Climate change is arguably the most critical issue of our time. Many scientists are trying to persuade global leaders to pass urgent policies that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and widespread fossil fuel use. However, national militaries have contributed significantly to worldwide environmental destruction, which gets overlooked in climate change analysis. The United States military has a larger carbon footprint than any national military, ranking 47th on the list of the greatest global GHG emitters if it were a country.
U.S. Officials recognize that their military needs to reduce their global emissions and have proposed transitions to greener military technologies. However, limiting the military’s reliance on fossil fuels and reducing GHG emissions through gradually adopting cleaner weapons is not the most sustainable strategy. To minimize the destructive effects of climate change, U.S. officials must defund the military and decrease their military activity entirely.
U.S. Military Emissions
It is difficult to obtain consistent data on military emissions and include them within national climate targets due to the language of international climate agreements. After intense lobbying from U.S. officials, the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, freed governments from reporting their CO2 emissions. Furthermore, under the 2015 Paris Agreement, governments are “not required to provide full data on greenhouse gasses being emitted by armed forces,” but can decide to do so voluntarily. In June 2017, former U.S. President Donald Trump left the 2015 Paris climate agreement, detaching the United States from the global responsibility to meet collective climate targets.
In 2021, the U.S. increased its military budget to USD 801 billion, marking the “seventh consecutive year that spending increased,” even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. military, particularly the Air Force, has released 1.2 billion tons of carbon since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Not only were the decade-long military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan environmentally destructive, but the cost of human life from these wars supersedes any justification for the occupations.
Proposed Strategies and Green Technologies
While military officials recognize the urgency of climate change, they hold a narrow view that it poses a national security threat to the United States and they disregard the violent consequences climate change has on the environment and human life. The military’s proposed solution is to adopt modern, greener technology, allowing them to pursue their core mission of imperial control simply with greener weapons.
One method that officials have proposed is the adoption of a fleet of hybrid military vehicles by 2023 and implementing “100% carbon pollution-free electricity at Army installations by 2030.” The Navy, for instance, has already produced fleets that run on biofuels as opposed to the old maritime technology that depended on hydrocarbons. However, the legitimacy of biofuels as a sustainable energy source remains a hot topic of debate, as there are several unintended environmental consequences to their consumption.
Another proposed strategy is to reconsider the operational use of military bases and territories to make them more sustainable by using renewable energy. Global militaries own between 1-6% of the earth’s land surface, much of which belongs to the American military. Specifically, the U.S. military occupies land in 80 countries with over 750 international military bases. While implementing green energy in buildings and institutions is a step towards sustainable energy consumption, this solution fails to acknowledge how colonialism impacts climate change. The military upholds U.S. imperialism and actively colonizes Indigenous territories by expanding military bases globally. Rather than reconsidering the operational use of these lands to adopt greener operations and improve energy efficiency, it would be more ethical to decrease overseas military activity and return the land to its Indigenous owners.
The dominance of the U.S. military is partly due to the expansive supply chain that supports it. This complex supply chain of materials and military technology is heavily dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels. Incrementally transitioning the American military away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner technology is not a reasonable approach for an issue that requires immediate action. There are too many components of this supply chain to transition to clean technology within a timeframe that will effectively curb climate predictions.
Stuart Parkinson, executive director at Scientists for Global Responsibility, argues that “there are technologies that could help[,] but the bigger picture is that we need less confrontation between governments and militaries.” The approach should be to defund the military so that decreased flows of money may halt the production of polluting technology and prevent the use of these destructive weapons entirely.
Greenwashing describes an organization or company that markets itself as being sustainable when its actions harm the environment. In claiming to care about climate change, companies can brand themselves as ethical and more deserving of their consumers’ business. Under a capitalist system, having an environmentally conscious brand ultimately helps to increase an organization’s profit. However, war, violence, and imperialist expansion are still destructive, even when they are carried out “sustainably.” When a country expands their power and conquest by using “green” military technology, it is called greenwashed imperialism.
The climate crisis implores the military to curb its high pollution levels immediately. However, we must consider who benefits from a proposed transition to green technology within an imperialist institution such as the U.S. military. The strategies put forth by officials to decrease the high military emissions lack tangible connections to the goals of global environmental movements. Instead, these strategies would allow the military to maintain the status quo while branding themselves as climate conscious. Adopting green technology and weapons is not a climate success story for civilians of the Global South, who will ultimately fall victim to climate change and greenwashed imperialism.
The Solution: Less, Not Greener, Military Activity
Global militaries are some of the largest emitters of pollution globally and they should be held accountable for contributing to climate change. Yet, the U.S. military’s climate change policies are “fundamentally contradictory.” The military cannot claim to be implementing green policies while remaining one of the largest emitters of GHG. Greenwashed imperialism will not save us from the climate crisis. Instead, the billions of dollars that are spent on senseless wars, the resources adopted to access oil reserves, and the production of destructive weapons should all be reallocated to services that seek to provide for working people, such as universal healthcare, universal education, and developing sustainable energy.
The climate crisis directly results from the capitalist system, held up by colonialism, imperialism, and corporate greed. The military, defending this system, cannot be trusted to reform the system it exists to preserve. Not only does the military exacerbate climate change, but it also works in opposition to potential green policies. Gradual transitions will not diminish the effects of climate change. The solution must be to defund the military and divest from war. Environmentalist movements should incorporate anti-war principles into their climate change goals to effectively combat the root causes of climate change. The efforts made by lower, working and middle-class individuals to save the planet won’t matter if billionaires, corporations, and over-funded militaries continue to pollute it without being held accountable.
Edited by Bethlehem Samson