Antiwar and progressive veterans organizations across the country are marking the first Earth Day after the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine by highlighting the ways in which militarism fuels the global climate emergency, and how the planetary crisis, in turn, impacts service members.
The U.S.’s role as the world’s largest weapons dealer, they say, is bad for the planet. True climate action, in their view, means ending new weapons shipments to Ukraine and instead deepening diplomatic channels toward a negotiated settlement to end the conflict.
Echoing Earth Day’s historically antiwar roots, they are pressuring Congress members to pass a new climate and social spending package, and fund a just transition away from fossil fuels that includes good jobs for impoverished veterans and fossil fuel-sector workers. Such a plan, they say, would also ensure energy independence from petrostate dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin. The veterans are also pressuring politicians to remediate land polluted by U.S. military bases around the globe and support a Department of Defense accounting and reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions.
In West Virginia, a state with one of the highest densities of veterans and rates of veteran poverty in the nation, climate justice organizers with the progressive veterans group Common Defense have been meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin and his staff to encourage him to support legislation that would invest in green jobs for low-income West Virginian veterans.
Manchin, who chairs the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has gained almost total control over the future of U.S. climate policy as a key swing vote in Democrats’ narrowly controlled 50-50 Senate. He used this power to sink President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better climate and social spending bill in December by announcing his opposition on Fox News.
The West Virginia senator has since reopened talks on a smaller, party-line reconciliation package that would use the budget process to circumvent a Republican filibuster. His legislative framework would take an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy that would include using tax breaks to push up to $555 billion in clean energy subsidies while also rolling back Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts and reforming prescription drug pricing. Under Manchin’s plan, half of the revenue generated would go toward reducing the federal deficit and inflation.
Common Defense Climate Justice Organizer Lakiesha Lloyd tells Truthout veterans want to see a portion of the $555 billion clean energy investments go toward workforce development programs and training for veterans and fossil fuel-sector workers in West Virginia — and has told Senator Manchin’s staff as much.
Lloyd, who lives in Charleston, West Virginia, and served as a military police officer and Army specialist from 2001 to 2010, said she knows firsthand how difficult it is for veterans in West Virginia to transition out of the armed services and into the U.S. workforce: After she was discharged, she and her two children had to move in with her mother because she was unable to find work that would allow her to support her family while paying rent and utilities.
“Historically here in the state, you only had two choices: It was either going to the mines, or go into the military if you wanted a decent living,” she tells Truthout. Sometimes it was both: When her own grandfather came home from World War II, he went to work in a West Virginia coal mine, she says.
Now, with the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warning that global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2025 to keep planetary warming to the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5°C), both veterans and coal miners need a pathway to transition, Lloyd says, and the languishing climate provisions of the reconciliation bill could help set their course.
Common Defense organizers have had at least three climate-focused meetings with Manchin’s staff since the creation of the organization’s climate justice program this year, and while the campaign is still a work in progress, Lloyd says their conversations thus far have been “productive.” Moreover, she says, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped energize the discussions, since Manchin has signaled an openness to renewable energy jobs being part of an “all-of-the-above” strategy for energy independence from Russian oil and gas.
Lloyd, however, expressed concern about the Biden administration’s recent reversals on prior climate commitments, including its announcement of a joint U.S.-European Union energy security deal to increase so-called liquefied natural gas (LNG) extraction and infrastructure buildout to boost fracked gas shipments to Europe, as well as this week’s resumption of onshore oil and gas lease sales on public lands.
Those moves come as the administration weighs which pro-extraction policies can win over Senator Manchin’s support after he asked the administration for concessions on oil and gas drilling, including the resumption of offshore leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and increased LNG exports.
Manchin makes nearly $500,000 a year from his family business at a coal waste plant in Grant Town, West Virginia, that, as Truthout previously reported, nearly 400 West Virginia climate activists blockaded this month. He also remains the top congressional recipient of campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, collecting nearly $743,000 this election cycle.
Still, Lloyd says, veterans have unique leverage to pressure Manchin toward taking climate action. Common Defense organizers have been highlighting the ways the climate emergency impacts military personnel by fueling domestic climate disasters in the U.S. and by exacerbating wars around the globe — both to which service members are routinely deployed. Veterans are highlighting these realities as they push for workforce development and training for veterans who want to transition out of the military into green jobs.
Meanwhile, antiwar vets with the organizations Veterans for Peace (VFP) and CODEPINK used Earth Week to highlight how U.S. tax dollars fund both war and environmental destruction. The groups joined Extinction Rebellion NYC, a climate group focused on using civil disobedience to provoke policy change, in organizing a nonviolent direct action in Manhattan’s Financial District on Tax Day, Monday. Putting the connection between militarism and the climate crisis on full display, marchers chanted, “No War, No Warming” while several protesters locked themselves to two 15-foot tripods. At least nine people were arrested.
In addition to spotlighting how the U.S. funnels more than half of its federal budget to the Pentagon, veterans and environmental activists say the action was also in opposition to the U.S. military’s role as the world’s single-largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels. While the military has accounted for 77 to 80 percent of federal energy use since 2001, it continues to remain exempt from President Biden’s executive order to cut government emissions in order to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
To make matters worse, President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2023 Pentagon budget blueprint requests a record $813.3 billion in military spending, a $31 billion increase from the current level. The budget proposal, however, fails to include any definitive plans to lower carbon emissions related to national security, combat, intelligence or military training. In fact, the U.S. military fails to even account for or publicly report its overall fuel consumption or greenhouse gas emissions — despite requirements to do so laid out in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021.
