No Warming, No War:
How Militarism Fuels the Climate Crisis — and Vice Versa
Lorah Steichen | Lindsay Koshgarian
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. U.S. 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 stratocruiser, 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 well-known history of fighting wars for oil. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. power grid to 100% renewable is an estimate $4.5 trillion. The bloated U.S. 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. Just one of the military’s jets, the B-52 Stratocruiser, consumes about as much fuel in an hour as the average car driver uses in seven years.
Beyond a significant carbon “boot print,” the U.S. 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 United States has a well-known history of fighting wars for oil.
Beyond accounting for fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse emissions, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Climate change and border militarization are inextricably linked.
People around the world are already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change. In the coming decades, climate change will make corners of the globe increasingly uninhabitable. These new ecological realities will compound existing conflicts, cause more political instability, and dislocate unprecedented quantities of people. Commonly cited estimates project that around 200 million people will be displaced by the middle of the century due to climate change.
It is clear that on a warming planet, cross-border migration will rise. But instead of responding with solidarity or compassion and sharing the resources that could provide safe refuge to those forced to travel across borders, migrants are met with expanded border enforcement and repression. Around the globe, governments allocate more of their budgets to build walls, hire armed guards, and militarize borders to keep migrants out.
Having played such an outsized role in causing the crisis, the United States bears a disproportionate share of the responsibility to address it, including a debt to displaced people around the world. We must reverse our decades-long trend of border militarization and all anti-immigrant operations carried out by ICE and CBP and in doing so uphold all peoples collective freedom to move and stay.
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 war in the past two decades, the cost of shifting the U.S. 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 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.
Workers need a way out.
In both the fossil fuel and military sectors, workers end up funneled into lethal work due to limited options. Like the workers in the fossil fuel industry will need to transition into new jobs, 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 level of job creation by military spending.