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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Militarism is the carbon bomb we can no longer ignore

Gottlieb: The world’s wealthiest countries are emitting more by bombing the poor than the poor themselves have ever emitted

EnvironmentWar Zones

A convoy of US Marines from the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in northern Iraq during a sandstorm, March 26, 2003. Photo by LCpl Andrew P. Roufs/Defense Imagery/Wikimedia Commons.

In 2012, prominent climate scientist Dr. James Hansen penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Game Over for the Climate.” In it, Hansen warned about the then expanding development of the Canadian tar sands, a carbon bomb whose continued exploitation would signal the death knell for the climate. “To leave our children with a manageable situation,” Hansen said in an interview the following year, “we need to leave the unconventional fuel in the ground.”

In some sense, the “game” will never be over: every ton of excess greenhouse gas emitted makes future life on Earth that much more difficult. By the same token, every ton avoided or removed from the atmosphere saves lives. The fact that we’re ripping past 1.5ºC of warming with no sign of emissions dropping—thanks in large part, as Hansen warned, to ‘dirty’ oil—does not mean it’s “game over for the climate.”

To be sure, major sources of emissions like the tar sands (the third biggest oil reserve in the world) play an outsized role in driving global warming, but there is another source whose contribution to heating the planet is largely overlooked: the enormous resources directed towards militarism and the vast emissions produced by a global arms industry that appears to be gearing up for World War Three.

Indeed, at the time of writing, Western powers are acquiescing to Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza, goading Ukraine into prolonging a devastating proxy war with Russia, and building tensions with China, including over Taiwan.

Escalating global conflict within the context of a radically warmer and still warming world would make meaningful progress towards mitigation (that is, reducing emissions) virtually impossible.

The global war machine uses massive amounts of productive capacity and energy, which in turn produces enormous greenhouse gas emissions. As the Guardian noted in January, the emissions from just the “first two months of the war in Gaza were greater than the annual carbon footprint of more than 20 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations.”

There’s a special kind of cruelty to that inequality: the world’s wealthiest countries are emitting more by bombing the poor than the poor themselves have ever emitted.

More generally, best estimates indicate that over five percent of annual global emissions are attributable to militaries. And these are just estimates. Military emissions are, for the most part, underreported and insufficiently accounted for under most national reporting standards, despite representing a carbon footprint comparable to the aviation and shipping industries.

Meanwhile, military spending—particularly by the biggest offender, the US military, which is one of the largest polluters in history—is climbing ever higher. Claims about “greening” militaries abound, but even taken in good faith (which they shouldn’t be), the prospect of doing so would likely involve a major crowding-out of other urgent decarbonization efforts.

Every battery bank that might be used to power a future fleet of “green” tanks is a battery bank not powering an electric bus. Every solar installation enabling the production of “green hydrogen” to fuel climate-friendly air strikes is a solar installation not being used to reduce gas- and coal-fired power generation. And every researcher or engineer working to develop military technologies that use renewable energy sources is a researcher or engineer not working to decarbonize things that contribute to human well-being (instead of destroying it).

The military Keynesianism of American empire crowds out public goods like decarbonization in other ways, too, by creating massive inflationary pressures that weaken public services. The nearly $900 billion that the US government spends on its military every year locks up an inordinate portion of discretionary spending that could be used to fund renewables and energy demand mitigation. Canada, while smaller in scale, suffers the same problem in spite of our self-styled role as a global peacemaker. We spend nearly $40 billion on the military annually, and the Trudeau government just committed tens of billions more. We spend more on the military than on virtually any other government expense.

This all comes at a time when investment in renewables and decarbonization is utterly failing to meet the levels called for by the IPCC, the IEA, climate scientists, and most experts. Nicholas Stern, an economist, presented an independent review at COP27 that pegged the required level of investment in renewables at $4 trillion USD per year, $2 trillion of which needs to flow to the Global South. Compare that with the over $2 trillion spent on militaries annually.

As Bolivian President Luis Arce pointed out less than a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western countries had already spent more than 20 times as much financial resources on military aid to Ukraine as they committed to the UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund, which is designed to assist developing countries with climate change adaptation and mitigation activities. The only country getting anywhere near the needed levels of renewable investment (proportional to their population and the size of their economy) is China, which as of 2023 accounted for nearly double the investment of the US and the EU combined.

A fireball erupts during Israeli bombardment in Gaza, October 14, 2023. Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP.

