In The Age of Consequences, generals, admirals, Pentagon officials, climate scientists, and military veterans analyze the impact of climate change on global stability and national security. Director Jared Scott illuminates the connections between drought, the conflict in Syria, and the rise of ISIS; extreme weather and the Arab Spring; desertification and the refugee crisis in Europe. The message is clear: unless we make drastic changes in our attitudes toward climate change, its sociopolitical consequences–failed states, terrorism, refugees–will threaten our security as much as rising sea levels, intense storms, and heat waves will. To view the trailer, click here. •Availability: Opens January 27, New York City, Cinema Village, with international rollout to follow. Click here for screenings. •Thanks to Weiman Seid, FAT DOT, for arranging this interview.•
DT: The thesis of your film is climate change presents a challenge to national security. Let’s talk about the mechanisms that make that work—humanitarian crises, failed states, radicalization—as they were presented in the film.
JS: The important thing to note is that climate change is always one factor in a confluence of many sociopolitical factors. It can help spark, perpetuate, aid and assist in conflict, unrest, migration, security issues, humanitarian crises; all these issues are intertwined. In the film we try to make the point that when climate change impacts occur—resource scarcity, drought, desertification, competition of resources, sea level rise—they interact with other factors. That’s what the military establishment calls a threat multiplier or an accelerant of instability or conflict. It’s not that climate change causes these directly, it’s that there’s systemic risk. Climate change exacerbates everything else.
DT: In the film climate change is presented as a stimulus that agitates underlying conditions of instability into conflict.
JS: Exactly. There are a number of different ways to say the same thing. As you quote Sharon Burke [Senior Adviser, New America, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy] in the film, it’s always about how climate change interacts with other preexisting problems.
DT: You include a number of case studies in the film. Let’s talk about the sequence on Syria and how climate change impacted the political situation there.
JS: You look at the Arab Spring, you look at the Fertile Crescent area, you look at Syria specifically; in a lot of these instances there have been studies that try to do an autopsy on how climate change has effected a certain kind of environmental impact. We know this is a difficult thing to do. There’s a baseball steroid analogy: baseball players have always hit home runs. After they started taking steroids, they still hit home runs, but now they’re hitting them farther and more frequently. It’s hard to say, “That home run is because of steroids and that one isn’t,” but we know the whole game has changed. You can use the same idea with climate change. With every storm surge, it’s not that this storm is there because of climate change—it’s more likely that we’re going to have more storms and they’re going to be more intensified.
When we referenced Syria in the film, we referenced a quantitative study that looked at the drought over a period of years. What Colin P. Kelley and Richard Seager and a number of others set forth in that study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, was that in this particular instance, climate change made the drought in Syria two to three times more likely. In the film, we point to that study to confirm the idea that climate change was at play in the Syrian civil war. To what degree? I don’t know; this report was their attempt to quantify it. You see that and say, climate change played a role in the drought, the drought played a role in migration and destabilizing parts of the country, and then you have to see how all that stuff snowballs and interacts.
You have the Assad regime, which isn’t subsidizing farmers’ losses. You have well drilling that’s inadequate and bureaucratic. You have people that are then on the move. You have prices going up. You have unemployment. You have lots of poor governance. You have a lot of unrest. All of this stuff comes together and combines and creates this issue. You also have to realize we had a lot of people on the move from the conflict in Iraq going all the way back to 2001. I had a Syrian sit down with me and map out the demographics of Syria. It’s incredibly complex—different types of people from different types of places who have settled here, who have settled there, who belong to this, who belong to that. Clearly that extends into Iraq. The borders around some of these countries in the Fertile Crescent aren’t always clear-cut; there are all sorts of other societal tensions that you have to consider. Once you uncover all of that, you see that how everything interacts is quite complex. But the basic concept is pretty simple: climate change can take something like a drought and make it worse; that environmental factor can then play a role in other sociopolitical factors. The whole thing ultimately comes to a head, like the conflict in the Syrian civil war.
DT: One of the factors you cited was that climate change can lead to variability in rainfall. Controlling water then becomes critical, and ISIS used this as an instrument of war.
JS: The idea of controlling water and food in conflict goes way back. People have always used resources to subjugate and control other populations, and harm other people. What we’re trying to show in the film is that you have to consider the use of water scarcity not just as a weapon of war but as an issue that can lead to all sorts of unrest, competition, conflict. You have to realize that every case is different, but it’s always going to play a factor in a number of different ways.
DT: Let’s talk about another issue brought up in the film: globally interconnected systems—in this case, food. Can you talk about what happened when fire destroyed the wheat crops in Russia and destabilized the Middle East in 2010?
