There is a vast disconnect between what the military does, what we know, and what must be done to avoid ecological ruin.
We don’t think holistically about war. When considering the costs of wars we limit our thoughts to war budgets and expenditures, loss of combatants and non-combatants, healing the injured, destruction of infrastructure, cities, countries, and even species’ annihilation in case of a thermonuclear war, but scarcely about pollution and the destruction of the climate (or the powerful institutional war-profiteers – capitalism).
We don’t think holistically about climate change either. We rarely consider militarism (or capitalism) in talking about environmental crises. It is troubling that discussions about global warming and within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, the UN’s climate body, exclude emissions of greenhouse gasses (GHG) by the world’s armed forces. Yes, wars kill people, destroy places, and threaten omnicide with nuclear annihilation but also, they are killers of the climate. The world’s militaries are among the world’s greatest users of fossil fuels and together are responsible for about 6% of total global emissions of GHG. If the world’s militaries were a country, it would be ranked 4th globally for its national carbon footprint.
Much of what scientists, academics, and environmentalists “know” about military emissions is sketchy at best owing to this long-standing exemption. The origin of the exemption goes back to the UNFCCC negotiations in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The US military, one of the largest climate polluters in history, resisted the inclusion of military emissions and succeeded in exempting armed forces from reporting them. It feared that reporting emissions would lead to calls for their reduction and potential restrictions of operations thereby weakening US military dominance and war-making ability. Other militaries have security concerns that reporting emissions might reveal their activities to others.
The subsequent 2015 Paris Agreement did not remedy this situation and made reporting of military emissions a voluntary affair. Most countries do not require their militaries to provide emissions reporting. The military exemptions amount to a free pass to the largest polluters in the world. A consequence of exemptions is the presence of significant data gaps about the true scale of military emissions thereby making it difficult for the climate science community to estimate total military emissions. Another is that military emissions cannot be subject to emissions reduction targets or negotiations by governments. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments barely touch on emissions from the Armed Forces.
The US military, ironically, is one of the first institutions to have acknowledged the reality of climate change. Its recognition, however, is driven by concerns about the security and technical implications of climate breakdown for its military operations worldwide. These perceived challenges include the threat posed by rising sea levels to coastal military bases, the impact of melting ice on submarine warfare, the disruptive effects of severe weather events on agriculture, the intensification of resource wars in various regions of the world impacted by severe climate events, a dramatic increase in climate change-induced mass migrations, and the prospect of Russia becoming a maritime nation owing to warming of the Arctic Ocean.
It is not that the US military is uninterested in decreasing its carbon footprint. Indeed, there has been a decline in its carbon footprint over the years. Rather, the problem is that it conceives the issue within a narrow framework of making its bases and operations more efficient. The operations side accounts for about two-thirds of the estimated emissions while the installations take up the rest. “Greening the military” is thus limited to base realignments, some closures, and diversification of power sources away from coal to natural gas and electricity.
This limited approach is a function of the military’s mission in the context of maintaining the US imperial hegemony, an often-overlooked fact.
Take the case of the overseas bases. The US has 750 military base sites in more than 80 foreign countries and colonies/territories (including secretive bases in Israel and Saudi Arabia) comprising about 80% of the world’s foreign military bases. There are multiple issues connected to maintaining the US empire of bases. They include bases becoming targets for adversaries, causing environmental damage owing to the use, disposal, and dumping of toxic materials, antagonizing local anger and protest owing to crimes and exploitative prostitution linked to bases, displacing indigenous peoples, disrupting relationships, and separating the military personnel from family members, and maintaining bases in repressive or undemocratic countries. Since the 1990s more than 1,000 bases have closed in Europe and Asia.
The US, nonetheless, is unlikely to close most of its overseas bases although there are good reasons to do so. For example, the US has developed rapid deployment capacity from domestic bases that allows it to deploy forces anywhere globally nearly as fast as from its overseas bases. The US used its overseas bases at least 25 times since 1980 in military interventions and wars of aggression in 15 countries in West Asia. Its rapid deployment capacity practically frees it from reliance on its overseas bases. There is also an estimated 19% domestic base excess capacity available to returning military personnel abroad. Perhaps the latter factor means that no more than a 20% reduction in overseas base structure in the foreseeable future is desirable from the standpoint of the US military planners. That is not tantamount to a major rethinking of the US force posture globally and does not represent a substantial reduction in overall military emissions.
We need to keep in mind that two-thirds of military emissions come from military activities, especially operations. The emissions from military operations in turn increase during wars such as the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War, the post-9/11 Wars, the Ukraine War, and now the genocidal Israeli military assault on Gaza, and they decline in their aftermath. (The Ukraine War produced in its first year as much emissions as those by Singapore, Switzerland, and Syria combined. I am not aware of any estimates for the US-baked Israeli assault on Gaza now in its 5th month.) Wars often lead to other major emission events. For example, the emissions from the burning of oil fields in Iraq during the 1991 war accounted for 2% of global emissions for that year.
Let’s take the case of the post-9/11 wars and get a sense of the costs of endless wars in terms of CO2 emissions. If the War on Iraq during its first four years from 2003 to 2007 were to be thought of as a country in terms of its emissions, it would have ranked above 139 countries’ annual emissions. During each of those years, the war emitted more than 60% of all the countries in the world.
The US wars since 2001 have not just caused massive harm to the people (e.g., over 4.5 million war-related deaths and 38 million war refugees), robbed the public treasure of precious resources (e.g., the US price tag has reached $8 trillion not including the future interest costs of borrowing for these wars or caring for the injured veterans; the overall Pentagon spending totaled over $14 trillion), but also accelerated climate change: the US military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases between 2001 and 2017, equivalent to the annual emissions of 257 million cars, more than double the number of cars on the road in the US. War-related fuel consumption accounted for more than a third of the total emissions.
Or take the US military’s emissions from fuel usage alone. The US military consumes more hydrocarbons than most countries, and if it were a country, it would be the world’s 47th largest emitter of GHG. These figures don’t even consider the impact on the planet of making nuclear bombs and generating nuclear waste. Is it any wonder then that the Department of Defense’s carbon footprint is indeed on par with the emissions of Portugal, Sweden, or Denmark and that if it were a country, it would rank 55th among all states in the world?
The 5th c. BC Greek poet Aeschylus said, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Could it be that the climate will be the last casualty?
Is this a hyperbole?
There is a vast disconnect between what the military does, what we know, and what must be done to avoid ecological ruin. We cannot have both ecological sanity and US imperial militarism. Unless this realization finds a way into public consciousness, all efforts to reverse course and avoid ecological catastrophe will fall perilously short. The US ruling class has hardly any serious ideas about managing the trajectory of the crisis-ridden and atrocity-producing system it represents, let alone reversing its drive toward the abyss of an unlivable planet. It is up to us to dismantle the empire, restructure the military, reduce it to a fraction of its present size, create an equitable, ecological society, and soon.