The Age of Consequences, a new documentary from PF Pictures and directed by Jared P. Scott, explores the impacts of climate change on natural resources, migration, and conflict through the lens of U.S. national security and global stability. For unstable countries across the globe experiencing climate change-exacerbated occurrences like droughts, food shortages, and extreme weather, this can be the final straw that sparks outright conflict.
Scott told Fusion that one reason the film uses the lens of national security is that he wanted to get through to more people rather than just speak to people who were already activists on the issue.
“I think that whether you’re actively opposed to, passively opposed to, neutral to, or even a passive ally of climate change, you have to take a second to stop and think when you hear about the urgency of climate change coming from this group of messengers,” Scott said.
The buildup of Russian troops in the Arctic as the ice starts to break up and recede, exposing previously inaccessible resources like oil and natural gas, shows how climate change is literally changing the map and opening up new areas of contention. As Reuters recently reported, the current Russian military buildup in the arctic is largest since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Russia has even gone so far as to plant its flag on the Arctic seafloor, laying claim to the land, while also holding military exercises in the area of disputed lands with Canada and the U.S. It’s these creations of new oceans, of new contested areas, of reserves of resource supplies in an ever dwindling pool, as a result of climate change that loom as questions we have yet to answer.
In the opening interview of the film, Michael Breen, a former U.S. Army captain and president and CEO of the Truman Center and Truman National Security Project, illustrates what it means to think about climate change from a military perspective.
“When I was leading paratroopers in Afghanistan, if 98%, 99%, of my intelligence told me as I was driving my platoon down a road, that two miles down that road, an ambush was waiting for me, I don’t get to say ‘yeah but there’s that 1% that says there’s no ambush, so to hell with the other 99%, we’re going to keep going down the road. That’s negligence on an unfathomable scale. That’s the debate we are having right now over climate change,” he says.
Russian troops are already starting to re-occupy some of the old Soviet bases in the far north, and some believe they are doing so to be able to utilize drones over the contested arctic territory.
“In the spaces of the high north, as the Arctic melts, we know the Russians have huge ambitions in the next 25 years to use drones for surveillance and patrolling,” Caroline Kennedy, head of the School of Politics, Philosophy and International Studies and at the University of Hull, told Fusion. “Once the Northwest passage opens up drones will indispensable for intelligence gathering and for extended reach in these extremely bitter climates.”
In the Department of Defense’s most recent “Report to Congress on Strategy to Protect United States National Security Interests in the Arctic Region”, the agnecy responded to Canadian and Russian claims to new Arctic waterways, definitively stating that the United States “protested these excessive maritime claims as inconsistent with international law and does not recognize them.”
Another scene in the film opens with haunting footage of a young Syrian girl singing and looking into a camera before a bomb suddenly explodes on the street behind her, causing the camera holder to fall to the ground before getting up and briefly capturing the smoke and chaos that ensues.
The girl isn’t shown again.
Syria is one country where climate change is identified as a driver behind the current civil war. A recent study showed climate change exacerbated the worst drought in modern history in Syria. The study is the first that “quantitatively draws a connection between climate change and the onset of a conflict,” says Professor Richard Seager, author of the study and a research professor at Columbia University, in the film.
A severe three-year drought beginning in 2006 forced over a million Syrians who could no longer survive on farming to move to the cities, including many unemployed young men.
“That rate of migration is catastrophic,” says Seager. “It drove food prices up, it drove apartment prices up, and it strained the health system, all leading to the kind of conditions and discontent that led to the all-out civil war that is still going on now.”
Another part of the film explores how wildfires brought on by drought in Russia in 2010 crippled the country’s wheat crop, of which it is one of the world’s largest exporters. Simultaneously, China experienced a similar drought, and both countries started buying wheat off the market (an uncommon approach for them) which drove up global food prices.
When this happens, Seager reflects, the food goes to the people with the most money. Inevitably, it’s the most vulnerable and the poorest of the world that bear the brunt of these price increases. In parts of Egypt, one of the world’s largest importers of wheat, “the price of wheat went up by 300%” says Francesco Femia, co-director of the Center for Climate and Security.
These increases led to protests and further civil unrest in countries like Syria, Egypt, and others. These protests eventually snowballed into what we now call the Arab Spring.
The film unfolds as a series of repeated gut punches when it comes to how we traditionally think of climate change, as some existential threat that we won’t see the true effects of for years. Instead, it’s something that is profoundly impacting the current security situations of nations around the world. From events like the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war, to more local extreme weather occurrences that collapsed local governments in the U.S. such as Hurricane Katrina, if we don’t see the ways that climate change will impact us in ever more exponential and tangible ways, it’s only for lack of imagination.
“I think that the important thing is the DoD have been sounding the alarm for a long time and will continue to do so,” Scott told Fusion. “When you have the DoD worry about this I think that will help a lot of people out there who don’t quite grasp the issue at least recognize, hopefully, there is a problem, a big problem, and it’s happening now. It’s not some far-off thing in the future, there are real impacts now, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t recognize that.”