How Militarism Fuels the Climate Crisis
— And Vice Versa
Lorah Steichen and Lindsay Soshgarian / Institute for Policy Studies
(July 2022) — In a strange twist, it has taken a global pandemic to significantly reduce the world’s fossil fuel emissions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has utterly changed life as we know it — but it’s also laid bare how Washington’s militaristic budget priorities have left the country woefully unprepared for a crisis. With massive shortages in public health resources and shocks to the broader economy throwing Americans off their health care, states are left clamoring for help from the military to cope.
All this could be a preview of shocks to come as our climate crisis continues unabated.
While meaningful climate action has stalled on Capitol Hill and in the White House, planners at the Pentagon have been quietly preparing a militarized, “armed lifeboat” response to climate chaos for years. Unfortunately, the tendency to understand climate change as just another national security issue has misdirected resources away from the programs that we need to mitigate and adapt to a warming climate.
In this report, we’ll lay out how militarism and the climate crisis are deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing. The military itself, we explain, is a huge polluter — and is often deployed to sustain the very extractive industries that destabilize our climate. This climate chaos, in turn, leads to massive displacement, militarized borders, and the prospect of further conflict.
True climate solutions, we argue, must have antimilitarism at their core.
In the face of both COVID-19 and the climate crisis, we urgently need to shift from a culture of war to a culture of care. Funneling trillions into the military to wage endless wars and project military dominance has prevented us from investing in true security and cooperation. If we don’t transform our society and the way we confront crises, we will face even more unjust and inhumane realities in a climate-changed future.
Recognizing that the impacts of climate change will dramatically increase instability around the globe, this paper examines the role of militarism in a climate-changed world. As outlined below, climate change and militarism intersect in a variety of alarming ways:
- The Pentagon is a major polluter. US Militarism degrades the environment and contributes directly to climate change. The Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum; just one of the military’s jets, the B-52 stratofortress, consumes about as much fuel in an hour as the average car driver uses in seven years. Plans to confront climate change must address militarization, but “greening the military” misses the point entirely. Militarism and climate justice are fundamentally at odds.
- The United States has a history of fighting oil wars. The fossil fuel industry relies on militarization to uphold its operations around the globe. Oil is the leading cause of war: An estimated one-quarter to one-half of all interstate wars since 1973 have been linked to oil. And all over the world, those who fight to protect their lands from extractive industries are often met with state and paramilitary violence.
- Climate change and border militarization are inextricably linked. It is clear that on a warming planet, cross-border migration will rise. Estimates project that around 200 million people will be displaced by the middle of century due to climate change. As the US continues to ramp up border security, so do threats to all people’s freedom to move and stay. Immigrant justice is climate justice, and challenging militarism is critical to achieving both.
- Over-investment in the military comes at the high cost of under-investing in other needs, including climate. For decades, the US has invested in military adventurism and prioritized military threats above all over threats to human life. Compared to the $6.4 trillion spent on war in the past two decades, the cost of shifting the US power grid to 100% renewable is an estimate $4.5 trillion. The bloated US war economy presents an opportunity to redirect significant military resources, including money, infrastructure, and people, toward implementing solutions to climate change.
- Workers need a way out. The fossil fuel and military sectors mirror each other in the way that workers frequently end up funneled into lethal work due to limited options. We need a Just Transition for workers and communities in both sectors. In order to rapidly transition to a green economy, we must fund millions of jobs in the green economy. Funding the green economy instead of a bloated military budget would be a net job creator; for the same level of spending, clean energy and infrastructure create over 40% more jobs and energy efficiency retrofits create nearly twice the level of job creation.
- Racism and racial oppression form the foundation for both the extractive fossil fuel economy and the militarized economy. Neither could exist without the presumption that some human lives are worth less than others, and racial justice would undermine the foundations of both.
The Pentagon Is a Major Polluter
Funded by an annual budget of more than $700 billion, the United States has a massive military presence across the globe. With extensive infrastructure and operations both domestically and abroad, the largest industrial military in the history of the world is also among the biggest polluters.
