The Pentagon is the Elephant In the Climate Activist Room

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Yves here. Your humble blogger does endeavor to point out the significant role of the military-industrial complex in climate change, and how it’s weirdly omitted from Green New Deal and similar schemes. This piece is a badly-needed counterweight.

By Melissa Garriga, the communications and media analysis manager for CODEPINK and Tim Biondo, the digital communications manager for CODEPINK. Originally published at Common Dreams

With nearly 10,000 people expected to take to the streets of New York City on September 17 for the March to End Fossil Fuels, the climate justice movement seems more organized than ever. But, there’s a big elephant in the room, and it has the Pentagon written all over it.

The U.S. military is the world’s largest institutional oil consumer. It causes more greenhouse gas emissions than 140 nations combined and accounts for about one-third of America’s total fossil fuel consumption. The Department of Defense (DoD) also uses huge amounts of natural gas and coal, as well as nuclear power plants at its bases around the country. How can we demand the U.S. be part of a movement that aims to end the use of fossil fuels and protect our planet when their own institution is wreaking havoc without accountability? The answer: you can’t.

As long as we ignore the Pentagon’s role in perpetuating climate change, our fight to protect the planet is incomplete. We also risk undermining our own effectiveness by not taking into account how the nearly trillion-dollar military budget takes away from people’s access to resources that not only affect their capacity to fight for climate justice but also to live under extreme economic inequality.

While United States officials want the consumer public to be responsible for their personal carbon footprint, such as making motorists switch to electric vehicles or banning incandescent light bulbs they are avoiding responsibility for the large carbon “bootprint” the military is leaving across the globe. From burn pits in Iraq, or the use of depleted uranium and cluster munitions in Ukraine, to the ever-expanding list of domestic and oversea military bases—the United States military is not only destroying its own country but devastating indigenous communities and sovereign nations through extreme environmental degradation.

According to the Environmental Working Group, “more than 700 military installations are likely contaminated with the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.” But the problem goes far beyond drinking water. In Japan, the indigenous Ryukyuan is pushing back against yet another military base being built on the island of Okinawa. The new base is a major threat to the fragile ecosystem the Ryukyuans work hard to maintain. The damage to their marine ecosystem of course coincides with the poisoning of their drinking water—a fight both Hawaii and Guam are all too familiar with.

All of these contributing factors of climate destruction are happening in “conflict-free” zones, but what impact does the U.S. military have on active warzones? Well, take a look at the Russian/Ukraine war—a war that the U.S. is helping to sustain to the tune of over a hundred billion dollars. CNN recently reported that “a total of 120 million metric tons of planet-heating pollution can be attributed to the first 12 months of the war.” They explained how those measures are “equivalent to the annual emissions of Belgium, or those produced by nearly 27 million gas-powered cars on the road for a year.” The damage doesn’t end there. The war in Ukraine has compromised pipelines and methane leaks; attributed to dead dolphins and marine harm; caused deforestation, farmland destruction, and water contamination; as well as the increase in production of dirty energy like coal. It also carries the imminent threat of radiation leaks and nuclear catastrophe. The continuation of this war is the continuation of ecocide. We must do what we can to end it now and without further death and destruction.

The United States is not only fueling the current climate crisis but it is also funding it at our expense and peril. The Pentagon uses up 64% of our government’s discretionary spending (which includes things like education and healthcare). We are spending our money that could fund social programs into the continuation of climate disaster.

Ordinary Americans, especially Black, Brown and poor communities, are forced to pay for endless war and environmental degradation through higher taxes, fees, and utility bills. Climate change is a threat to national security, with the potential to affect global stability and the ability of governments to provide essential services. Who remembers Vice President Kamala Harris ominous quote, “For years there were wars fought over oil; in a short time there will be wars fought over water.”

The Pentagon’s core mission is to prepare for potential attacks by human adversaries, but none of the United States’ “adversaries” —Russia, Iran, China and North Korea—are certain to attack the United States. Nor is a large standing military the only way to reduce the threats these alleged adversaries pose who all have much smaller militaries in comparison. “As the government tries to scare Americans over these hypothetical “threats,” they refuse to address the real danger communities across the world face every day due to climate change.”

The climate crisis is here now with real consequences. In the United States, climate change is already contributing to drought and wildfires in California, Hawaii, and Louisiana. Sea level rise threatens coastal communities and rising temperatures are likely to increase civil unrest and contribute to more job-related deaths.

We have to act now by pushing peace and cooperation around the globe. We must divert spending away from military base occupation and war and into climate crisis aversion. Or else.

We need a climate justice platform that calls for an end to wars abroad and at home. We need to permanently end the war on terror, which has cost trillions of dollars, killed millions of people, and created an endless cycle of violence and instability around the world.

