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COP28 Must Address the US Military as World’s Largest Institutional Emitter

The U.S. military industry is both a cause and a consequence of climate change.

U.S. Army Abrams tanks take part in a military parade during Armed Forces Day in Vilnius, Lithuania, on November 25, 2023.

The annual meeting of United Nations member countries to discuss climate change will begin on Nov. 30 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Known as the Conference of the Parties (COP), this is the 28th year that the most polluting countries will manage to snake through negotiations, avoiding climate responsibility and pushing calls for justice down the field.

The conference will last two weeks. Delegates from member countries will negotiate terms of climate goals, while nongovernmental organizations and other coalition groups will offer perspectives on a range of climate issues, from a Just Transition to the intersection of gender and climate change. These international conversations are treated by institutional media and government as critical opportunities to come together to address climate change and mitigate harm.

But what these institutions won’t say is that COP has never resulted in substantive, much less effective, solutions for addressing climate change. Climate change is making life unlivable for under-resourced people in places with more frequent drought, more extreme weather events, and little access to resources that would otherwise ease the consequences of a planet responding to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

No COP discussion or agreement has ever suggested addressing root causes of climate change and ecological destruction — colonialism, imperialism — through demilitarization. But it should — and it should start with the U.S. The U.S. military industry is both the cause and consequence of climate change.

U.S.-backed wars — both proxy and otherwise — lead to environmental damage that destabilizes whole populations and regions. The U.S. military is the largest institutional emitter of fossil fuels in the world, at about 1.2 billion metric tons from 2001 through 2018. Double the number of cars on the road in the U.S. and add a few hundred thousand more — that’s how many pounds of greenhouse gases the military has added to the atmosphere in two decades. This number comes not from our government, but from independent research by a professor at Brown University. Arriving at this information was no easy task because a reporting loophole carved out in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol exempts the U.S. military from disclosing the exact amount of its emissions.

What’s especially ironic about COP’s failure to address militarization is that one of the central points of the gathering’s negotiation will be the “loss and damage fund.” Last year COP was held in Egypt, where delegates voted to start a fund that financially rich countries would pay into and financially poor countries could withdraw from to address consequences of climate change, such as devastation from flooding or ongoing struggles with drought. Countries agreed that the fund would be housed at the World Bank, though other details — like which countries would contribute, how much they would contribute, and which countries could withdraw funds — were not decided. At the time of the original negotiation, the U.S. even suggested that contributions to the fund be voluntary.

As the earth approaches multiple climate tipping points, including the likelihood that we’ll blow past the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold to stave off the worst climate impacts, the loss and damage fund is applying a Band-Aid to a bullet hole. In no uncertain terms, we can’t imagine the devastation that a rapidly changing climate system will bring. With equal clarity, we must understand that climate change has been created and perpetuated by a few countries for the benefit of a few businesses to the massive and unrelenting detriment of most of the world’s people.

Some regions are already paying the price for U.S. military pollution, which is nearly always the result of weapons testing, military “readiness,” or strategic positioning. Since 1971, the military has hosted “war games” off the coast of the Hawaiian islands — an attempt, as Prism has reported, to “strengthen international cooperation and American sovereignty.” On Guam, a territory of the U.S., the military owns 49,000 acres of land, or about a third of the island. In 2021, legislation was introduced in the House and Senate to provide compensation to those who suffered harm from nuclear bomb testing fallout from 1944 through 1962 — the legislation never even got a vote in either body. Even now, the military operates with effective free rein on the island, clearing native limestone forests and dredging coral reefs, which pose grave environmental concerns in the near future and signal an alarming trend in military buildup that, in the long term, demonstrates there is no claim to Indigenous sovereignty the U.S. government won’t ignore.

A 2022 United Nations Environment Program report evaluated funding schemes for climate adaptation and mitigation — the kinds of funds that would be included in the loss and damage fund. In part, the report articulated the failure of climate change-causing countries to address harm as “too little, too slow.”

According to the report, previous funding efforts agreed to in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord to support climate adaptation were at least $17 billion short of the $100 billion financially rich countries “pledged” to financially poor or “developing” countries. An estimate from the global poverty organization Oxfam finds that the real value of contributions was actually around $25 billion.

The funds contributed are a small fraction of what businesses in countries like the U.S. earn from climate change-causing military operations. Military profit motives of the U.S. should be a grave concern, given how the U.S. has used military investment to become an economically and politically dominating global force.

As the U.K.-based policy research think tank Common Wealth wrote, “The U.S. and UK governments and their militaries are important architects of the modern fossil fuel economy.” According to Common Wealth, since World War II, the U.S. government has relied on a “military Keynesian” strategy, a kind of jumpstart for the whole country’s economy by way of military spending. By funneling tax dollars to weapons makers and DOD workers, other policymakers thought that the military budget would suffice as a kind of public social safety net.