Research shows the U.S. military produces at least 59 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually — more greenhouse gas emissions than industrialized countries including Sweden, Denmark and Portugal. The fact that the Defense Department doesn’t report its own emissions and has no decarbonization targets is something VFP National President Susan Schnall, who helped organize the Tax Day protest, says her organization wants to change.
Schnall, who served as a Navy nurse from 1967 to 1969 and was court-martialed for her anti-Vietnam War activities during that time, told Truthout the organization’s relatively new Climate Crisis & Militarism Project is pressuring Congress members to support and cosponsor House Resolution 767, which would force the Pentagon to monitor, track and report greenhouse gas emissions from all its operations.
The bill, introduced in the House in November 2021 by Rep. Barbara Lee, also compels the Defense Department to set annual greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for both domestic and foreign operations consistent with the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5°C. It likewise commits the Defense Department to reduce the overall environmental impact of all military activities in accordance with the science-based emission targets set out in the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2022. Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Mondaire Jones, Ro Khanna and Rashida Tlaib are among the resolution’s cosponsors.
Schnall tells Truthout H.R. 767 has become even more important after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Biden’s announcement Thursday of an additional $800 million in military and weapons aid to the country. The new aid package builds on roughly $2.6 billion in military assistance that Biden has already approved. Even moderate reductions in U.S. military spending, Schnall says, could free up enough resources to meet sustainable development goals and fight the climate crisis.
Beyond its arms dealing, Schnall and other VFP organizers say it’s imperative that the Defense Department account for the environmental impacts of its nearly 800 U.S. military bases around the world, as well as for the environmental devastation wrought by its use of chemicals like Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), Agent Orange and depleted uranium, as well as its use of toxic burn pits that have harmed GIs who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another major focus of VFP’s Climate Crisis & Militarism Project is, of course, the environmental and planetary dangers posed by nuclear weapons armaments, she says.
“Every year we hear that we’re on the edge of climate catastrophe from which there would be no return, and it feels like today we certainly are, both in terms of our war-causing extraction and our extraction-causing wars,” Schnall tells Truthout. “The greed of these major international industries and corporations — I feel like it’s trite to say it’s astounding, but it indicates absolutely no concern at all for the future or for humans, just greed for money and profits.”
Weapons manufacturers like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics are already cashing in on the conflict in Ukraine, benefiting not only from direct arms transfers to the country but also from the Pentagon’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing program, both of which finance U.S. arms and military training. Arms contractors can expect additional profits as they work to restock depleted Defense Department inventories, which lawmakers dedicated $3.5 billion of its Ukraine spending package to — $1.75 billion above what the president requested.
Antiwar and GI activists argue that pouring weapons into Ukraine not only closes off prospects for peace, it also continues to accelerate the climate emergency by inflating national military budgets and arms contractors’ bottom lines, reinforcing and expanding a military-industrial complex that is the single biggest institutional driver of the climate emergency.
Yet U.S. military assistance to Ukraine continues to enjoy support among many progressives, antiwar veterans say — including some within the climate and environmental justice movement. That’s something Ramon Mejia, anti-militarism national organizer at Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, plans to warn against on Saturday as a keynote speaker at the Green New Deal Network’s Earth Week mobilization, Fight For Our Future. Mejia, who is also a member of About Face: Veterans Against the War, served as a corporal in the Marine Corps from 2001 to 2004 and deployed to Iraq in 2003.
He tells Truthout he hopes to push conservation and environmental justice organizations to take firmer anti-militarist positions on U.S. foreign policy — including positions against additional arms shipments that will prolong the conflict in Ukraine and potentially imperil efforts at diplomacy.
Environmentalist collaboration with anti-militarist efforts isn’t a given: Mejia points out that some environmentalists are taking approaches that are complicit with militarism. For example, the Sierra Club recently reinstated scheduled trips to Israel after pressure from pro-Israeli organizations. Pro-Palestinian advocates had previously successfully pressed the group to nix the trips, arguing they help to “greenwash Israel’s system of apartheid.”
“We have to be straight across the board and engage in every which way,” Mejia tells Truthout, referring the environmental movement. “We can’t be hypocritical about it. We can’t be like, picking and choosing when we engage and when we don’t.”
Instead of supporting weapons shipments, climate justice groups should focus on ways to deepen diplomatic channels and support Ukrainian refugees and those displaced within the country through humanitarian aid, Mejia argues.
As part of its “No War, No Warming” campaign, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance is joining veterans groups in pressuring members of Congress support H.R. 767 and shrink the overall size of the military, including closing overseas bases and remediating and transitioning the land for community use. The campaign is also pressing lawmakers to reallocate Pentagon, policing and arms funding into life-affirming social spending and community resources, and create policy bans on weapons manufacturing and the production of nuclear weapons. Mejia says the campaign is specifically targeting congressional sponsors of the Green New Deal to drive home the importance of including the military in any plans for a national transition to clean energy.
The history of the first Earth Day in 1970, in which organizers initially modeled a national, environmentally focused teach-in on similar teach-ins debating the Vietnam War on college campuses across the U.S., Mejia says, underscores the need for the antiwar and environmental movements to come together and lift up the linkages between their struggles.
“Earth Day is a bridge between movements and a bridge between communities to say that we all inhabit this this world. If we want to leave a better world after we transition, then we have to build movements across struggles,” Mejia says. “The systems that seek to harm us are intersectional, and we have to be an intersectional movement that bridges across the struggles we are fighting, whether they present as imperialism, capitalism or extractivism…. So it’s important that we continue to carry on [Earth Day’s] legacy.”