaling to society, but about more efficient deployment of military resources.

Discussing the ways in which the military has changed American society might have strengthened chapter 8.  There is a general “neoliberal malaise” that convinces all it touches that the government can do nothing right and the private sector is better, despite evidence to the contrary.[7] Some examples include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) creation of the precursor to the Internet (ARPANET), microelectronics, GPS, UAVs, night vision, and the social role the military played in racial integration and effective affirmative action programs, etc.[8] Surprisingly, DARPA and the role it is playing or could play in developing new climate adaptation technologies is not mentioned in the book and appears nowhere in the index.  This could be due to the classified nature of existing programs and a dearth of available information in the open-source.


Klare has provided us with a highly readable synthesis of the Pentagon’s thinking on climate change that will quickly be considered seminal reading on the subject.  It makes clear that the Pentagon has been on the forefront of forecasting climate change implications for national security.

The US military is not the only force now facing climate change.  As John Blaxland describes, the Australian military now faces calls to become more involved in firefighting in the midst of national scale fires.  He believes this should resisted, given great power national security threats, the potential for “a major cyber attack or terror incident,” international humanitarian responses, and the widening range of potential national disasters.  He suggests instead a national service modeled on the American Peace corps.  Volunteers of the service could be incentivized through education tuition benefits and fast-tracked citizenship.  He insists climate change will require increased spending on security issues.[9]  As Blaxland fears in Australia, the Pentagon risks shifting fully into great power struggle at a time when, as Klare describes, climate change will necessitate stability and support operations (SASO) in addition to counterinsurgency doctrine and operations (p. 29).  Climate change will make these unconventional threats increasingly important, yet increasingly costly. Prudence will be needed to avoid overstretch.

The military and national security necessity of adapting to climate change means the military should also challenge some of its core assumptions about climate change such as “social chaos” (p. 42).[10]  Challenging these assumptions, as the literature shows, could point to ways that the military can do more with less.  There is a growing and excellent body of research challenging “social chaos” notions in the disaster preparedness literature.[11]  Relatedly, it is important to integrate into doctrine “altruistic” civilian responders to natural disasters, who may save a majority of lives during major disasters as we saw in Hurricane Harvey in 2017. In this sense the military can serve as a force multiplier to civilian responders to do more with less.  This will require new doctrine and a willingness to engage in “unstrapping” in emergency response. [12] 

End Notes

[1] Ahmed Nafeez, “U.S. Military Could Collapse Within 20 Years Due to Climate Change, Report Commissioned By Pentagon Says,” Vice, 24 October 2019, and Max Brosig, Parker Frawley, Andrew Hill, Molly Jahn, Michael Marsicek, Aubrey Paris, Major Matthew Rose, Amar Shambaljamts, and Nicole Thomas, “Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army.” Carlisle Barracks: United States Army War College, 2019,

[2] Michael T. Klare, Resource Wars: The New landscape of Global Conflict.  New York: Henry Holt, 2002 and Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. New York: Henry Holt, 2009.

[3] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Water Theft and Water Smuggling: Growing Problem Or Tempest in a Teapot?” Washington D.C.: Brookings, 2017 and Robert Muggah and John P. Sullivan “The Coming Crime Wars,” Foreign Policy, 21 September 2018,

[4] Kirk Semple, “Mexico’s National Guard, a ‘Work in Progress,’ Deployed to Curb Migration,” New York Times, 14 June 2019,

[5] I evacuated my family from the area north of Houston to Dallas and hotel-hopped like many others lucky enough to have the resources to do so.  Upon our return I helped with disaster recovery, e.g., helping families with flooded homes ripping out molded carpet and dry wall over days.  One woman whose second floor had been flooded told me she had evacuated her home 15 times in 17 years and said she couldn’t do it anymore.  She would not rebuild.  Nor should she.  She should have been given the opportunity to be bought out of her home by FEMA.  This would have been far cheaper than gutting and remodeling her home every few years, which the flood insurance, backed by the US government, paid for.  The flaws in the buy-out program and the economic insanity of it have been well reported and are beyond the scope of this review.

[6] John P. Sullivan, “A Catastrophic Climate: Conflict and Environmental Security Setting the Stage for Humanitarian Crises,” in Global Biosecurity:  Threats and Responses, Peter Katona, John P Sullivan, and Michael D. Intriligator (Eds.), London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 138–56.

[7] For the earliest found use of the term “neoliberal malaise” see, Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell, “Apparitions of Neoliberalism: Revisiting ‘Jungle Law Breaks Out.’” Area, Vol. 44, No. 2, June 2012, pp. 245–49,

 See also, Robert J. Bunker, “Public Looting for Private Gain: Predatory Capitalism, MNCs and Global Elites, and Plutocratic Insurgency,” in Robert J Bunker and Pamela Ligouri Bunker (Eds.), Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies: Dark Renaissance. London: Routledge, 2014 and Robert J. Bunker, Nils Gilman, John P. Sullivan, and Pamela Ligouri Bunker, “Plutocratic Insurgency Note No. 9: Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—Class Warfare ‘Red Line’ Crossed,” Small Wars Journal, 11 January 2018,  On public versus private sector myths see, Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, New York: Anthem Press, 2015.

[8] “DARPA Accomplishments: Seminal Contributions to National Security.” Washington, DC: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), October 2015,

[9] John Blaxland, “Defending Australia from Future Catastrophe,” Asia and the Pacific Society: Policy Forum, 19 January 2020,

[10] For a discussion of disaster myths and problematic analogies see, Russell R Dynes, “Community Emergency Planning: False Assumption and Inappropriate Analogies,” Preliminary Paper, Newark, DE: University of Delaware, Disaster Research Center, 1990, pp. 1-24,;sequence=3.

[11] Natalie D. Baker, “‘Making It Worse than What Really Happened:’ Social Chaos and Preparedness as Problematic Mythologies in Disaster Communication,” Frontiers in Communication, Vol. 1, No, 10 May 2016, pp. 1-2,

[12] Natalie D. Baker and Magdalena Denham, “For a Short Time, We Were the Best Version of Ourselves: Hurricane Harvey and the Ideal of Community,” International Journal of Emergency Services, preprint version, 2019, pp. 1-13,

Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Dr. Nathan P. Jones is an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Sam Houston State University and a Non-resident Scholar for Rice University’s Baker Institute in Drug Policy and Mexico Studies; he previously was an Alfred C. Glassell III Postdoctoral Fellow in Drug Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He holds a PhD from the University of California, Irvine and won an Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation Fellowship to conduct fieldwork in Mexico on organized crime. Jones published Mexico's Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction (Georgetown University Press, 2016), and has published with numerous think tanks and peer reviewed journals. He is a Small Wars Journal–El Centro Fellow and serves as the book review editor for the Journal of Strategic Security.