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Defense budget was $816.7 billion, most of which goes to private contractors with the DOD. That number is higher than the next 10 countries’ combined. War is also immediately profitable to those who approve it. As the U.S. was on the brink of funding the Ukrainian defense against Russia, at least 20 representatives or their spouses bought stocks in weapons contractors. Shortly after Israel’s siege on Gaza began on Oct. 7, defense contractors saw a 7% increase in value, with one Morgan Stanley official referring to the genocide as a business “opportunity.”

Earlier this year, the COP 28 President-designate Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber called on the world to “fight climate change, not each other.” Oil-rich countries have all but declared a war on climate change itself, wrongly suggesting that a disrupted climate system is the root cause, rather than a symptom, of a problem they’re perpetuating. Simultaneously, oil-rich countries continue to draw rank around each other and develop strategic alliances for the sake of oil recovery all while greenwashing their efforts.

The work of these alliances begins with establishing a market for oil.

“A war doesn’t just happen because two people don’t like each other,” said Niamh Aine Ni Bhriain, a researcher with the Transnational Institute. “There’s usually very specific economic interests.”

This was the case in 1953 when a U.S.-backed coup against a democratically elected Iranian government was an obvious effort to gain access to the country’s oil reserves, which the Iranian president had nationalized in 1951. Despite this history with Iran, “the first oil war” is largely regarded as the Gulf War of the 1990s when the U.S. took military action against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. A decade later, the U.S. went to war with Iraq under the guise of defensive measures against “weapons of mass destruction,” of which it was later revealed there were none. The war began in 2003. Within a decade, the nationalized oil reserves were opened up to private American oil interests — companies that spent a record-setting amount of money to put the Bush administration into office. The military’s destabilization of Iraq made oil companies billions. As a more recent example of what this looks like: On Oct. 29, the Israeli Energy Ministry approved 12 oil exploration leases off the coast of occupied Palestinian territories.

After establishing an oil market, the military maintains relationships with other countries through the sale and purchase of weapons. Over the past two decades, the U.S. has sold weapons to dozens of other countries, helping to militarize countries already saddled with significant climate burdens, including drought, extreme heat, famine, and flooding. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. is one of the world’s largest exporters of weapons, supplying 40% of the world’s arms. These sales, along with sales from other “developed” countries, are funneled into 40 of the most climate-vulnerable countries like Somalia, Myanmar, and Sudan — all regions also experiencing refugee crises. Sudan is experiencing a genocide. And then, as people flee their homes due to climate and political instability, the U.S. builds up walls and weapons against them, painting immigrants as diseased and vilifying those who are trying to save their own lives. As the Transnational Institute has written extensively, this approach, often referred to as “climate security,” deepens the consequences of climate change.

We should all be alarmed that the U.S. is more eager to export weapons than it is aid.

The production of war, which creates climate change, leads to a justification for the concurrent production of weapons. A 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature increases interpersonal conflict by 2.4% and group conflict by 11.3%, and climate changes like drought exacerbate existing conflict and other humanitarian crises, like famine. More conflict breeds an excuse for military intervention, and so the cycle continues.

Military funding by rich countries is 30 times higher than spending on climate change prevention and impacts, and a single year of military spending from the 10 countries with the highest military budgets would fund 15 years of international climate work.

Despite this, leaders perpetuate the lie that there isn’t enough money to address climate change, when in reality, it seems like what we lack isn’t the budget; it’s willpower. An ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government has been made possible due to massive funding by the U.S. In addition to the $3.8 billion in annual funding the U.S. sends to Israel, its political partner in the Middle East, Congress approved an additional $14.5 billion on Nov. 2. Combined, that’s more than double the Inflation Reduction Act’s spending on climate justice and pollution reduction programs. One year of the U.S.’ defense budget could entirely fund one year of the Green New Deal.

Even the name of the “loss and damage fund” is a mirage, suggesting that money can undo or account for harm. There’s no amount of money that can bring people back from the dead. There’s no amount of money that can repel oceans back from the lands they have swallowed up. And there’s no amount of money that can reverse centuries of colonization enacted on the lands and people that would make countries like the U.S., England, France, and Spain “rich” while most African and Caribbean countries remain “poor.”

While most countries’ colonial rule of other countries ended in the 20th century, colonial influence is maintained through militarism: military presence, arms sales, and, yes, war. The loss and damage fund is talked about as a way for these “rich” countries to help “poor” ones, though it seems like a more effective way of addressing climate change would result from an honest depiction of what this fund should be: a reparation for past and present harm through demilitarization.

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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