climate crisis Military Stan Cox

The Pentagon Is Waging War on Planet Earth

What does it mean, in climate terms, for the U.S., no matter the administration, to pour ever more taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state?
[The National Guard / CC BY 2.0]

By Stan Cox | TomDispatch

On October 1st, the U.S. military will start spending the more than $800 billion Congress is going to provide it with in fiscal year 2023. And that whopping sum will just be the beginning. According to the calculations of Pentagon expert William Hartung, funding for various intelligence agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, and work on nuclear weaponry at the Energy Department will add another $600 billion to what you, the American taxpayer, will be spending on national security.

That $1.4 trillion for a single year dwarfs Congress’s one-time provision of approximately $300 billion under the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for what’s called “climate mitigation and adaptation.” And mind you, that sum is to be spent over a number of years. In contrast to the IRA, which was largely a climate bill (even if hardly the best version of one), this country’s military spending bills are distinctly anti-human, anti-climate, and anti-Earth. And count on this: Congress’s military appropriations will, in all too many ways, cancel out the benefits of its new climate spending.

Here are just the three most obvious ways our military is an enemy of climate mitigation. First, it produces huge quantities of greenhouse gases, while wreaking other kinds of ecological havoc. Second, when the Pentagon does take climate change seriously, its attention is almost never focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions but on preparing militarily for a climate-changed world, including the coming crisis of migration and future climate-induced armed conflicts globally. And third, our war machine wastes hundreds of billions of dollars annually that should instead be spent on climate mitigation, along with other urgent climate-related needs.

The Pentagon’s Carbon Bootprint

The U.S. military is this globe’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum fuels. As a result, it produces greenhouse gas emissions equal to about 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Were the Pentagon a country, those figures would place it just below Ireland and Finland in a ranking of national carbon emissions. Or put another way, our military surpasses the total national emissions of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Slovenia combined.

A lot of those greenhouse gases flow from the construction, maintenance, and use of its 800 military bases and other facilities on 27 million acres across the United States and the world. The biggest source of emissions from actual military operations is undoubtedly the burning of jet fuel. A B-2 bomber, for instance, emits almost two tons of carbon dioxide when flying a mere 50 miles, while the Pentagon’s biggest boondoggle, the astronomically costly F-35 combat aircraft, will emit “only” one ton for every 50 miles it flies.

Those figures come from “Military- and Conflict-Related Emissions,” a June 2022 report by the Perspectives Climate Group in Germany. In it, the authors express regret for the optimism they had exhibited two decades earlier when it came to the reduction of global military greenhouse gas emissions and the role of the military in experimenting with new, clean forms of energy:

“In the process of us writing this report and looking at our article written 20 years ago, the initial notion of assessing military activities… as potential ‘engines of progress’ for novel renewable technologies was shattered by the Iraq War, followed by the horror of yet another large-scale ground war, this time in Europe… All our attention should be directed towards achieving the 1.5° target [of global temperature rise beyond the preindustrial level set at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015]. If we fail in this endeavor, the repercussions will be more deadly than all conflicts we have witnessed in the last decades.”

In March, the Defense Department announced that its proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 would include a measly $3.1 billion for “addressing the climate crisis.” That amounts to less than 0.4% of the department’s total spending and, as it happens, two-thirds of that little sliver of funding will go not to climate mitigation itself but to protecting military facilities and activities against the future impact of climate change. Worse yet, only a tiny portion of the remainder would go toward reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions or other environmental damage the armed forces itself will produce.   

In a 2021 Climate Adaptation Plan, the Pentagon claimed, however vaguely, that it was aiming for a future in which it could “operate under changing climate conditions, preserving operational capability, and enhancing the natural and manmade systems essential to the Department’s success.” It projected that “in worst-case scenarios, climate-change-related impacts could stress economic and social conditions that contribute to mass migration events or political crises, civil unrest, shifts in the regional balance of power, or even state failure. This may affect U.S. national interests directly or indirectly, and U.S. allies or partners may request U.S. assistance.”

Sadly enough, however, as far as the Pentagon is concerned, an overheated world will only open up further opportunities for the military. In a classic case of projection, its analysts warn that “malign actors may try to exploit regional instability exacerbated by the impacts of climate change to gain influence or for political or military advantage.” (Of course, Americans would never act in such a manner since, by definition, the Pentagon is a benign actor, but will have to respond accordingly.)

The CIA and other intelligence agencies seem to share the Pentagon’s vision of our hotter future as a growth opportunity. A 2021 climate risk assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) paid special attention to the globe’s fastest-warming region, the Arctic. Did it draw the intelligence community’s interest because of the need to prevent a meltdown of the planet’s ice caps if the Earth is to remain a livable place for humanity? What do you think?

In fact, its authors write revealingly of the opportunities, militarily speaking, that such a scenario will open up as the Arctic melts:

“Arctic and non-Arctic states almost certainly will increase their competitive activities as the region becomes more accessible because of warming temperatures and reduced ice. … Military activity is likely to increase as Arctic and non-Arctic states seek to protect their investments, exploit new maritime routes, and gain strategic advantages over rivals. The increased presence of China and other non-Arctic states very likely will amplify concerns among Arctic states as they perceive a challenge to their respective security and economic interests.”

