Yet another climate change report confirms the obvious: our militaries are a huge contributing factor to greenhouse gas emissions. But are any solutions feasible for a world at war?

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This month, the Common Wealth Climate and Community Project released an assessment of US and UK military emissions since the Paris Agreement in 2015. The numbers, drawn from the military’s “opaque” reporting (i.e., much is not disclosed for security reasons) are predictably not great: together, they produced at least 430 million tCO2e (tons of CO2-equivalent emissions) in this time frame. But the two countries’ emissions are not equal, which is why the authors argue that the US should pay $106 billion for the social cost of its military carbon, and the UK should pay $5 billion.

Unsurprisingly, the authors also recommended reducing military operations and hardware acquisition: by offering military personnel and arms workers alternative placements, by shutting down bases, and by creating a “global military superfund” to invest in lower eco-impact security activities by local governments.

And on the surface, with respect to climate change, these authors aren’t wrong. As they note, “Since 2001, the US Department of Defense (DOD) has consistently accounted for between 77 and 80 per cent of the US government’s total energy consumption while the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) accounts for at least 40 per cent of British public sector emissions.” The US military alone, ranked against other nations’ total emissions, has been configured as the world’s 47th largest emitter. All global militaries put together account for 5.5% of total carbon emissions.

But asking the world to reduce its investment in the military industrial complex while there are two major active wars, and while the US has a standing foreign policy of routine presence throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, is a challenge bordering on pipe dream. As Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said in August 2023, while addressing climate change as a security issue, the US will “not compromise on military capability or the readiness of our forces”.

This is not to say that the DOD and US Armed Forces (USAF) have entirely avoided the issue. In 1990, during George H.W. Bush’s time in office, the Naval War College warned about the impact of climate change on security operations. Under George W. Bush’s stint, the DOD’s Office of Net Assessment also raised concerns about the impact of climate change on the department’s security mission. That 2003 document was one of many in coming years to discuss climate change readiness, although a 2022 assessment of a 2016 DOD directive found that installations in the interim years had not taken requisite steps to improve climate resilience.

Moreover, although US President Joe Biden committed to bringing the federal government’s carbon footprint to zero by 2050, his December 2021 Executive Order offered a loophole in compliance, through exemptions for national security:

Sec. 602. Exemption Authority.  (a)  The head of an agency may exempt particular agency activities and related personnel, resources, and facilities from the provisions of this order when it is in the interest of national security, to protect intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure, or where necessary to protect undercover law enforcement operations from unauthorized disclosure.  If the head of an agency issues an exemption under this section, the agency shall notify the Chair of CEQ in writing within 30 days of issuance of the exemption under this section.  To the maximum extent practicable and without compromising national security, each agency shall strive to comply with the purposes, goals, and implementation steps in this order.

President Joe Biden, “Executive Order on Catalyzing Clean Energy and Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability”, December 2021

Two months later, the US Army shared its first climate strategy, which involved going 100% electric for all noncombat vehicles by 2035, and developing electric combat vehicles by 2050. Mostly, though, the plan focused on training militaries to respond better to a more environmentally volatile world, with everything that might mean for the kinds of security issues the USAF will face going forward.

Simply put, defensive and resilience-based responses to the climate crisis are not enough. Whenever governments speak in those terms alone, scientists offer hard data with respect to global militaries’ outsized role in creating the climate crisis conditions in which soldiers will then have to operate.

However, these warnings now arise amid two major global conflicts, which complicates matters significantly. As I noted in September, developing data first published last fall has already highlighted a severe climate cost (on top of the costs to human life and livelihood) for military action in the Ukrainian theatre.

The first version of Climate Damage Caused by Russia’s War in Ukraine explored a number of factors contributing to an uptick in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions:

  • flights and other transport for displaced people,
  • the gas, diesel, and jet fuels used by military vehicles,
  • GHG emissions from the direct use of munitions,
  • leakage from the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines,
  • operational movements by the armies themselves,
  • the impact of fires caused in conflict regions, and
  • the anticipated GHG cost of infrastructure rebuilds.

The study’s authors, Lennard de Klerk and a team of Dutch researchers, compared the overall emissions in this seven-month period, of 97.3 million tCO2e (tons of CO2 equivalent), to that of the Netherlands in the same time frame. The Netherlands are one of the highest emitters in Europe, emitting 34% more than the average European in 2019, and still off course for 2030 reduction goals as of 2021.

