US Military: A Massive, Hidden Contributor to Climate Crisis
(December 1, 2020) — The US military is “one of the largest polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more climate-changing gases than most medium-sized countries,” Benjamin Neimark, Oliver Belcher, and Patrick Bigger reported for The Conversation in June 2019.
By burning fossil fuels, the US military emitted more than 25,000 kilotons of carbon dioxide in 2017. If the US military were a country, Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger wrote, its fuel usage would make it “the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.”
[Note: The US military’s status as the world’s worst polluter was story #2 on Censored 2011’s top 25 list; see, “US Department of Defense is the Worst Polluter on the Planet,” in Censored 2011: The Top 25 Censored Stories of 2009–10, eds. Mickey Huff, Peter Phillips, and Project Censored (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2010), 15–24. For a synopsis and update of Project Censored’s original story, see Chapter 2 of State of the Free Press, 2021.]
Noting that studies of greenhouse gas emissions usually focus on how much energy and fuel civilians use, Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger wrote that US military emissions “tend to be overlooked in climate change studies.” Nevertheless, they reported, “Significant reductions to the Pentagon’s budget and shrinking its capacity to wage war would cause a huge drop in demand from the biggest consumer of liquid fuels in the world.”
Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger’s report for The Conversation summarized key findings from a research article they wrote with Cara Kennelly and published in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, a peer-reviewed academic journal, in June 2019. In the study, they examined how US military supply chains impact the world’s climate, by analyzing bulk fuel purchases, as documented by the US Defense Logistics Agency–Energy (DLA‐E).
A sub‐agency of the US Department of Defense, the DLA-E manages “the US military’s supply chains, including its hydrocarbon fuel purchases and distribution.” The authors obtained data on US military fuel purchases through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to the DLA-E.
“It’s very difficult to get consistent data from the Pentagon and across US government departments,” Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger wrote. A loophole in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol exempted the United States from reporting military emissions. Although the Paris Accord closed this loophole, Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger noted that, “with the Trump administration due to withdraw from the accord in 2020, this gap . . . will return.”
Nevertheless, based on the data they were able to analyze, the authors in the Transactions article concluded that if “the US military were a country, it would nestle between Peru and Portugal in the global league table of fuel purchasing,” going on to observe that the military’s carbon emissions for 2014 were “roughly equivalent to total — not just fuel — emissions from Romania.”
Moreover, Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger found that US “forward operating bases” (FOBs) located in Afghanistan and other overseas theaters of operations have enormous fuel requirements and spew huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. They wrote that “a single US Marine Corp brigade operating across . . . a network of FOBs requires over 500,000 gallons of fuel per day.”
Noting that “action on climate change demands shuttering vast sections of the military machine,” Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger recommended that “money spent procuring and distributing fuel across the US empire” be reinvested as “a peace dividend, helping to fund a Green New Deal in whatever form it might take.”
As of May 2020, the original report by Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger appears to have received little to no corporate news coverage, with the exception of the republication of their Conversation piece by news aggregator Yahoo! News and Newsweek, a report in the British newspaper The Daily Mail, and a brief summary in ScienceDaily. Independent news outlets, including YES! Magazine, The Ecologist, and Quartz, also republished the original article from The Conversation.
• Benjamin Neimark, Oliver Belcher, and Patrick Bigger, “US Military is a Bigger Polluter Than as Many as 140 Countries — Shrinking This War Machine is a Must,” The Conversation, June 24, 2019.
Student Researcher: Fabiola Gregg (City College of San Francisco) and Faculty Evaluator: Jennifer Levinson (City College of San Francisco)
US Military Is a Bigger Polluter Than as Many as 140 Countries — Shrinking This War Machine Is a Must
(June 24, 2019) — The US military’s carbon bootprint is enormous. Like corporate supply chains, it relies upon an extensive global network of container ships, trucks and cargo planes to supply its operations with everything from bombs to humanitarian aid and hydrocarbon fuels. Our new study calculated the contribution of this vast infrastructure to climate change.
Greenhouse gas emission accounting usually focuses on how much energy and fuel civilians use. But recent work, including our own, shows that the US military is one of the largest polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more climate-changing gases than most medium-sized countries. If the US military were a country, its fuel usage alone would make it the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, sitting between Peru and Portugal.
In 2017, the US military bought about 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted more than 25,000 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide by burning those fuels. The US Air Force purchased $4.9 billion worth of fuel, and the navy $2.8 billion, followed by the army at $947 million and the Marines at $36 million.
It’s no coincidence that US military emissions tend to be overlooked in climate change studies. It’s very difficult to get consistent data from the Pentagon and across US government departments. In fact, the United States insisted on an exemption for reporting military emissions in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This loophole was closed by the Paris Accord, but with the Trump administration due to withdraw from the accord in 2020, this gap will return.
Our study is based on data retrieved from multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to the US Defense Logistics Agency, the massive bureaucratic agency tasked with managing the US military’s supply chains, including its hydrocarbon fuel purchases and distribution.
The US military has long understood that it isn’t immune from the potential consequences of climate change — recognising it as a “threat multiplier” that can exacerbate other risks. Many, though not all, military bases have been preparing for climate change impacts like sea level rise. Nor has the military ignored its own contribution to the problem. As we have previously shown, the military has invested in developing alternative energy sources like biofuels, but these comprise only a tiny fraction of spending on fuels.
The American military’s climate policy remains contradictory. There have been attempts to “green” aspects of its operations by increasing renewable electricity generation on bases, but it remains the single largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons in the world. It has also locked itself into hydrocarbon-based weapons systems for years to come, by depending on existing aircraft and warships for open-ended operations.
Environmentalists should argue for going beyond simply ‘greening’ military infrastructure.
Not Green, But Less, Military
Climate change has become a hot-button topic on the campaign trail for the 2020 presidential election. Leading Democratic candidates, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, and members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are calling for major climate initiatives like the Green New Deal. For any of that to be effective, the US military’s carbon bootprint must be addressed in domestic policy and international climate treaties.
Our study shows that action on climate change demands shuttering vast sections of the military machine. There are few activities on Earth as environmentally catastrophic as waging war. Significant reductions to the Pentagon’s budget and shrinking its capacity to wage war would cause a huge drop in demand from the biggest consumer of liquid fuels in the world.
It does no good tinkering around the edges of the war machine’s environmental impact. The money spent procuring and distributing fuel across the US empire could instead be spent as a peace dividend, helping to fund a Green New Deal in whatever form it might take. There are no shortages of policy priorities that could use a funding bump. Any of these options would be better than fuelling one of the largest military forces in history.
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