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In the Coast Guard's wargames, climate change is now a key adversary

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The military regularly conducts war games, sometimes with real ships and tanks, but also sometimes just a map around a table. Very recently, though, a new adversary has shown up in those games - climate change. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So let's go over this board.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: At a base in Portsmouth, Va., two dozen Coast Guard service members - Coasties - recently gathered around tables with poker chips, dice and two giant world maps.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Please place them where - you know, based on your vision and strategy.

LAWRENCE: They put their chips on the priorities they think the Coast Guard should bet on for the next few decades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let's get our strategy and vision on the board.

(CROSSTALK)

LAWRENCE: The players wear civilian clothes so no one knows what rank anyone is. That's to make for a better dialogue. In the same spirit, the Coast Guard allowed NPR to record only if the players could be anonymous. We can identify Michelle Ziegler, one of the game masters. She's with the Rand Corporation.

MICHELLE ZIEGLER: It's 2030. You are in the current leadership of the Coast Guard, and you are writing the strategy that's supposed to be for the next 20 years for the Coast Guard.

LAWRENCE: In the game, 2030 looks like this. Relations with China are good, but Russia is strong. It won the war in Ukraine and is still at odds with the West. And so much polar ice has melted that the Arctic is open. Ziegler says that means a new shipping route from China to Europe along the northern coast of Russia...

ZIEGLER: Which is bringing more commerce in the area, more activity, also more potential for tensions.

LAWRENCE: And that's what's new about this edition of the game. Along with geopolitical forces, climate change is an adversary. It's causing migration from heat and drought in Central America. Fishing boats have to go further out for their catch. Hurricanes are so big now, they need a new number - Category 6.

UNIDENTIFIED GAME MASTER: Increased storm activity in the Pacific Northwest includes a rare West Coast typhoon that hits...

LAWRENCE: One of the Rand game masters reads out the future news headlines after each turn.

UNIDENTIFIED GAME MASTER: ...Sending a large number of recreational boaters fleeing for safety at the same time that the Coast Guard is being called upon to respond to damage and hazards throughout the Puget Sound area.

LAWRENCE: As the teams react and plan and find out if they invested well, they roll the dice to add a bit of unpredictability.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh for three.

(SOUNDBITE OF DICE ROLLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Six.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Six - or is it a nine?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED GAME MASTER: It's nine.

LAWRENCE: And the game master keeps announcing new events that complicate things.

UNIDENTIFIED GAME MASTER: A Russian commercial enterprise in the Arctic breaks a set of undersea cables while dragging the sea bed for minerals, and several Arctic nations respond aggressively, not sure if the Russian action was deliberate or not. The U.S. Navy responds as part of...

LAWRENCE: The Coasties take it in stride. They've been seeing the effects of climate change already on their work. But putting those factors into this exercise was a battle of its own, says Michelle Ziegler.

ZIEGLER: We had started these under - and built these scenarios under the previous administration. And at that time, it was - you know, the words climate change were being removed from government websites, right? So that's in a very different era and a very different world, and so now we need to do what we can to catch up.

LAWRENCE: The Biden administration has a Pentagon-wide policy to plan for rising seas and hotter weather and to cut emissions. That could all change with the next election. Just last month, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro was in a Senate hearing where Republicans told him he has his priorities backward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN SULLIVAN: One of the things you've actually been focused on a lot on is climate change, where, in your nomination hearing, you devoted a full paragraph on climate change. You never mentioned shipbuilding lethality or war fighting.

LAWRENCE: That was Alaska's Dan Sullivan. And later, Missouri Senator Eric Schmitt...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC SCHMITT: Do you believe that climate change is a bigger threat to the American people than Communist China's ambitions?

CARLOS DEL TORO: They're different.

SCHMITT: Do you believe that climate change is a bigger threat to the American people than a nuclear holocaust?

DEL TORO: Of course not.

SCHMITT: OK.

LAWRENCE: Many scientists do consider global warming as a threat to humanity on par with nuclear war. Critics say the military sees the threats mostly through a tactical lens. Anatol Lieven is with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

ANATOL LIEVEN: If Russian ships can sail a bit further north than they used to be, well, who cares? That doesn't mean they can invade Canada.

LAWRENCE: Lieven thinks conflicts with China and Russia at this point are less dangerous than climate points of no return, like melting glaciers and permafrost.

LIEVEN: These are the threats to not just the United States, but modern civilization in general.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You roll.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, you - we roll.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. So...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...You are rolling from this one. Who wants to roll here?

LAWRENCE: Cutting emissions and rolling back global warming were not part of the game being played at the Coast Guard base, but it did bring home the realities of the not-too-distant future.

UNIDENTIFIED GAME MASTER: Halifax will be underwater. So that...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The bases in Guam will...

UNIDENTIFIED GAME MASTER: Basically, Guam'll be gone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: ...be underwater.

UNIDENTIFIED GAME MASTER: Yeah. That kind of...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: This area.

UNIDENTIFIED GAME MASTER: Yeah. And so I like to...

(LAUGHTER)

LAWRENCE: That's some dark humor about coastal bases threatened by rising sea levels, including the many right here in Hampton Roads, Va., where this game was played.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: In the regions that we focused on...

LAWRENCE: Humor aside, when that and other climate threats get severe, these Coasties will have tried out a few solutions - at least in the game.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I think, overall, we did pretty well.

(APPLAUSE)

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Portsmouth, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.