In the United States, climate change is widely recognized as an existential threat, yet discussions of how to address it often leave out one of its largest contributors: the military. According to a 2019 report from Brown University, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the single largest institutional greenhouse gas producer in the world, and between the years of 2001 and 2017, it is estimated to have emitted 1,212 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (Crawford). To contextualize this data, in the year 2017 alone, “the Pentagon’s greenhouse gas emissions were greater than the greenhouse gas emissions of entire industrialized countries as Sweden or Denmark” (Crawford). Yet governmental military spending continues to rise. Especially given the disproportionate environmental impact on occupied countries and communities, it is imperative to change the way we talk about climate change as it relates to the military. As the contributions of militarism to carbon emissions, global pollution, and environmental disasters grow, we must consider how we can best combat the impact of the military on the environment. There have been major pushes to revamp the military using environmentally-friendly technology or to use its resources to combat climate change as a national emergency. However, given the unique position of the military in both carbon emissions and enforcement of the oil economy, we must first revisit its underlying purpose and actions abroad before evaluating these solutions.
Carbon emissions by the US military must be addressed as a major source of environmental degradation. Most of these emissions come, unsurprisingly, from active military operations and the transportation of soldiers and weapons. However, even non-active military bases, international and domestic, use massive amounts of fuel to keep up daily operations (Hussain). Given the global presence of US military bases on every continent except Antarctica, this upkeep alone plays a major role in our climate crisis.
Additionally, these international military fuel expenditures have specific and visible negative impacts on communities abroad. In their book The Marketing of War in the Age of Neo-Militarism, Gregory Hooks and Chad Smith introduce the concept of risk-management militarism, the theory that military occupation transfers any risk of harm from occupiers to their host country. They argue that this can be applied to the environmental impacts: “Just as entire societies … in the Global South are systematically exposed to injury and death during war, these same peoples and societies are confronting severe environmental trauma and risks” (Hooks). But for the militaries involved, they continue, as “the most powerful and affluent nations are insulated from these risks—just as they are insulated from death and injury as war is waged” (Hooks). Without directly facing repercussions, risk-management militarism allows powerful nations to overlook the harm done by their actions, specifically with regard to the environmental costs.
For the US, this can be seen in two ways: the disproportionate impact of carbon emissions on the Global South and the vast negative environmental impact borne from war itself. The latter often particularly affects developing nations in which the US military operates. For example, Afghanistan faced drastic environmental destruction throughout the twenty-year occupation from which the United States recently withdrew. It was not only impacted by carbon emissions but also the release of toxic pollutants and deforestation from military-caused fires (Hussain). Throughout the occupation, US military presence exacerbated local environmental issues. In Iraq, they mirrored this devastation: “Not only did the war lead to a spike in carbon dioxide emissions through US military activity, it resulted in the widespread poisoning of the Iraqi environment through the use of toxic munitions and the same so-called burn pits on military bases that were used in Afghanistan” (Hussain). While all war offers some level of environmental destruction, the amount of destruction faced by these two communities implicates the US military in climate injustice. As the United States seeks to lead the way in addressing climate change, it must start by eliminating the negative environmental impacts its military has on whole communities that it aims to help.
Even when military action is identified as a major contributor to climate change, the issue remains difficult to solve. Some politicians have introduced plans to “green” the military—to reduce its carbon footprint and increase its environmental awareness. For example, Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign included a plan to achieve carbon neutrality on all non-combat bases by 2030 (Steichen). Initially, this sounds like a promising idea. However, it would not stop transportation-related emissions because there is no alternative to the use of jet fuel in military aircrafts, nor would it stop emissions stemming from active military occupation. Further, this purported neutrality could even serve to distract political attention from bigger or better solutions, such as efforts to reduce transportation or military occupations themselves, because it could appear that the broader issue was solved. Thus, the solutions that have been proposed are both insufficient and incomplete.