JS: As I mentioned, there are a number of factors at play here, but what we tried to do in the film was lay out a few key factors in how they connect. We make those connections in what we call the nexus, which is a graphic treatment that shows this constellation of factors. In the particular case that you’re referring to, heat waves led to drought, which led to the destruction of the wheat crop in several countries, including Ukraine and China and Russia. Wheat is a commodity traded on the global market, but when the Russian crops failed, they banned the export of wheat. A number of dynamics then took place on the international stage. China started to panic-buy, while in North Africa and the Middle East, where a lot of countries import their wheat, you saw a price hike. In Tunisia and Jordan people were holding baguettes in the street, chanting, “Bread and freedom,” and the same chant was heard in Egypt.
In certain regions of Egypt, the price of wheat shot up 300 percent. When the majority of the population is dependent on these imports for food and that price hikes significantly, where you either have food and you’re paying a lot more for it or you don’t have food and can’t pay for it, people are going to get unhappy, and they’re probably going to do something about it. That can then aid and abet smoldering embers that already exist from other injustices, other problems, other societal tensions and factors. This can be a spark, as we saw in the film. In Tahrir Square in Cairo there were many other political points they were upset about, but in the rural areas in Egypt, where people were more affected by the price hikes, you saw a sense of solidarity around the movement.
If you look at the Arab Spring, there’s a conflagration of different people coming together to create this wildfire that swept the nation, and this was clearly one of those factors. There was another study, which we don’t reference in the movie, that says that climate change is estimated to have made the extreme heat wave in Russia in the summer of 2010 approximately three times more likely to occur than it would have otherwise.
The important thing to note is that you want to be careful. I try to be very clear that there are a number of caveats. I can’t just come out and say climate change is the biggest national security risk to the country: I can’t say that without an asterisk. That’s the advantage of a long-format documentary. We live in a very sound-byte-driven news world. A lot of people do skim news reading, just flipping through Facebook—we saw the problem with how fake news propagates there—so with a documentary the point is not to be as sound-bytey; not as pithy. Of course you still have to boil the essence down, but you also want to have a long-form discussion. I think we paint a pretty clear picture in the film that is backed up by really respectable voices and facts. Nevertheless, we do want the audience to have a visceral experience that climate change is not just an esoteric issue that they can’t touch or see but is something that it is happening right now and is playing a role in conflict and will continue to play a role in conflict even moreso moving forward.
DT: At a symposium following one of the screenings, one of the audience members wondered if perhaps the film is a bit fear-mongering. What do you think?
JS: I don’t think it is. With a climate change film—or any social issue film—people come with a lot of preconceived notions and ideas, even answers. Based on that availability heuristic, people are going to have different responses to the film. People who know all this stuff will just say, “I’ve heard all this before.” Our goal was to look at what’s called in organizing terms a spectrum of allies. The idea of the spectrum of allies is to try to target an audience—in this case, our passive allies or our neutral allies—and try to get them one step over on the pie chart to being more active allies.
I think that some of those people just don’t recognize that there’s a problem. I understand that. I empathize. I feel the same way. Sometimes it feels like a clear and present danger, and other times it feels like this faraway, esoteric slow burn. It’s not like a stampede of wild elephants, it’s not a gun to the head, so what we tried to lay out is that if people don’t recognize that there is a problem, then they’re going to be less inclined to find a solution. I see zero fear-mongering in what it is we lay out, but we do want to paint the picture that there’s a problem. It’s just like the scientists: It’s not that the scientists are alarmists; it’s that the science is alarming. It’s not that we’re trying to scare people; it’s that this information is scary. So yes, it’s grim, but we tried our best not to make it sensationalized. You don’t hear that reality TV drumming. We didn’t try to make it seem apocalyptic. We really tried to keep it cinematic and thoughtful and highbrow so people wouldn’t consider it over the top. I think we did a really good job of finding that balance, and I’m really proud of my whole team, who scrutinized every section and every shot and every fact to strike that balance. So in short, I say absolutely not, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.
DT: Climate change greatly affects the most vulnerable people on the planet. In your view, is it possible to separate climate change from climate justice or social justice issues?
JS: Just as I’ve been unable to talk about how climate change impacts conflict without mentioning other sociopolitical factors, I think it’s really hard to talk about climate change without discussing justice issues and equality issues. It’s all of these issues. For so long we’ve thought of climate change as just an environmental issue, but we’ve seen that change. Clearly it’s an issue of national security, it’s an economic issue, it’s a health issue, it’s a social justice issue, it’s an environmental justice issue. It’s a political issue. It’s an all-of-us issue. It’s an everything issue. It’s really hard to divorce the issue from all these overlapping issues. In many ways climate change is the lynchpin that weaves in and out of all this stuff. What we do know is that if we get climate change right, we get a lot of other things right as well.