In other words, in an overheated future, a new “cold” war will no longer be restricted to what were once the more temperate parts of the planet.

If, in climate change terms, the military worries about anything globally, it’s increased human migration from devastated areas like today’s flood-ridden Pakistan, and the conflicts that could come with it. In cold bureaucratese, that DNI report predicted that, as ever more of us (or rather, in national security state terms, of them) begin fleeing heat, droughts, floods, and tropical cyclones, “Displaced populations will increasingly demand changes to international refugee law to consider their claims and provide protection as climate migrants or refugees, and affected populations will fight for legal payouts for loss and damages resulting from climate effects.” Translation: We won’t pay climate reparations and we won’t pay to help keep other peoples’ home climates livable, but we’re more than willing to spend as much as it takes to block them from coming here, no matter the resulting humanitarian nightmares.

Is It Finally Time to Defund War?

Along with the harm caused by its outsized greenhouse gas emissions and its exploitation of climate chaos as an excuse for imperialism, the Pentagon wreaks terrible damage by soaking up trillions of dollars in government funds that should have gone to meet all-too-human needs, mitigate climate change, and repair the ecological damage the Pentagon itself has caused in its wars in this century.

Months before Russia invaded Ukraine, ensuring that yet more greenhouse gases would be pumped into our atmosphere, a group of British scholars lamented the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for military funding. They wrote that, “rather than scaling back military spending to pay for urgent climate-related spending, initial budget requests for military appropriations are actually increasing even as some U.S. foreign adventures are supposedly coming to a close.” It’s pointless, they suggested, “to tinker around the edges of the U.S. war machine’s environmental impact.” The funds spent “procuring and distributing fuel across the U.S. empire could instead be spent as a peace dividend [that] includes significant technology transfer and no-strings-attached funding for adaptation and clean energy to those countries most vulnerable to climate change.”

Washington could still easily afford that “peace dividend,” were it to begin cutting back on its military spending. And don’t forget that, at past climate summits, the rich nations of this planet pledged to send $100 billion annually to the poorest ones so that they could develop their renewable energy capacity, while preparing for and adapting to climate change. All too predictably, the deep-pocketed nations, including the U.S., have stonewalled on that pledge.  And of course, as the recent unprecedented monsoon flooding of one-third of Pakistan — a country responsible for less than 1% of historic global greenhouse gases — suggests, it’s already remarkably late for that skimpy promise of a single hundred billion dollars; hundreds of billions per year are now needed. Mind you, Congress could easily divert enough from the Pentagon’s annual budget alone to cover its part of the global climate-reparations tab. And that should be only the start of a wholesale shift toward peacetime spending. No such luck, of course. 

As the National Priorities Project (NPP) has pointed out, increases in national security funding alone in 2022 could have gone a long way toward supporting Joe Biden’s expansive Build Back Better bill, which failed in Congress that year. That illustrates yet again how, as William Hartung put it, “almost anything the government wants to do other than preparing for or waging war involves a scramble for funding, while the Department of Defense gets virtually unlimited financial support,” often, in fact, more than it even asks for.

The Democrats’ bill, which would have provided solid funding for renewable energy development, child care, health care, and help for economically stressed families was voted down in the Senate by all 50 Republicans and one Democrat (yes, that guy) who claimed that the country couldn’t afford the bill’s $170 billion-per-year price tag. However, in the six months that followed, as the NPP notes, Congress pushed through increases in military funding that added up to $143 billion — almost as much as Build Back Better would have cost per year!

As Pentagon experts Hartung and Julia Gledhill commented recently, Congress is always pulling such stunts, sending more money to the Defense Department than it even requested. Imagine how much crucial federal action on all kinds of issues could be funded if Congress began deeply cutting, rather than inflating, the cash it shovels out for war and imperialism.

Needed: A Merger of Movements

Various versions of America’s antiwar movement have been trying to confront this country’s militarism since the days of the Vietnam War with minimal success.  After all, Pentagon budgets, adjusted for inflation, are as high as ever. And, not coincidentally, greenhouse gas emissions from both the military and this society as a whole remain humongous. All these years later, the question remains: Can anything be done to impede this country’s money-devouring, carbon-spewing military juggernaut?

For the past twenty years, CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization, has been one of the few national groups deeply involved in both the antiwar and climate movements. Jodie Evans, one of its cofounders, told me recently that she sees a need for “a whole new movement intersecting the antiwar movement with the climate movement.” In pursuit of that very goal, she said, CODEPINK has organized a project called Cut the Pentagon. Here’s how she describes it: “It’s a coalition of groups serving issues of people’s needs and the planet’s needs and the anti-war movement, because all of us have an interest in cutting the war machine. We launched it on September 12th last year, after 20 years of a ‘War on Terror’ that took $21 trillion of our tax money, to destroy the planet, to destroy the Middle East, to destroy our communities, to turn peacekeeping police into warmongering police.” Cut the Pentagon, says Evans, has “been doing actions in [Washington] D.C. pretty much nonstop since we launched it.”