Even if complete carbon neutrality were possible, reducing the environmental cost of military operations would not necessarily reduce the environmental cost of militarism itself. Some researchers argue that military fuel consumption has become a cycle: “If the US military were to significantly decrease its dependence on oil, the US could reduce the political and fuel resources it uses to defend access to oil, particularly in the Persian Gulf” (Crawford). Crawford argues that this would allow the United States to decrease military occupations abroad, because it would therefore require less oil. To an extent, this is true: much of US military action in the Persian Gulf has been directly fueled by oil taken from the Gulf, so it makes sense that decreasing military demand for oil could decrease reasons for occupation. However, this analysis assumes that military-assisted oil imports are seen by the Pentagon as a necessary evil rather than an economic policy choice. Regardless of whether oil is being used by the military itself, US military operations will remain a way to control oil resources. According to Lorah Steichen, a researcher from the Institute for Policy Studies, “greening the military does nothing to change the purpose, strategies, or activities of the military, which are tied to upholding the extractive, fossil-fueled economy” (Steichen). On the contrary, simply reducing the fuel cost of military action might enable the government to freely increase military operations, and thus increase total United States fuel consumption. Thus, instead of simply greening the military, we must reimagine the oil economy itself and our military role in resource collection and consumption.
The example of the 2003 invasion of Iraq provides a backdrop for further investigation of US oil imperialism. On March 19, 2003, a US-led coalition directed by President Bush launched an invasion of over 170,000 troops. At the time, the search for and removal of WMDs was given as a primary justification for the response. However, it is largely acknowledged today that this was a strategic move to protect US oil interests. Iraq, home to the second-largest oil reserve worldwide, was one of the United States’ primary oil exporters. As written by Andrew Austin and Laurel Phoenix, two researchers at the University of Wisconsin, “As late as spring 2002, the US was obtaining 800,000 barrels per day from Iraq” (Austin and Phoenix). As competition arose, the US found itself searching for control. This was seen on March 18, in a statement to the Iraqi military, when Bush warned, “Do not destroy oil wells, a source of wealth that belongs to the Iraqi people” (“Full Text: Bush’s Speech”). While this could be interpreted as a way to mitigate an environmental consequence of war, Bush betrayed an underlying economic motive by emphasizing oil as a source of wealth. By prioritizing the protection of oil, he showed the importance it played in the invasion. Alan Greenspan, economist and chair of the Federal Reserve during the Iraq invasion, admitted to the oil motive in his memoir, which was published in 2007. In what is now a familiar quote, he wrote, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil” (Adams). This statement not only calls into question the entire war, but it introduces an additional connection to the environment: this invasion and others like it played a major role in environmental degradation caused by the oil industry, including large-scale pollution and the majority of US greenhouse gas emissions.
Further, the sheer scale of the Iraq invasion shows the influence of oil on military actions. According to Michael Klare, author of the 2003 book Resource Wars, “Controlling Iraq is about oil as power, rather than oil as fuel” (“Oil as a Weapon of Power”). Thus, the protection of Iraqi oil by the US military was not simply a method of sustaining military operations but a way to exert US political and economic dominance. The idea of oil as power further critiques the notion of reform: as long as we treat global oil extraction as a competition, we will continue it regardless of direct military fuel costs. By divorcing oil from its use as fuel (and thus, its use in the military), we set the stage for further oil imperialism. This allows the US to continue its expansive carbon emissions and environmental degradation at large. The Movement Generation’s Justice and Ecology Project calls for transformative liberation and restoration of land. They claim that “if the acquisition of resources, including labor, are through extraction, then the ultimate mechanism of governance must be militarism” (Movement Generation). Rather than the fault of singular military processes, the impact of militarism on the environment can be attributed to the extractive economy as a whole, with the military as its enforcement arm. The connection to oil underlies militarism at its core.
Next comes the question of how to best protect the environment. For part of this, we must turn to the DoD itself: while many governmental organizations are hesitant to acknowledge the existence of climate change, the DoD published a 2021 risk assessment considering it an existential national threat (Department of Defense). This report further identifies ways that the DoD stands uniquely to combat climate change impacts such as extreme weather events (DoD). However, nowhere in the report does the DoD mention its own role in contributing to mass fuel consumption. Looking at the military as a solution to climate change rather than a major cause of it plagues many discussions of environmental protectionism. This idea distracts Americans from the true impact of militarism borne by the environment.
Similar to the idea of greening the military is “greenwashing,” a term referring to PR efforts to make the military seem environmentally conscious, even when it is not (Harris). This marketing obfuscates the true question of environmentalism from discussions of US military action. One major example comes from the US military base in Guam. As reported by Peter Harris, a professor for Colorado State University, “tourists’ attention is directed toward designated nature reserves rather than the military’s environmentally destructive activities, let alone the displacement and dispossession of the indigenous Chamorro people” (Harris). Even real environmental protections by the military, such as the protection of nature reserves or parks, come at an expense, as they distract from other environmental issues. Similarly, treating the military as a tool against climate change would primarily lend credibility to its broader role in the global environment, even if it may simultaneously serve some environmental purpose.