Maintaining an expansive military sprawl requires significant investment in carbon-intensive infrastructure and gas-guzzling equipment.
Beyond a significant carbon “boot print,” the US military operations wreaks havoc on the environments it occupies and wages war. Plans to confront climate change must address militarization. With that said, “greening the military” or finding ways to wage eco-friendly war miss the boat. The climate justice movement calls for a restructuring of an extractive economy that is harming people and ecosystems. Such aspirations and militarism are fundamentally at odds.
The US History of Fighting Wars for Oil
Beyond accounting for fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse emissions, the US military’s contributions to the climate crisis are even greater when considering that oil is the leading cause of war. An estimated one-quarter to one-half of all interstate wars since 1973 have been linked to oil. The US military spends an estimated $81 billion a year to protect the world’s oil supplies.
In addition to causing war, the fossil fuel industry also relies on militarized state violence to uphold its operations around the globe. Those who fight to protect their lands from extractive industries and infrastructure are often branded as “eco-terrorists” and met with state-military or paramilitary violence.
Indigenous peoples are disproportionately subject to this violence. While Indigenous people make up about 5% of the world’s population, they account for about a quarter of those murdered for defending land and the environment.
In the United States, increasingly militarized local police departments acquire surplus military equipment from federal agencies. Particularly in the context where a bloated military budget leaves climate change mitigation and adaptation severely underfunded, we face increasingly militarized responses to the climate crisis.
Over-investment in the military
comes at the high cost of under-investing
in other needs, including climate.
Proposals to meaningfully address the climate crisis at the rate and scale necessary are often characterized as unrealistic pipe dreams. The same scrutiny is seldom applied to ever-expanding military spending.
The reality is that there’s no shortage of funds for a Just Transition to a green economy. Compared to the $6.4 trillion spent on US wars in the past two decades, the cost of shifting the US power grid to 100% renewable energy over the next ten years is an estimated $4.5 trillion. Instead of funding endless wars, we could have already transformed our fossil-fueled energy system, with money to spare.
Enormous and unnecessary military expenditures have warped our sense of what’s possible, too often tricking us into believing we can’t afford to improve our lives or keep our planet livable. When we take back our resources from elites who profit off violent wars, weapons, and border walls, we can reinvest trillions of dollars back into our communities and begin to repair the harm inflicted on people and the planet by militarization at home and around the world.
GREEN JOBS AND A JUST TRANSITION FOR WORKERS AND COMMUNITIES
Workers need a way out. In both the fossil fuel and military sectors, workers end up funneled into lethal work due to limited options.
The workers in the fossil fuel industry will need to transition into new jobs and there must be alternative pathways to good employment for individuals and communities whose livelihoods are tied to the military.
In order to rapidly transition to a green economy, we must fund millions of new jobs and convert a major share of the economy from building weapons of war to building a 100% clean energy economy by 2030. Compared to the same level of military spending, clean energy and infrastructure create over 40% more jobs and energy efficiency retrofits creates nearly twice the number of jobs created by military spending.
True climate justice must have antimilitarism at the core. We hope that this resource will contribute to existing conversations about climate change and militarism by highlighting the ways that the two fuel each other. We also hope that this resource will spark new questions and help facilitate dialogue — and coordination — across movements. When we come together we can build the just future we deserve:
- Use our discussion guide to host a virtual discussion on climate change and militarism.
- Download our handouts:
- Alternatives to Greening the Military
- Climate, Militarism, and Migration
- Climate and Militarism Intersections
- Why Not Green the Military?
- Use our op-ed template and online trade-offs calculator to write to your local newspapers about how cutting military spending could make us safer and fund a transition to a clean energy economy.
- Contact us at email@example.com to sign-up to attend one of our webinars or to schedule a webinar or training specifically for your group or organization.
- Add anti-militarism to your climate justice platform. Need help? Contact us.
- Center impacted people — are you a member of a community disproportionately impacted by militarism and climate change?Contact us and we’ll work to help amplify your voice.
- Support organizations that fight both climate change and militarism.
- You Can Read the Full Report at this link.