Can we ever truly combat climate change in a world at war?“, OnlySky, September 19, 2023

Although the latest outbreak of violence in Gaza and Israel is still raw, international observers have already noted the impact that this latest conflict will have on both immediate efforts to reduce humanity’s GHG emissions, and also attempts to bring the world to the table at the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28, for short), which will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates from November 30 to December 12.

As Frederic Wehrey noted for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,

While the overall effect of the Gaza conflict on the global economy is currently minimal, a prolongation and geographic expansion of the war is likely to darken the picture considerably, according to the IMF, affecting both oil prices and growth.  That may negatively influence richer countries’ ability and willingness to help poorer less-endowed climate-ravaged countries, including those in the Middle East. It could also bolster the “go-slow” voices on the transition away from hydrocarbon production.

… [T]he conflict will [also] invariably intrude on COP28. Civil society activists who attend will likely raise the plight of Gaza, drawing attention to how an escalating Israeli invasion, with its attendant destruction of water infrastructure and services and massive displacement, will have catastrophic and generational effects on Palestinians’ already severe vulnerability to climate change. These calls may well expand into a critique of Arab regimes’ normalization and cooperation with Israel, challenging the COP’s hosts to uphold their pledge of inclusion and free assembly.   

“How the Israel-Gaza War Could Disrupt the Middle East’s Climate Progress”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Op-Ed), October 18, 2023

The demolition of concrete infrastructure in Gaza also offers a stark tension between efforts to reduce GHG emissions and the rest of our global operations. The toll of concrete reconstruction was included in carbon footprint figures for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and rebuilding efforts here will also rely on an environmentally harmful industry, unless it becomes possible to implement a “closed loop to demolition”. The destruction of homes built with materials difficult to recycle and taxing to replace may not be avoidable, but it should remind us of the challenge of trying to make eco-conscious changes in a world that lacks security.

Asking the world to reduce its investment in the military industrial complex while there are two major active wars, and while the US has a standing foreign policy of routine presence throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East … is a challenge bordering on pipe dream.

Granted, these are not the only problems facing the world as it nears the start of COP28. At last week’s “Pre-COP”, parties engaged in a global stocktake to see which initiatives had succeeded and failed since the last conference, and to determine how far countries are from agreed-upon targets, as a prelude to negotiations for further reform in a few weeks. This Pre-COP happened at a fraught time for the world, and attendees felt the tension during proceedings.

But not just from war. Last year, at COP27, the conference was almost immediately deadlocked by a struggle over the agenda. Developing countries wanted to discuss a losses and damages fund, whereas developed countries were already in arrears with other commitments, including a collective promise to pay $100 billion a year under the Paris Agreement. COP27 ended with a much-touted “breakthrough”: the recognition of the need for a new fund. But no more specifics were provided, and as this year’s Pre-COP illustrated, little progress had been made in the interim.

READ: So what did COP27 actually accomplish?

At the end of this Pre-COP, one significant agreement did emerge: the World Bank was established as a host for that fund, which will be launched in 2024 with a member from the developing world on its board. But the US was displeased that the voluntary nature of donations to this fund, which might need anywhere from $160 to 340 billion USD by 2030, was not emphasized in the draft language.

Funding is arguably the most important factor for climate mitigation right now: for resilience-building, industrial transformation, other prevention efforts, and recovery. The fact that funding remains the most intractable problem for these annual conferences does not bode well for our climate future, even putting aside the added challenges posed by trying to rally for one global crisis in the middle of many more.

As Stuart Parkinson, of Scientists for Global Responsibility, wrote in 2020:

The key to real reductions in military carbon emissions is thus to shrink the huge military budgets around the world – which totalled more than $1,800 billion in 2018. And the key to shrinking these budgets is to reduce military tensions. So, rather than looking for new, lower carbon ways to fight wars, our governments should be prioritising measures such as diplomacy, international disarmament treaties, fair trade, poverty alleviation and, of course, reductions in carbon emissions right across the economy. Only then can we confidently achieve a more secure world.

“The carbon boot-print of the military”, Responsible Science (Issue 2, January 2020)

Parkinson offers us, in other words, an observation both clarifying and bleak:

We know what must be done to lessen the impact of climate change.

But in the lead-up to COP28, in the throes of multiple international wars, our species shows few signs of being able to follow through.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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