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The Military Is Resisting Trump’s Denialism, but It’s Still Not a Force for Climate Justice

The military exists to uphold an empire that is driving climate disruption.

The military exists to uphold an empire that is driving climate disruption. (Photo: Sgt. Paris Capers / US Marine Corps)

As Donald Trump hacks away at any traces of Obama’s climate programs and policies, there is a certain irony that the only defender of climate action within his cabinet of ideologues and billionaires has come from the US military, which would be the biggest single winner in Trump’s proposed budget. The Department of Defense’s massive $58 billion budget boost is justified in part by government officials promising brutal cuts in other agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet so far, the only cabinet official to speak out in favor of climate action has been Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Dubbed the “lone green hope,” Mattis has publicly stated that climate change is happening and that the government has a duty to tackle it.

In written comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee that reviewed his appointment, Mattis argued: “I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

His approach stands in stark contrast to that of Mick Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget director. When asked about Trump’s decimation of climate research, renewable energy programs and funding for climate adaptation, Mulvaney summed up the administration’s reckless disregard for science by saying: “As to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward saying we’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.”

This is not the first time Mattis has spoken out publicly on climate change and national security. In 2010, as commander of the US Joint Forces Command, Mattis signed off on the Joint Operating Environment, which lists climate change as one of the security threats the military expected to confront over the next 25 years.

So what are the implications for the US military becoming the last line of defense against climate denialism? And what does it mean for those concerned with climate justice?

Climate Change and Military Planning

On one level, Mattis’ comments should not come as a surprise, as they reflect predominant thinking within the US military for more than a decade under both Republican and Democratic presidencies. Climate change has been considered as part of US military strategy since 2003, when the Pentagon commissioned its first report on the implications of climate change for US national security.

A rational, long-term view by the US military should not be confused with a sudden military desire to care for nature.

Since then, and particularly under Obama, a plethora of roadmaps, task forces and reviews by both defense and intelligence agencies have pushed climate change up the priority list. The Department of Defense’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review declared “energy security and climate change” as one of four issues requiring imperative reform, because it would act as “an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” By 2014, a Department of Defense report categorized climate conflict as a near term strategic challenge for the first time.

These strategies have filtered into the planning of the different US combatant commands. In the Middle East, US Central Command is factoring water scarcity into its campaign plans, and the US Africa Command is assessing the likely impact of growing humanitarian crises on military operations. In the Arctic, the US is investing $6 billion on new assets this year, readying itself for changing climate conditions and the expected resource-based conflicts that may break out in the region as shipping lanes emerge and ice retreats. Meanwhile, across its vast network of 1,774 US military sites on coast worldwide, many bases are already actively preparing their sea defenses against rising tides.

Thanks to a law signed by George W. Bush in 2007 requiring the Pentagon to source 25 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2025, more and more solar panels and wind turbines can be found at nearly every military base across the US. The number of US military renewable energy projects nearly tripled to 1,390 between 2011 and 2015.

“Operationability” Remains the Military’s Core Goal

Climate scientists and environmental activists alike have praised the military’s embrace of climate change. German climate scientist John Schellnhuber explains with some relief that, “The military [does] not deal with ideology. They cannot afford to: They are responsible for the lives of people and billions of pounds of investment in equipment.”

However, a rational, long-term view by the US military should not be confused with a sudden military desire to care for nature. The Pentagon is deeply enmeshed with a fossil fuel and extractive economy. It remains the single largest organizational user of petroleum, and has a long and ongoing record of environmental destruction through its use of toxic weapons, waste and dumping, and its involvement in many wars around oil and natural resources.

The military’s interest in climate change is, as former US Navy secretary Ray Mabus put it, “for one main reason, and that is to make us better fighters.” Specifically, the military is interested firstly in ensuring that its vast imperial infrastructure made up of more than 562,000 facilities on 4,800 sites worldwide and covering 24.9 million acres (an area larger than Iceland) remains intact in the face of changing weather conditions.

Similarly, the military’s interest in renewable energy is largely driven by lessons learned during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan about the costs of depending on vulnerable fossil fuel supply lines. This is an area that particularly motivates General Mattis, who first called on the Congress to “unleash” the military from the “tether of fuel” after his experience in Iraq.

Depending on the US military to defend climate action would be shortsighted and self-defeating.

Whilst commanding the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion, his forces not only ran out of fuel on many occasions, but also became very vulnerable to attack from insurgents as they sought to transport fuel to power the oil-hungry tanks, hummers, generators and jets that bolstered the US occupation. Pentagon’s research showed that by 2009 more than 3,000 troops and civilian contractors had been killed or wounded protecting convoys, 80 percent of which were transporting truck fuel. This research has led to an active program within the Department of Defense to minimize fuel consumption, improving energy efficiency for vehicles and generators and developing solar-powered equipment for soldiers on patrol.

Beyond the immediate steps to protect, the military is also seeking to anticipate perceived threats that will result from climate change impacts. This has taken the form of war-gaming scenarios, the most famous of which is the report “Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change,” published in 2007, which painted dystopian visions of the future involving state meltdown, civil conflicts, a global scramble for resources and mass migration. All of these problems would have major impacts on US military operations and engagement.

Backlash or Continuation?