The lack of serious investment in renewables and the continued expansion of fossil fuel extraction isn’t just an indirect result of crowding out: it’s directly driven by warmongering. Global fossil fuel subsidies doubled in 2022 almost entirely because of the so-called “energy crisis” that followed the Russia-Ukraine war. This was, in part, a genuinely needed response to rapidly rising costs for the people of Europe. But its more pernicious driver, which hasn’t faded despite declining European demand for gas, is the way the fossil fuel industry seized the opportunity to weaponize nationalism.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine allowed the industry to radically amplify and rehabilitate what was already a persistent narrative: that North American fossil fuels (both in the US and Canada) are important national projects. In the US, the right blamed the war on “Biden’s green agenda.” In BC, the two dominant parties, including the NDP, fought on the floor of the legislature over who supported the province’s nascent LNG industry more. In Alberta, then-Premier Jason Kenney called for expanding oil production with the slogan “Alberta oil is better than dictator oil.” In Newfoundland and Labrador, Premier Furey said the province’s offshore oil was needed “to relieve some of our NATO partners of the tyranny of Russia.”

It wasn’t just the right. In August of 2022, Trudeau—despite Canada’s complete lack of export capacity that could supply Europe—said the Ukraine war “changed everything” and bragged about his efforts to increase oil and gas production. His government cited European “energy security” in the discourse surrounding the federal government’s approval of the Bay du Nord oil project (an absurd connection on its face). Biden, similarly, turned to this kind of petro-nationalist discourse, transitioning from the American “energy independence” of the George W. Bush era to a new story, that of America as the energy supplier for the world. He went so far as calling, with EU President von der Leyen, for “all major energy producer countries to join us in ensuring world energy markets are stable and well-supplied.”

The war in Ukraine and the carefully orchestrated campaign to shape the narrative surrounding it reversed virtually all the discursive progress that had been made over the last two or more decades. Oil and gas are good again, and worse, if you don’t support them, well, you’re either a paid Russian agitator or a naïve lefty falling victim to Kremlin propaganda.

In Canada, the war marked the final stage of the mainstreaming of Ezra Levant’s 2010 Ethical Oil pitch. We’re now debating continued fossil fuel expansion fully on his terms.

The implications of fossil capital’s coup de grâce cannot be understated. As the Guardian reported a few weeks ago, “the world’s fossil-fuel producers are on track to nearly quadruple the amount of extracted oil and gas from newly approved projects by the end of this decade.” And while we can hope—and fight—for a radical about-face over the coming years, every new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure counts against us two-fold: on the one hand, it crowds out renewable investment and perpetuates and even grows fossil fuel demand. And on the other hand, it entrenches and empowers fossil capital just at the time when we need to dismantle it. As the historian Adam Tooze put it, “the risk is that as this situation persists and the investments in the status quo pile up… it opens the door to reactionary forces and questioning of the underlying trajectory of transition.”

This new fossil fuel infrastructure further empowers the forces of right-wing anti-climate politics (or climate anti-politics). Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was a preview of this phenomenon. What will Trump do if he wins in 2024? What will Pierre Poillievre do? What will the AfD do in Germany? The global warming projections that suggest, based on current and announced climate policies, that the world has made “progress” are less than meaningless in a political climate where even those policies seem to be on death row.

If the Ukraine war was enough to reverse the far-too-gradual, largely discursive progress that had been made—what about war with Iran? A war, I should add, that serves no purpose other than allowing a rogue state to continue committing genocide unopposed. A rogue state whose history and present, as the scholar Andreas Malm recently pointed out, are deeply intertwined with “fossil empire.” What about war with China?

When it comes to climate, these war prospects imply a best-case scenario of some kind of FDR-style war mobilization focused on a “green” military build-up that then bleeds over into civilian sectors when (and if) conflict ends. Imagine Seth Klein’s A Good War, but with less analogy and more mass death. The idea of simultaneously engaging in “great power” conflict and effectively pursuing climate mitigation is just not plausible, and yet, that’s firmly the direction those who profess to “believe the science” are driving us.

What’s far more likely, even if the war(s) remain “contained,” for now, is a doubling down on petro-nationalism and a total abandonment of any pretense that a “global” effort to address climate change exists. It’s the world in which Gaza is, as Colombian President Gustavo Petro described, “a blueprint.” The walls will continue to rise around Europe and North America as the global majority are abandoned to face the impacts of the ever-worsening ecological crisis under a constant barrage of death from the sky.

Even the so-called ‘new Cold War’ with China is creating deep rifts that threaten to derail international cooperation on climate. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, after all, has been openly warning China against ‘overproduction’ of solar panels and EVs. If it wasn’t already obvious, it should be now: no imperial geopolitical goal will ever be subordinated to climate aspirations.

The modern anti-war movement has had its highs and lows. It is, thankfully, gaining steam once again in the context of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. Yet, for its part the climate movement has largely ignored a growing body of evidence showing that militarism is, as sociologist Prof Kenneth Gould describes, “the single most ecologically destructive human endeavour.” Now is the time for that to change.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in northern BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.

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