There is no such thing as a ‘green’ war

July 24, 2019
A burning oilfield during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

The military industrial complex is a major contributor to climate change. This calls for a merger of anti-war, climate and refugee solidarity movements, writes Eleanor Goldfield.


In June, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs released a report titled Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War.

Echoing previous reports, the paper outlines the various ways in which the Pentagon is “the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and, correspondingly, the single largest producer of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the world”.

The detailed data on fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions make for a shocking read. In 2017 alone, “the Pentagon’s greenhouse gas emissions were greater than the greenhouse gas emissions of entire industrialised countries, such as Sweden or Denmark”.

Although it clearly links the US military to climate chaos, the paper’s kid glove handling of the military industrial complex leaves some gaping holes in what could otherwise be a powerful commentary on the need for systemic change.

It is not enough to trace a red thread between issues: recognising the connections that tie climate chaos to war, imperialism and to the growing refugee crisis, demand solutions founded on active solidarity. Likewise, we must be wary of soft reforms, greenwashing and capitalism’s unending affinity for shaming people.

Climate chaos and national security

Soft reforms are often linked with greenwashing, in a sort of shot and chaser combo to placate the mind and ultimately uphold the status quo. The paper concludes that “by reducing the use of greenhouse gas-emitting fuels (coupled with emission reductions in other sectors) the Pentagon would decrease its contribution to the associated climate change threats to national security”. Basically, the Pentagon could stop creating national security threats if it stopped creating national security threats.

The overall conclusions push us to look at climate chaos through the lens of national security, rather than the destruction of millions of species, arable land, potable water, breathable air and a livable future.

It is reminiscent of Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s tweet in mid-May which lamented that “Climate change is real, it’s worsening by the day, and it’s undermining our military readiness. More and more, accomplishing the mission depends on our ability to continue operations in the face of floods, drought, wildfires, desertification, and extreme cold.”

The idea of an eco-friendly war is as ridiculous as it sounds. Our so-called national security is based on unprovoked invasions, gross human rights violations, economic warfare, regime change and terrorism. Modernised imperialism cares just as little for people as it does for ecosystems.

The paper does make valid points about reducing reliance on oil, which includes tapering operations in the Middle East, scaling back bases and spending the military budget on “more economically productive activities”.

However, neither Warren nor the Watson Institute paper asks whether or not the military and its violent imperialism are necessary. They miss the paradox that the military is using climate change and the impending destabilisation as reasons to ramp up its budget.

One might argue that it is perfectly understandable why a paper dealing with the military’s fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is not discussing systemic change. However, conclusions are meant to analyse data and, without analysing the oppressive nature of the US military, any conclusions made within or without a report will fail to address the necessary systemic change involved in combating climate chaos.

This is the same reason why Warren’s co-sponsored bill to reduce the Pentagon’s carbon footprint is a non-starter. Rather than demand the closure of any of the almost 1000 US military bases around the world, Warren wants to make sure they are ready to withstand extreme weather.

Meanwhile, these bases are environmental catastrophes. Dozens are listed as toxic and hazardous waste dumps (“Superfund Sites”) by the Environmental Protection Agency. Around the world, US bases leach toxic chemicals such as depleted uranium, oil, jet fuel, pesticides and defoliants like Agent Orange and lead into soil and groundwater. For years, communities from Okinawa, Guam, the Galapagos and the Seychelles have protested the bases on cultural and environmental grounds.

The most eco-friendly thing to do would be to close all US military bases and dismantle the imperialist military industrial complex. This would also be the biggest boost to national security, not just with regards to climate, but forced migration and displacement also.

Climate-induced refugee crisis

While climate change is a newcomer to the national security conversation, fear mongering about refugees and/or immigrants has been an American pastime since this settler colonialist nation was established.

A June report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees revealed that “the number of refugees worldwide is now the highest it’s ever been since the UN began keeping records, with more than 70 million people seeking refuge after being forced from their homes”.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, “on average, 26 million people are displaced by disasters such as floods and storms every year. That’s one person forced to flee every second.”

Climate change is expected to create tens of millions of refugees over the coming decade. It is worth noting that the Middle East, Africa and South-Central Asia are not only where most of the world’s refugees are coming from, but also where most of the refugees are being hosted — yet another instance of breaking, taking and leaving disasters in our wake.

Just as the US “War on Terror” continues in the Middle East, less discussed is the new scramble for Africa — imperialist jockeying for natural resources hiding behind yet another “national security threat” lie.

Just as there is no such thing as a “green” war, there is no way to confront climate change unless we confront the war machine, and vice versa. There is no way to confront the refugee crisis, unless we confront climate change and the war machine.

We have to look at the intersection of movements and recognise that there is the potential to build collaborative, far-reaching movements that really strike at the core of the system itself.

Take the recent protest in Bath, Maine, where activists blocked traffic outside a naval battleship construction site demanding money for climate solutions, not endless war.

At the asset management firm BlackRock’s annual shareholders’ meeting on May 23, a multitude of groups — from the National Indigenous Organization of Brazil to Code Pink — came together to call out BlackRock on its massive investments in death and destruction via climate chaos and war. Many climate justice and direct action communities have long made these connections, literally flying the flag of anti-capitalism in solidarity with struggles around the world.

These endeavors are sources of inspiration, power and ideas and highlight the inherent problems with the “personal choices” trend.

Lock, protest, sit-in, stand-up, lay down, lock down

With the rise of green capitalism comes the misconception that we can save the planet by buying a tote bag or two. This thinking shames people who cannot afford new technologies, or green choices.

As neighbourhoods fall to tsunamis of gentrification and hipster green industries roll in, the handful of companies and the war machine that is really to blame for this worsening climate crisis are being ignored.

A recent joke post on social media read: “You’d do more for the climate if you ate an oil executive than if you went vegan”. It makes a good point. Jean-Jacques Rousseau may just have been ahead of his time in prescribing a foundation for a climate change revolution: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich…”

Sure, go vegan. But let’s not conflate that personal choice with the actions necessary to dismantle the machine that profits from animal torture.

Yes, activists will often drive to remote sites of a pipeline fight or a logging project. Yes, people will shop at Walmart because they lack the financial privilege to shop elsewhere. If everyone so eager to shame folks for these choices would instead have stepped up to the front lines of a pipeline fight, dirty energy would have thousands to contend with rather than a handful of activists.

When people say “Everyone can do something” I agree. But a commitment to recycling is not it. The so-called greening of your personal life should not be viewed as acting for the climate.

That “something” everyone can do should mean that you block, protest, sit-in, stand-up, lay down, lock down or, in some other way, lend your time, energy, body and mind to a systemic struggle.

It should mean organising in your community to draw connections: from gentrification to imperialism to food sovereignty to public health to systemic racism, all of which are linked to climate chaos.

It should mean targeting the system rather than each other. It should mean educating ourselves on the foundations of anti-oppression, anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism.

There’s no definitive blueprint for this. True solidarity and real intersectionality means reaching outside of our comfort zones in ways that go beyond theory. Environmentalists will need to address the climate chaos inherent in a racist, imperialist war machine. Anti-war activists will need to consider the importance of climate justice in their work.

Folks most impacted will not only need a seat at the table but will need real solidarity and respect for their life experiences.

[Abridged from Roar magazine.]

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