Sadly, in 2022, both the climate and antiwar struggles face the longest of odds, going up against this country’s most formidable strongholds of wealth and power. But CODEPINK is legendary for finding creative ways of getting in the face of the powerful interests it opposes and nonviolently upending business-as-usual. “As an activist for the last 50 some-odd years,” Evans says, “I always felt my job was to make power uncomfortable, and to disrupt it.” But since the start of the Covid pandemic, she adds, “Power is making us more uncomfortable than we are making it. It’s stronger and more weaponized than it has been before in my lifetime.”

Among the hazards of this situation, she adds, social movements that manage to grow and become effective often find themselves coopted and, she adds, over the past two decades, “Too many of us got lazy… We thought ‘clicktivism’ creates change, but it doesn’t.” Regarding an education bill early in the Trump administration, “We had 200 million messages going into Congress from a vast coalition, and we lost. Then a month later, we had only 2,000 people, but we were right there in the halls of Congress and we saved Obamacare. Members of Congress don’t like being uncomfortable.”

As the military-industrial complex and Earth-killing capitalism only seem to grow ever mightier, Evans and CODEPINK continue pushing for action in Washington. And recently, she believes, a window has been opening:

“For the first time since the sixties and early seventies, it feels like a lot of people are seeing through the propaganda, really being willing to create new structures and new forms. We need to go where both our votes and our voices matter. Creating local change — that’s our work. Our divest-from-war campaigns are all local. Folks who care about the planet need to figure out how do we make power uncomfortable… It’s not a fight of words. It’s a fight of being.”

The major crises we now face are so deeply entangled that perhaps grassroots efforts to face them might, in the end, coalesce. The question remains: From the neighborhood to the nation, could movements for climate mitigation and justice, Indigenous sovereignty, Black lives, economic democracy, and, crucially, an end to the American form of militarism merge into a single collective wave? Our future may depend on it.

Copyright 2022 Stan Cox

Stan Cox, a TomDispatch regular, is a research fellow in ecosphere studies at The Land Institute. He is the author of The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next PandemicThe Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, and the current In Real Time climate series at City Lights Books.

6 comments

  1. Seems to me the first thing we need to do is dump “identity politics” – too many “identities” vying for attention each for their own cause – and the number of identities seems to be increasing as each group subdivides and fights for attention …

    What if we simply all “identified” as human beings, which is what we are – having MANY more things in common with regard to our basic needs – than we do differences which are too often basically only skin deep ….

    This is not “politically correct” I realize …. but until and unless we do this, we are all screwed, some sooner than others, but in the end all facing the same fate …

  2. If we can get rid of ‘citizens united’ and stop the ridiculous notion that corporations are people we might have a chance.

  3. A PERVERTED OUROBOROS

    The cause behind both endless war and climate change is a sick econ system. One driven by the need for constant expansion, and which defines nature as nothing more than source and sink. The Earth as merely a supply of resources, including human ones, their value strip-mined and clear cut to benefit the purposeless projects of a tiny global elite.

    Yes, the Pentagon “is waging war on the planet.” Terminal capitalism has devolved so far all that remains is MIC. Cui bono? In the U.S., the Dem oligarchical “meritocracy” represents the interests of the upper middle class professionals and administrators while the Rs serve the 1/10th% plutocrats. Both parties are sponsored by the same corporate interests and are well rewarded by enforcing the status quo of economic privilege.

    So of course the idea of a “peace dividend” has never been taken seriously. That would require massive changes. Worse yet, it would benefit the many instead of only the few.

    There is a deep irony in the fact that the origin of the words ecology and economics are from the same Greek root referring to household. The capitalist econ system has become a perverted ouroboros; a serpent with its head up its own ass, eating itself alive.

  4. William Hartung is right on the money when it comes to “Pentagon Politics.” And thanks too a fine article by Stan Cox and Scheerpost for publishing it.

    Years ago, in my community, we formed a “sustainable environmental” group with monthly meetings plus we put on programs for the general public on these issues. At one of our meetings, I said, “We should do a program on the amount of toxic pollution the U;S. military emits across the planet,” and one of the founders of the group, said, “No, it’s too political!”

    Dr. Jack Rasmus, Professor of political economy mentioned in a reply to someone’s question, (words to this effect) said, “If you want to change things and conditions for the better, you have to change the political system first.”

    By continually voting for the Republicans who serve the super-rich, the big corporate bosses and the military industrial complex, and the Democrats, who serve the super-rich, the big corporate bosses
    and the military industrial complex, things will continue to worsen for the general population and the environment. Alternative political parties in the United States are small, and without substantial funding, are going nowhere. The oligarchy which runs this country contribute millions of dollars to both the R’s and the D’s. It’s simple arithmetic and their numbers add up.

    1. SOME QUESTIONS
      @ Frank Lambert
      You actually did local work; I’d appreciate your comments on:

      1.) Sounds like attempts at community education about sustainability, presumably locally based. If so, was this effective? Did people respond?

      2.) About the person who said “it’s too political.” Did this mean the person thought the subject too extensive to take on? Or too powerful an organization? Also seems to imply that issues are best handled as if neutral. Was that the case? How did the other people there react?

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