How is the US military seeking to address climate change and what are its implications for environmental and social justice?
For anyone concerned with militarism, news of the terrorist attacks in Brussels brought a familiar sense of dread. We ached as we hear the stories of more innocent lives lost, and we felt foreboding from the knowledge that the bombings will predictably fuel new cycles of violence and horror in targeted communities at home or abroad. It creates the binary world that neocons and terrorists seek: an era of permanent war in which all our attention and resources are absorbed – and the real crises of poverty, inequality, unemployment, social alienation and climate crisis ignored.
It was unusual, therefore, in March 2016 to hear President Obama in an interview with the Atlantic magazine, repeat his warning that “Isis is not an existential threat to the United States. Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.” While predictably ridiculed by the reactionary US Right, it seems to epitomise Obama’s seemingly more strategic approach on foreign policy – the so-called ‘Obama doctrine’ that seeks to entrench imperial power by firstly, in his own words, “not doing stupid shit” and secondly not ignoring the long-term challenges to US interests.
President Obama’s emphasis on climate change has been a feature of his foreign policy priorities during his final term in office. While initially couched in lofty rhetoric of ‘healing’ the planet, Obama has more consistently framed climate change in terms of ensuring US national security. Addressing coastguard cadets in Connecticut in May 2015, Obama argued: “Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. And so we need to act— and we need to act now.” In doing so, Obama has set a tendency that has been picked up by US allies worldwide. UK Prime Minister, David Cameron has also said that climate change is “not just a threat to the environment. It is also a threat to our national security”.
The acceptance that legal protection for the environment from the ravages of armed conflict needs improvement has a long history. During the last three decades, initiatives have repeatedly flowered, only to wither and die in seminars and conference rooms, while wartime environmental damage continues largely unchecked. What lessons should a new generation wishing to tackle the topic take from past failures?
As we reported earlier, Ukraine needs to find $30m to cover the cost of a two year programme of urgent environmental assistance, doubtless millions more will be needed beyond that. Damage to Ukraine’s natural environment and direct and urgent threats to public and environmental health thanks to damage to industrial sites are widespread. In Iraq and Syria, protracted conflicts are continuing to create new environmental threats and exacerbate pre-existing problems. Environmental damage from conflict is not just of historical or academic interest, it is threatening civilians and livelihoods around the world. How then to recapture a sense of urgency in efforts to minimize damage and ensure that environmental assistance gets to where it’s needed?
It is sheer coincidence that Paris was struck by terrorists on the eve of a key climate conference known as COP 21.
To some, the attacks may appear like an unfortunate distraction in the face of efforts to meet a civilizational challenge like no other. Yet there are important cross-connections between security and climate concerns.
Runaway climate change will impose growing stress on natural systems and human societies, and it could well usher in a whole new age of conflict. We live, after all, in a world marked by profound disparities in wealth, social and demographic pressures, unresolved grievances, and a seemingly endless supply of arms of all calibers. Far from being a separate concern, climate change is certain to intensify many existing challenges. More frequent and intense droughts, floods, and storms will likely play havoc with harvests and compromise food security. Extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and spreading disease vectors could undermine the economic viability and long-term habitability of some areas. The result could be escalating social discontent, mass displacement, and worse.
In fact, such scenarios are no longer mere conjecture. Consider Syria.
An argument can be made that COP21 must address the subject of war and peace as an ecological issue.
Because secrecy veils the true numbers, it is difficult to accurately determine the amount of atmospheric pollution caused by the military. Nonetheless, it is significant.
A certain correlation can be found between the biggest C02 emitters of the world
and those who are in charge of the most militarized complex.
How come the IPCC does not take into account this form of destructive human activity?
Let’s look at Aircraft emissions, for example.
To tackle the issue of military pollution we need real, hard data. This means finding the right means, the right people, in the right place to work with us.
The video shows one example of the polluting aspect from the impact of military conflict. Burnt fields, exploitation and outright theft of raw materials diverted to military rather than peaceful use, and the "differentiated status" granted to certain countries under the Kyoto Protocol are other examples of pollution-inducing military activities that should be explored and discussed.
US military operations to protect oil imports coming from the Middle East are creating larger amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than once thought, new research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows.
Green climate fund
The massive financial resources allocated, absorbed or confiscated by the military is another essential issue to be addressed, but we have to be smart because the armed forces are positioning themselves as part of the solution. And, whether we like it or not, they will have an influence amongst the various delegations. We must move beyond the previous idyllic concepts - that funding for missiles and tanks should be diverted towards so-called "development", for example. The "polluters pay" principle seems to have been forgotten. New proposals are needed, not only taxation of weapons transfers or eventual taxes on nuclear warheads but also other linkages that would create specific funds for discrete and compelling purposes. Money to aid and rescue refugees, assist NGO's working on de-pollution and decontamination of military sites, funding to help and defend whistle blowers. We have an opportunity to highlight the huge gap between money spent by certain big powers on military assistance and that which is offered for climate assistance.
1 – Athena is the Greek goddess of war who disliked battles and preferred to end quarrels in a peaceful manner.
2 – Athena’s favourite creature was the owl, which to my mind symbolises the whistleblower.
Whistleblowers like the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES) which advocates for nuclear weapon dismantlement.
3 – “Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development”, in the words of Principle 24 of the Rio Declaration.
4 – Principle 25 of the same Declaration states: “Peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible”.