Coping with the War Climate

Demonstrators highlighted the enormous and negative impact of the U.S. military during the 2014 People's Climate March in New York City. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/flickr/cc)
Demonstrators highlighted the enormous and negative impact of the U.S. military during the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/flickr/cc)

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, November 9, 2022

Remarks from this webinar.

Sometimes just for fun I try to figure out what I’m supposed to believe. I’m definitely supposed to believe that I can choose what to believe based on what pleases me. But I’m also supposed to believe that I have a duty to believe the right things. I think I’m supposed to believe the following: The greatest danger in the world is the wrong political party in the nation I live in. The second greatest threat to the world is Vladimir Putin. The third greatest threat to the world is global warming, but it’s being dealt with by educators and recycling trucks and humanitarian entrepreneurs and dedicated scientists and voters. One thing that’s not a serious threat at all is nuclear war, because that danger was switched off some 30 years ago. Putin might be the second greatest threat on Earth but it’s not a nuclear threat, it’s a threat to censor your social media accounts and restrict LGBTQ rights and limit your shopping options.

Other times just because I’m a masochist I stop and try to figure out what I actually believe — what seems to actually be right. I believe the danger of nuclear war / nuclear winter and the danger of climate collapse have both been known of for decades, and humanity has done jack squat about eliminating either of them. But we’ve been told that one doesn’t really exist. And we’ve been told that the other is very real and serious, so we need to buy electric cars and tweet funny things about ExxonMobil. We’re told that war is a justified government activity, in fact beyond questioning. But environmental destruction is an unjustified outrage that we need to do things against as individuals and consumers and voters. The reality seems to be that governments — and overwhelmingly a very small number of governments — and significantly through the preparation for and waging of wars — are the chief destroyers of the environment.

This is of course an inappropriate thought as it suggests the need for collective action. It’s thinking like an activist, even thought it’s just thinking about what is actually going on and arriving at the unavoidable fact that we need massive nonviolent activism, that using the right light bulbs in our houses won’t save us, that lobbying our governments while cheering for their wars won’t save us.

But this line of thinking shouldn’t be that shocking. If damaging the Earth is a problem, then it should not come as a surprise that bombs and missiles and mines and bullets — even when used in the holy name of democracy — are part of the problem. If automobiles are a problem, should we be amazed that fighter jets are also a wee bit problematic? If we need to alter how we’re treating the Earth, can we really be amazed that dumping a huge percentage of our resources into demolishing and poisoning the Earth is not the solution?

The COP27 meeting is underway in Egypt — the 27th annual attempt to address climate collapse globally, with the first 26 having utterly failed, and with war dividing the world in a manner that prevents cooperation. The United States is sending over Congress Members to push nuclear energy, which has always been a biproduct of and a Trojan horse for nuclear weaponry, as well as so called “natural gas” which is not natural but is gas. And yet limitations on Congress Member emissions are not even under consideration. NATO is participating in the meetings exactly as if it were a government and part of the solution rather than the problem. And Egypt, armed by the same corporations as NATO, is hosting the charade.

War and preparations for war are not just the pit into which trillions of dollars that could be used to prevent environmental damage are dumped, but also a major direct cause of that environmental damage.

Militarism is under 10% of total, global fossil fuel emissions, but it’s enough that governments want to keep it out of their commitments — especially certain governments. The U.S. military’s greenhouse gas emissions are more than those of most entire countries, making it the single biggest institutional culprit, worse than any single corporation, but not worse than various entire industries. Exactly what militaries release would be easier to know with reporting requirements. But we know that it is more than numerous industries whose pollution is treated very seriously and addressed by climate agreements.

To the damage of militaries’ pollution should be added that of the weapons manufacturers, as well as the enormous destruction of wars: the oil spills, oil fires, sunken oil tankers, methane leaks, etc. In militarism we’re talking about a top destroyer of land and water and air and ecosystems — as well as climate, as well as the chief impediment to global cooperation on climate, as well as the primary sinkhole for funds that could be going into climate protection (well over half of U.S. tax dollars, for example, go to militarism — more than the entire economy of most countries).

As a result of final-hour demands made by the U.S. government during negotiation of the 1997 Kyoto treaty, military greenhouse gas emissions were exempted from climate negotiations. That tradition has continued. The 2015 Paris Agreement left cutting military greenhouse gas emissions to the discretion of individual nations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, obliges signatories to publish annual greenhouse gas emissions, but military emissions reporting is voluntary and often not included. Yet there isn’t an extra Earth to destroy with military emissions. There’s just the one planet.

Try to think what the very worst thing to do would be and you’ll be close to the approach being widely advanced, namely that of using militaries and wars to address climate change, rather than eliminating them to address climate change. Declaring that climate change causes war misses the reality that human beings cause war, and that unless we learn to address crises nonviolently we will only make them worse. Treating the victims of climate collapse as enemies misses the fact that climate collapse will end life for all of us, the fact that it is climate collapse itself that should be thought of as an enemy, war that should be thought of as an enemy, a culture of destruction that should be opposed, not a group of people or a piece of land.

A major motivation behind some wars is the desire to control resources that poison the earth, especially oil and gas. In fact, the launching of wars by wealthy nations in poor ones does not correlate with human rights violations or lack of democracy or threats of terrorism or impact of climate change, but does strongly correlate with the presence of oil.

War does most of its environmental damage where it happens, but also devastates the natural environment of military bases in foreign and home nations. The U.S. military is the largest global landholder with 800 foreign military bases in 80 countries. The U.S. military is the third-largest polluter of U.S. waterways. The vast majority of major environmental disaster sites in the United States are military bases. The environmental problem of militarism is hiding in plain sight.

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