Ultimately, while climate change is a national threat, it is also a global one, and real solutions do not include collaboration with major polluting forces. Rather, when determining how to proceed, we must envision an economic policy which does not call for militarism, and a military policy which does not promote resource extraction. Ending rampant militarism may additionally help solve climate change monetarily. A reorganization of US government strategy that prioritizes the environment, for example, could be almost fully possible with a reallocation of military funding. According to a report from the Institute for Policy Studies, “just 11 percent of the Pentagon’s 2019 budget—about $80 billion—could produce enough wind and solar energy to power every one of the almost 128 million households in the United States” (Steichen and Koshgarian). If we were to substantially decrease or even eliminate this funding, it could be repurposed to benefit the environment rather than harm it.
This transfer is expanded on by the Movement Generation who advocate for the transition from an extractive economy to a “regenerative” economy or one that prioritizes ecological restoration alongside the acquisition of resources. They claim, “We must engage forests and rivers in ways that provide for our needs, but at a scale and pace that is aligned with living systems” (Movement Generation). Such a reimagining of environmentally exploitative economic structures offers a way around the need for oil and, therefore, hope that militarism might end. Nevertheless, the question remains as to how to spur such transformative change. While a rethinking of US militarism and economic structure would allow for a reconceptualization of the environment, such a complete transition remains highly unlikely. This research is only the beginning of the answer. Taken alone, is the “greening” of the military any more enticing? Or is the only hope to address the underlying economic and political oil ties that reinforce militarism?
Adams, Richard. ”Invasion of Iraq Was Driven by Oil, Says Greenspan.” The Guardian, 16 Sept. 2007, www.theguardian.com/world/2007/sep/17/iraq.oil.
Austin, Andrew, and Laurel Phoenix. ”The Neoconservative Assault on the Earth: The Environmental Imperialism of the Bush Administration.” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 16.2 (2005).
Crawford, Neta. ”Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War.” Costs of War, Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University, 12 June 2019. https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/ClimateChangeandCostofWar.
Department of Defense Climate Risk Analysis. US Department of Defense, Oct. 2021, media.defense.gov/2021/Oct/21/2002877353/-1/-1/0/DOD-CLIMATE-RISK-ANALYSIS-FINAL.PDF.
“Full Text: Bush’s Speech.” The Guardian, 18 Mar. 2003, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/18/usa.iraq.
Harris, Peter. ”Militarism in Environmental Disguise: The Greenwashing of an Overseas Military Base.” International Political Sociology, 9.1 (2015).
Hooks, Gregory, and Chad Smith. The Marketing of War in the Age of Neo-Militarism. Routledge, 2011.
Hussain, Murtaza. ”War on the World: Industrialized Militaries Are a Bigger Part of the Climate Emergency Than You Know.” The Intercept, First Look Institute, 15 Sept. 2019, theintercept.com/2019/09/15/climate-change-us-military-war/.
Hynes, H. Patricia. ”The ’Invisible Casualty of War’: The Environmental Destruction of U.S. Militarism.” Different Takes 84 (2014), traprock.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Militarism-and-the-Environment.pdf.
Movement Generation. ”From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring: A Strategic Framework for a Just Transition.” Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, movementgeneration.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/JT_booklet_English_SPREADs_web.pdf.
”Oil as a Weapon of Power.” Al Jazeera, 29 Apr. 2003, www.aljazeera.com/news/2003/4/29/oil-as-a-weapon-of-power.
Steichen, Lorah, and Lindsay Koshgarian. ”No Warming, No War: How Militarism Fuels the Climate Crisis—and Vice Versa.” Institute for Policy Studies, Apr. 2020, ips-dc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/No-Warming-No-War-Climate-Militarism-Primer.pdf.
About the Author
Lily Baughman is a first-year student at Fordham University. She intends on majoring in English or International Studies and hopes to study abroad. Lily is from Liberty, Missouri, where she grew up with a twin sister and two cats. She loves to read, design clothing, and write stories.