We need to stop spending billions on weapons systems designed to fight imaginary enemies. Instead we should use that money for domestic priorities like health care, education, and infrastructure projects.

We need to work side by side with all nations to address climate issues. This includes those we have deemed as enemies as well as the Global South—who are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

We need to make sure that our tax dollars are being spent on the things that matter most to us–and that means an end to endless war and environmental degradation. We need a Green New Deal which redirects federal funds from military spending towards domestic priorities like health care, education, and infrastructure projects.

When it comes to the fight for climate justice, the Pentagon is the elephant in the room. We can’t keep ignoring its enormous “bootprint.” It’s simple—to defend earth we must end war and we must end it now. Peace is no longer something that should be looked at as an utopian idea—it is a necessity. Our survival depends on it.

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  1. flora

    Thanks for this post.

    The military has been developing weather modification/control techniques for decades. How much does that contribute to what we call climate change? Is their geoengineering project causing what we call climate change? Is sprayinng heavy metals into the upper atmosphere changing soil Ph with contaminated rain? Will clean water become the new oil? There’s a good video about this question on Rumble which would play yesterday but will not play today. Has Rumble been, uh, “youtubed”? As one of the scientists interviewed in the video observed, if you put a ‘sunshade’ over the earth to keep out some of the suns radiation you are also keeping in some of the earth’s built up heat which would normally escape in the night hours. That could also create climate heating. /;)

  2. John R Moffett

    In President Eisenhower’s farewell speech, he warned that the military industrial complex would sap the US of its resources and energy, and he was absolutely prescient in that regard. But at that time the connection between the military and pollution (including radioactive waste), habitat destruction and general harm to earth’s biosphere was not understood. Now we have more reason than ever to demand that it be dismantled and the resources and energy be put to much better uses.

  3. The Rev Kev

    If you are going to use your military to garrison the planet and need over a thousand bases to do so, it is obvious that one of the main missions of your military will have to be is to seize control of countries that produce oil as you will need that oil to run your military machine to garrison the planet with. If that is not the description of a self-licking ice cream, then I don’t know what one is.

  4. digi_owl

    I seem to recall DARPA having several programs going to try to make the various branches self-sufficient, because keeping them supplied also makes them vulnerable.

    One such is trying to use carrier nuclear reactors to produce jet fuel from sea water, so they no longer need that bucket brigade of tankers following them around.

    Another was looking into various alternatives to diesel generators for bases, in particular for charging the batteries for all those gizmos and radios a soldier carries these days.

    Long gone are the days when they could air drop a crate of MRE and rifle ammo ever so often.

  5. bassmule

    “We need to permanently end the war on terror, which has cost trillions of dollars, killed millions of people, and created an endless cycle of violence and instability around the world.”

    We are the scourge of the planet. We could have been the world’s rich uncle. Instead, China is.

    1. Kurtismayfield

      We were the heir of the British empire, a human construction with a history of violence that spans for hundreds of years. And no one asked the US people if they wanted it. We have had no choice.

      1. Synoia

        Arguably 150 t0 200 years for the British Empire.

        But one could include the formation of the United Kingdom, which would take us back to the Norman conquest in 1066.

        1. Ian

          In 1801 Ireland joined Britain (created in 1707) to create the UK. Most of Ireland seceded from the UK in 1922 leaving only Northern Ireland as part of the UK. In 1066 the Normans conquered England.

  6. ilsm

    Between 9 and 10 percent of miltary systems’ total ownership cost is energy, almost all of that is from petroleum product or coal…..

    With an aerial refueling anF-16 can burn more than its dry weight in fuel in one mission…. maybe more!

    Consumption for Abrams tank is measured by gallon per mile.

    Every 20 odd years a nuclear ship is “refueled” no where permanent to put the radioactive debris!

      1. playon

        At one time we lived about 50 miles from Hanford, which is a mega-accident waiting to happen. We were fortunate to not be downwind from the place. I would think it’s only a matter of time before the waste from Hanford’s leaky tanks makes its way to the nearby Columbia river, if it hasn’t happened already.

        Anyone who thinks the US military will change its carbon footprint anytime soon is probably dreaming…

  7. ISL

    Actually, it is highly consistent – climate change deprivation for the little people, no impact for the jet setters, or the politically connected MICC, and sure, start them coal power plants rather than talk accommodation with Russia. One suspects the elite are private climate deniers / public gospel preachers, who can’t let a crisis go to waste, even if it means the crisis only worsens.

    1. Rolf

      One suspects the elite are private climate deniers / public gospel preachers, who can’t let a crisis go to waste, even if it means the crisis only worsens.

      I actually doubt they are truly deniers, unless they are quite stupid. I think their defining characteristic is greed. Gates, Bezos, et al., as well as their grasping imitators among the somewhat-less-than-stratospherically-wealthy jet set, simply care about little more than acquiring even more wealth and influence than they already have. We end up with these sorts in power, and the political class that supports them, because we refuse to set taxes sufficiently high to effectively limit their wealth.