There is a large section of the Republican base, and most likely Trump himself, who see any attempts to take climate change seriously as evidence of dangerous liberal “big government” thinking. Colorado Rep. Ken Buck received the support of 216 of his colleagues in June 2016 for an amendment blocking Obama’s Department of Defense from considering the impact of climate change in their military strategies. Buck defended the amendment, saying, “When we distract our military with a radical climate change agenda, we detract from their main purpose of defending America from enemies like ISIS.” On the campaign trail, Trump echoed his comments, saying that it was “ridiculous” to consider climate change a national security issue.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Republicans blocking the Pentagon from defending its military bases from rising sea levels, or protecting its troops by reducing their reliance on vulnerable fossil fuel supplies, or making long-term military plans that consider climate change. Many of these programs are well underway and entrenched into military planning and institutions. With Trump showing a boyish enthusiasm for the military and putting many generals into high levels of government, there is unlikely to be much reversal of military thinking on climate. Moreover, as other climate agencies have their budgets slashed, the military may, in fact, end up being the last bastion of climate action and funding. The Pentagon may also succeed in blocking some of the proposed cuts to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as they provide critical data to the military.

What is almost certain though is that we will hear fewer public proclamations of the Pentagon’s work on the issue — and you can be sure Secretary of State Rex Tillerson won’t be equating the threat of climate change with terrorism. The political capital that Obama and others used to emphasize climate change as a national security threat is gone. With it too, will likely go some of the military’s “green” plans that were more about greenwashing than tactical considerations, such as the “Great Green Fleet” launched in 2009, which sought to increase the biofuel makeup of the US navy’s fuel use to 50 percent by 2020. As biofuels have no tactical advantage over petroleum, the targets will almost certainly be shelved (barring effective lobbying from US agro-industrial biofuel producers).

The Militarization of Climate Change

There is one area where Trump and the military may find unexpected common ground on climate change. For there is something that unites the military-industrial complex and Donald Trump, and that is the need for threats to legitimize their continued power. While Trump seems to be so desperate for threats to justify his actions that he invents them (whether it’s the Bowling Green Massacre or the Swedish attacks), the military and its corporate arms traders are also keen to marshal arguments about perceived threats to justify increased budgets and resources. And climate change has long been seen as the next big all-encompassing threat that will require endless military spending.

This can be seen in all the military planning documents for long-term climate change. Take one of the first Pentagon climate change scenario plans written in 2003. Titled An abrupt climate change scenario and its implications for United States national security, it warned darkly that, “As famine, disease, and weather-related disasters strike due to the abrupt climate change, many countries’ needs will exceed their carrying capacity. This will create a sense of desperation, which is likely to lead to offensive aggression in order to reclaim balance.”

Climate justice requires us to resist the corporate and military power that Trump seeks to entrench.

It says that, “With diverse growing climates, wealth, technology, and abundant resources, the United States could likely survive shortened growing cycles and harsh weather conditions without catastrophic losses” but argues that the result will be an increase in border security across the country “to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” Its conclusion, not surprisingly, is that the US military better get ready for this dystopian world and will need the required funding to do so.

Trump, of course, has not needed catastrophic climate change impacts to justify his efforts to dramatically increase defense spending or to waste billions of dollars on further strengthening the US-Mexico border wall, but he nevertheless does share a military perception of migrants as a “security threat” and similarly sees military and security solutions to a problem of social and ecological injustice. In this respect, Trump is not so far apart from his seemingly more rational military colleagues. For both are united by a determination to secure what is in place, notably a world order in which wealth is held by a small elite that is protected at all costs, and neither feels it is their mission to solve the underlying economic, ecological and social causes of phenomena like migration or weather-related disasters.

Climate change is deeply embedded in our corporate, militarized and unequal world, and cannot be addressed without tackling those underlying causes. Two facts starkly tell that picture; the first is that just nine countries (China, US, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Canada and Mexico) together with the EU produce 70 percent of emissions (historically 50 percent were produced by just the US and EU); the second is that 63 percent of the carbon dioxide and methane emitted between 1751 and 2010 was created by just 90 corporations. Climate injustice is clearly a result of imperial and corporate politics and certainly won’t be addressed by a US military determined to uphold this deeply unsustainable, fossil fuel driven empire.

Trump doesn’t just ignore this reality; he is actively seeking to strengthen this corporate imperial infrastructure. This can clearly be seen in the makeup of his cabinet, which may be the most elite, corporate profiteering and militaristic cabinet in US history. By making another general, John Kelly, head of Homeland Security, Trump is bringing this same militarized approach to social and environmental crises within the US. The experience of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in which 58,000 National Guard members were brought in and ended up shooting rather than rescuing desperate residents, is a disturbing foretaste of how this militarization of Homeland Security can play out. The deployment of military surplus Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) to police forces around the country, where they have been mobilized against protestors in Ferguson and Standing Rock, is another example of this dangerous trend.

So, while Trump’s deference to an ideology of “security uber alles” may save at least one part of his government from anti-scientific climate denialist nonsense, it will almost certainly end up further cementing a dangerous militarized response to climate change. When the most powerful force left in government is the military, the default position for responding to any crisis will naturally be a military one. As White House budget official Gordon Adams notes, “Putting military officers in charge of the entire architecture of national security reinforces the trend toward militarizing policy and risks cementing in place ‘the military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of.” And to complete the vicious circle, as climate change worsens due to the US government’s fossil fuel driven actions, the military will be called on more and more to deal with its ever more extreme consequences.

For environmental movements and campaigners, depending on the US military to defend climate action would be shortsighted and self-defeating. The US military’s objectives are not only different from the aims of those working for social and environmental justice; they actually undermine the possibilities of a just transition. Climate justice requires us to resist the corporate and military power that Trump seeks to entrench. Otherwise, we will find that this Trumpian moment of paranoia, fear and authoritarian instincts will be seen less as an aberration and more as the default approach to addressing the ever-unfolding climate crisis.

This piece is based on analysis from the author’s book: The Secure and the Dispossessed: How the Military and Corporations Are Shaping a Climate-Changed World.

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