DT: In 2015, the National Security Council included climate change as one of the top eight strategic risks to this country, along with a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil and WMDs. Can you address this issue?
JS: We’ve seen the issue of climate change as a national security risk appear not only in documents signed by the Secretary of Defense in the DOD’s quadrennial defense review, the bedrock strategic document for the department, but we’ve also seen it in the intelligence community, in the security community, and we saw it in the national security strategy that was released in 2015, where it’s listed as one of the top eight risks. You see this in reports from the Department of Homeland Security, it’s in CIA assessments, a number of other intelligence assessments. There’s been a lot of research and work on the part of the powers that be to understand the threat of climate change. It’s also important to note that the military is looking at this as a risk assessment. Although we have these institutions—the DOD, the DOS, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community—the job of these government groups is to understand the problem and how it all fits together. That doesn’t mean it’s their job to fix it.
You have to recognize that this is still a civil society issue because you have a civilian-run government; the commander in chief in power asks these departments to look at certain things. A new administration could come in and say, you know what? Stop looking at this. It doesn’t mean they’re going to scrub this from the records, but there could be different directives that come into play, because we do have a civilian-controlled military and certain directives could change that. As of right now, under the [Obama] administration, we see the issue of climate change as being a strategic risk in a number of different papers and reports in a number of different agencies.
DT: Most Americans don’t realize that the largest U.S. naval base in the world, at Norfolk, Virginia, will be inundated by 2040 due to sea level rise. Most Americans also don’t realize that the navy has a task force on climate change or that the navy plans to generate all their electricity through natural resources and biofuel. Trump is putting a lot of generals in his cabinet. Given the military’s interest in climate change, do you think they’ll have any effect on the new administration?
JS: It would all be supposition at this point. Clearly the Trump administration has vowed to dismantle the EPA and cancel the Paris Accords and roll back a lot of the executive orders put in place by the Obama administration. There might be some cognitive dissonance in there, but unfortunately what we’ve heard is that the trend is going to be against combating the issue of climate change. I mean, we just had Rex Tillerson, an oil executive, approved as Secretary of State, so it doesn’t look good. I don’t know what kind of influence there will be in the DOD. It’s a giant agency, and there are a lot of different views within it. It is a command culture, so when the top brass decides this is what they’re going to focus on, people follow orders. We’ll see if climate change is on that agenda, but based on some other early indicators, it doesn’t look likely.
DT: In your film, someone said, “We are now in the age of consequences,” which is obviously where the film got its title. What does that mean?
JS: That’s actually on the floor of the Senate, in 2007, and she’s quoting a report called “The Age of Consequences,” which was released by The Center for Strategic and International Studies. The film is actually an homage to that report, which came out early on in the conversation.
There are three kinds of buckets. One is mitigation, one is adaptation, and one is consequence management—these are the three things we’ve got to deal with when it comes to climate change. Mitigation is the best choice. Adaptation is necessary to build a resilient society, and of course we know that there are going to be consequences. We can just sit back and brace for the worst, which I don’t think is a very thoughtful approach to dealing with climate change. Clearly, as we say in the film, neither does the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and the security community writ large—not just in the U.S. but globally as well. We know that we can’t stop climate change, but we can still prevent unmitigated cataclysmic disaster. We have a choice. Do we want to just run eyes wide open into an accelerated age of consequences, or do we want to try to shift that to the age of resilience? It’s truly something that keeps me up at night, because as Michael Breen [former captain, U.S. Army; president and CEO of the Truman Project; cofounder, Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project] says in the film, I believe it’s the most difficult collective action we’ll ever face, and time is not on our side.
DT: Why did you make the film?
JS: I’ve made other climate change films, and it’s been really important to my filmmaking life to be able to try to educate and inspire and move people to action around this issue. When we set out to make this film, we were trying to find a way to engage new constituencies around the issue, our lofty goal being to create a new kitchen table conversation about climate change as an issue of national security, something that might pique the interest of people who don’t consider themselves self-identified environmentalists, or people who still think it’s an esoteric issue. Clearly there are some people who are active antagonists. What the spectrum of allies says, going back to that organizing term, is leave those people alone. Fair enough. You’re not going to always get everybody. But I think that for the rest of the people out there, other segments of society who aren’t part of the “climate choir,” you might have other entry points to understanding the seriousness of this issue. Our goal was to try to make something that would spark a dialogue, conversation—and hopefully action—with a whole new group of people.
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