      Moreover, I think it is folly to expect such people to grow a real social conscience, or to recognize when enough is enough, to come to grips with their grotesquely outsized role in catastrophic change. Defenders will invariably rebut with “but look how much [insert your favorite oligarch here] has given away in charitable contributions”, but this is the faux charity that purchases credibility and fawning media acceptance, but zealously avoids any socially responsible change in their lifestyles.

      They will indeed be unable to let the crisis “go to waste” — they are unable to do little else, as crises to them are but opportunities for profit. Forever thinking of themselves as “innovators” and change agents, any “solution” they advocate or sponsor will involve zero change in their own behavior. It’s just not in their DNA.

  8. Adam Eran

    There’s not much attention to the benefit provided by the military. Mariana Mazzucato reports roughly 80% of the inventions that make the smart phone possible are the result of government-funded research, much of that military. The CIA funded the research that led to touch screens, for one example. Silicon valley would not have been possible without military funding for the basic research that made possible personal computers, software and all the whiz-bang inventions now re-purposed for civilian use..

    There’s also the “job guarantee” plea from Modern Money Theory. We have that now. It’s called “military recruitment.” One of my neighbors is an X-Ray technician, a trade he learned in the military. The Department of Attack…er, I mean “Defense” runs a job guarantee program. The fact that US citizens endorse belligerence underlies its reliance on DOD jobs and training.

    The Chinese used gunpowder for fireworks. Leave it to the Westerners to repurpose it as fuel for weapons.

    JFK’s “Peace Corps” idea was an initial attempt to divert this activity from military uses. I’d suggest we’ll need a lot more of that if there’s going to be any potential for change….although the tragic collapse of civilization could also provide that impetus for change too.

    1. juno mas

      So, if the inventions that make the smart phone possible are government funded, why doesn’t the government (the people) participate in the profits?

  9. Paul Whittaker

    Finally this ugly scar is seeing the light of day. We can hope that the MIC and its lackeys do not take the ship with it as it fades out. its all about money and power.

  10. Peter Nightingale

    My verdict on this post: lots of words but a complete lack national or global energy perspective. Here is mine.

    Excuse the introductory detour, my attempt to find the relevant energy data. Mobile nuclear microreactors apparently cannot be developed within the confines of the standard nuclear regulatory framework, as I discussed in more detail in this Substack post Lies, Damned Lies and Nucleonics. (Look for “Atomic Energy Act.”)

    In January of 2021, just before leaving office, the President of the U.S. issued the following executive order: Promoting Small Modular Reactors for National Defense and Space Exploration, and I cite:

    Sec. 4. Defense Capabilities. (a) The Department of Defense is one of the largest consumers of energy in the world, using more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day and 30,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year, nearly all of which is provided through civilian electrical grids.

    These numbers are as reliable as one would expect from a Pentagon that has never passed an audit. It’s all I can find in addition to insignificantly different numbers from virtually identical sources.

    Now let me translate these numbers into units that provide a global context. 30,000 gigawatt-hours per year amounts to a power consumption of 3 gigawatt. If I use that one gallon of oil has an energy content of about 120 megajoule. In other words, 10 million gallons of fuel per day is equivalent to 14 gigawatt. The a total of 17 gigawatt. The U.S. consumes about 100 quad per year. In Standard International units that amounts to 3,300 gigawatt. To power the globe humanity uses about 17,500 gigawatts.

    If I haven’t dropped any zeros—my eternal fear—I conclude that the U.S. military is one elephant in global room with one thousand other elephants.

    1. Carolinian

      Didn’t I hear that Greta Thunberg is all for the Ukraine war? So much for activism. Not to mention those other boosters the German Greens!

      Causes get worn and discarded like fashion,. .

  11. Susan the other

    The generosity required for peace keeping (as opposed to oppression and coercion) might amount to the same cost as enforcing all this belligerence. But peace keeping would require reclamation of all the toxic pollution thus far and preventing it in future, in addition to supporting a level of well being for the planet and all of us creatures who live here. And prevention using policies of conservation of any more exploitation of natural resources for money. Money has become a negative reward because it comes from plundering the environment. But peace keeping would require just as much money as supporting continued waste, destruction and pollution which now really amounts to a “business model” for the military. Exploitation and extraction is not a viable business anymore. It’s just disaster capitalism. It couldn’t possibly get any more grotesque than it is. It might be a good idea to try beneficial capitalism – requiring a redefinition of capital and profit. It’s simply too lazy to assume there’s no gain in long term maintenance. Or maybe it’s just impatience that has become our nemesis. Are laziness and impatience the same thing? Maybe denial as well? And my point is that the institution we call “the military” is well suited to begin this kind of change. Even our arms manufacturers could retool. I’m convinced the US Congress is the pig.

