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The US Military Won’t Lead the Fight in Combating Climate Change

The Pentagon’s scorched-earth policies cannot be reconciled with renewable energy initiatives.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a campaign town hall at George Mason University on May 16, 2019, in Fairfax, Virginia.

On May 15, Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced the Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act to Congress with a plan to “green” the U.S. military. To do that, Warren is proposing something of a Green New Deal for the armed forces: adapting non-combat bases and infrastructure to reach net zero emissions by 2030 and investing billions into R&D for microgrids and energy storage abroad. “We don’t have to choose between a green military and an effective one,” Warren wrote in a Medium post.

The Pentagon is the single largest source of emissions of any institution in the world, with a carbon footprint that ranks among the top 25 percent of nations. It burns through over 100 million barrels of oil a year to power close to 5,000 bases, its fleet of warplanes, drones, tanks, Humvees and all the rest of it. Recognizing this, Warren writes that we can “leverage [the military’s] huge energy footprint as part of our climate solution.”

The plan immediately drew criticism from those on the left who say that “greening” the military, which would necessarily entail a huge amount of resources to pull off, is completely at odds with a Green New Deal, of which Warren is an original co-sponsor. In response to Warren announcing her bill, author and activist Naomi Klein tweeted, “The most powerful war machine on the planet is never going to be ‘green.’ The outrageous military budget needs to be slashed to help pay for a Global Green New Deal.” Making the connection between funding a Green New Deal and drastically cutting defense spending, however, has remained something of a marginal talking point on the left; an unspoken truth at best.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has publicly called for reining in our out-of-control military spending in favor of using that money for social programs like Medicare for All and tuition-free college, though he never named any figures. He has also spoken out against a “one-party foreign policy” in which Democrats and Republicans set aside their differences to agree on long-term policy positions, often in the form of military intervention. But it is precisely this critical node, namely defense spending, that contradicts any realistic efforts at reaching net zero by 2030 while guaranteeing the social programs proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey’s Green New Deal joint resolution.

An overwhelming majority of Democrats — including Warren, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee — voted with Republicans in favor of increasing Trump’s 2019 defense budget to nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Rather than increasing funds to decarbonize the military, the opposite — a mass scaling down of funds directed toward the military — needs to take place for a number of reasons. The first is that decarbonization requires not just a significant amount of money, but a significant amount of energy which, for now, is still dirty. Spending a portion of what’s left in our already tight carbon budget trying to make the most carbon-intensive complex in human history more “efficient” just isn’t practical.

More importantly, leaving the military as it is today primes us for a militarized response to disasters as they inevitably unfold. In recent years, the Department of Defense has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on renewable energy contracts from private companies. The media have been quick to praise green tech efforts, from hybrid Humvees to hybrid Navy destroyer fleets to wind turbines at Guantánamo Bay. Support has even come from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which stated that these energy efficiency projects “meet both national and climate security objectives and highlight the number of areas in which interests in protecting the environment and safeguarding national security overlap.”

Yet, the military itself has stated that the transition to renewable energy sources has nothing to do with politics (i.e. climate change). Instead, the military cites security concerns, particularly when it comes to refueling convoys, which are expensive to transport and vulnerable to attacks. “These technologies are a way to become more effective in combat,” Col. Brian Magnuson, head of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office, told Reuters. “This is about warfighting capability.”

Framing the climate crisis as a national security threat rather than a threat to humankind and the planet runs the risk of inflaming a mounting nationalism that pits the United States against everyone outside of its borders. Though the U.S. ranks highest in per capita carbon emissions in the world, keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius will require the cooperation of every country, including those deemed military adversaries like Russia and China. In lieu of a climate détente, the U.S. instead seems to be stoking new Cold War-like tensions.

Finally, the Pentagon’s environmental footprint cannot be measured in emissions alone. Razed cities, contaminated soil, death, disease and famine are far more perceptible and lethal than the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to those who have experienced warfare.

In Iraq, the military’s routine use of depleted uranium has seen cancer rates and other health effects in the cities of Basra and Fallujah surpass those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Yemen, the weaponization of water through siege and blockades and an unrelenting campaign of Saudi airstrikes, with weapons supplied by the U.S., has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Attacks on hospitals and other vital infrastructure have left millions of Yemeni civilians at risk of famine and unable to receive basic medical treatment. In Vietnam, the military’s use of Agent Orange saw millions of hectares of forest destroyed and millions of illnesses from coming into contact with the herbicide. Even today, the chemical can still be found in the food chain.

In many cases, the environment — and the civilians living in it — aren’t just collateral damage, but intended targets. The Pentagon’s renewable energy initiatives look like mere satire when juxtaposed against decades of these scorched-earth policies.

We run the risk of wanting to mitigate climate change at the expense of environmental justice: a few quick fixes to keep U.S. cities above water while continuing with politics as usual. But eliminating the oil politics and corporate interests that have manufactured this vast imperial apparatus, a necessary step in any just climate transition, would make our bloated military footprint — and budget — redundant. No need to make it green in the meantime.

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