  12. Synoia

    The generosity required for peace keeping …

    That worked well in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, beautifully for Israel, not so much for Iraq, Kosovo, Germany, Ukraine, to mention sample.

    In the last Century it was expected US Manufactured good to be beneficial. That has disappear, and Bribes and arm twisting of officials are the latest US encouragements.

    Where did Zelenskyy get his pot of gold and 4 or 5 expensive houses?

    1. Susan the other

      Zelensky is just another mercenary. An executive mercenary. They always make shocking amounts of money for destroying things. Well being and peacekeeping need to be better defined if we are going to turn things around. We do need a new mindset, especially about money. I think the situation is so critical – the environment can no longer support us and repair itself – that we a level of generosity and cooperation that we have so far never attained. The problem? Imo it is money itself – the profit motive has driven us to exploit and destroy the future for (drumroll) … money. So we’ve gone around in a circle of money and devastation for aeons. Yes, it is that illogical. So one of the advantages of the military is that they are organized in a way that is the opposite of profiteering – I’m not talking about the industrialists and the grifters. – I’m just referring to the human organization. And it is all paid for by the government, the cooperation and generosity of all of us. So right off the bat it is a system that does not rely on making a profit, so it’s “shovel ready”. I don’t think it matters that we throw trillions at the military if they manage to repair and maintain the environment and keep peace and well being. The returns from nature and us humans for that generosity will be exponential.

  13. Jeremy Grimm

    Unless the u.s. is fortunate to write future history, it will be remembered as a great Evil that once afflicted the Earth.

    1. Synoia

      If and only if the Human Race can survive the coming extinction event. We are intelligent Monkeys, and two clever by half.

  14. Acacia

    Thanks for this post. In conversations with friends and colleagues, I have been drawing attention to the enormous energy and CO2 “bootprint” of the US military for some years now. My impression is that most people just don’t want to think about it and are content to focus on energy-saving measures like insulating their water heaters, dialing down their thermostats a little, wearing more layers, while criticizing, trying to guilt-trip, or actively micro-manage others for too many overseas vacations, running hot water too long, using air conditioning in the summer, etc.

    This sort of ignoring-the-elephant-in-the-room discourse is nothing new, but I have no idea how to get past it. Idk if it just takes repetition, or more data, or some other line of argument, but something seems needed to get people thinking differently about this.

    Recently, for example, an eco-minded friend opined that most contemporary art and entertainment forms should be “cancelled” (e.g., cinema, TV, pop music, etc.), and only traditional art forms should be “allowed” — because the contemporary forms are all too energy intensive (no evidence was provided to support this claim, of course). When I raised the issue of the energy consumption of the US military and suggested that we might think about that, this was once again simply ignored.

    After hearing this sort of thing for years, though, my sense is that those who ignore the elephants in favor of trying to micro-manage, “cancel”, or police others’ personal energy usage — in my experience these people tend to get ignored, per the old adage: “never talk to the police”.

    1. dave -- just dave

      “Bootprint” is, of course, a militarization of “footprint”

      The co-originator of the term, William Rees, is still actively involved in attempting to promote awareness of our ecological predicament – you can find his many presentations and conversations on YouTube. From the Wikipedia article just cited, quoting Rees:

      The human enterprise is in potentially disastrous ‘overshoot’, exploiting the ecosphere beyond ecosystems’ regenerative capacity and filling natural waste sinks to overflowing. Economic behavior that was once ‘rational’ has become maladaptive. This situation is the inevitable outcome of humanity’s natural expansionist tendencies reinforced by ecologically vacuous growth-oriented ‘neoliberal’ economic theory.

      And the article states that “Rees now believes that economic and demographic degrowth are necessary to create societies with small enough ecological footprints to remain sustainable and avoid civilizational collapse.”

      The tourist asks a local person for directions – this could be in Maine, but not necessarily – and the reply is “You can’t get there from here.” Unpacking this a bit, the reply means “your destination requires going someplace else first”. That’s the way I think about the world problematique – military mass murder, oligarchy, pandemics, ecocide – “you can’t get there from here” by normal political processes. You’ve got to go somewhere else first. It’s like the semi-compliant mule, to allude to another joke of my grandfather’s – he’ll do what is asked of him AFTER you get his attention.

      I’m past three quarters of a century in age, and have a chronic and probably terminal disease, so I may not see the “worldwide epiphany” – the “global metanoia” – that the situation requires. When relatives and friends have new grandchildren, I congratulate them and keep my misgivings to myself. Is Al Gore’s most recent TED talk peddling hopium? I just don’t know. Stuff will happen, and it will be dealt with, one way or another. May peace be with us all.

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