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You can’t have it both ways—just transition requires demilitarization

We must recognize the role of militarization in perpetuating climate and ecological destruction

EnvironmentWar Zones

An F-35A Lightning II during a flight near the Vermont Air National Guard Base, South Burlington, Vermont, December 9, 2021. Photo courtesy United States Air Force/Wikimedia Commons.

As many others have pointed out, last month’s announcement of the Liberal-NDP supply and confidence agreement included very few new commitments. Many headline items, such as pharmacare, are just reiterated Liberal campaign promises the party has yet to act upon. This is especially true for the commitments aimed at addressing climate and ecological destruction. Although it received little attention when the deal was announced, one such rather vague commitment was to “move forward” with so-called “just transition” legislation; a promise the Liberals first made in their 2019 election platform.

Within a week of recommitting themselves to just transition legislation, however, the government critically undermined its position when it announced its intention to purchase eighty-eight F-35 fighter jets from weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin. The emissions, monetary cost, and purpose of such weaponry cannot be reconciled with a commitment to a meaningful just transition. Moreover, there is simply no way to achieve a just transition while simultaneously pursuing further militarization—a process dependent upon and often performed in the service of fossil fuel extraction.

Ironically, the origins of just transition can be traced to the involvement of trade unionists in disarmament movements like “Ban the Bomb” and “Jobs with Peace.” These initiatives aimed to soften the blow and gain support for the peace movement’s demands among workers in the arms industry. Jobs with Peace, for example, attempted to combat the combined austerity and high military spending of the Reagan era with a demand to shift government spending toward social services and the stimulation of non-militarized jobs. The German Greens of the same era took the idea further by incorporating “concerns of material well-being, antimilitarism, ecological balance, and general social renewal” into their demands for economic conversion.

Today, the concept of just transition is most often associated with the need to include climate and social justice principles and practices in moving to a more sustainable economy. For example, Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), describes just transition as “a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.” Further, the “transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations.” This interpretation of just transition is largely consistent with how many in movements at the intersection of labour and climate and social justice use the term today.

But regardless of whether one interprets just transition narrowly or expansively, it is clear its aims are incompatible with the type and scale of military spending the Liberal government is undertaking. This is, of course, partly because the world’s militaries are among the largest contributors to climate change, conservatively accounting for approximately six percent of global carbon emissions.

The F-35 fighter jet is likely to only intensify these emissions. A US Air National Guard environmental impact statement estimated that basing just eighteen F-35 jets at Truax Airfield in Madison, Wisconsin, would emit 12,478 tons of CO2 annually. The City of Madison estimates this is equivalent to 2,438 passenger vehicles driving about 18,500 kilometres a year—a 135 percent increase over the F-16s they are meant to replace. However, the City of Madison believes the Air National Guard’s estimate to be artificially low, and it should also be noted that the estimate above does not include emissions from the manufacturing of F-35s nor construction related to retrofitting airfields for their use. It is clear, then, that despite uncertainty around the precise lifespan of the F-35 due to its poor reliability and maintenance record, the Canadian government’s investment in these jets has locked-in significant emissions for decades to come.

Direct emissions from continued militarization are important, but it is also essential to recognize the vast sums of money and resources devoted to military spending that could otherwise be used for a just transition. As James Wilt recently pointed out, the Canadian government has committed over half-a-trillion dollars in military spending over the next twenty years. The F-35 alone will account for a huge portion of this sum. The widely reported $19 billion price tag only represents the cost of acquisition. It is thought the actual total cost of the jets could be more than two to three times that amount, with a 2014 Department of National Defence report estimating the life-cycle cost of sixty-five F-35s to be over $45 billion.

In contrast to this huge outlay, the government’s recently announced Emissions Reduction Plan commits a relatively paltry $9.1 billion to meeting its 2030 emission targets—targets which many in the environmental movement view as inadequate. Estimates concerning the amount of investment required to achieve a just transition in Canada suggest we likely need to spend at least $16.5 and possibly more than $20 billion on an annual basis, with spending declining over time. Not only, therefore, does continued militarization increase emissions and raise the cost of climate action, it also diverts needed resources away from the pursuit of something like a just transition in the first place.

Finally, it is critical that we acknowledge the role militarization plays in perpetuating our fossilized economy. By locking-in future emissions, and diverting resources away from a just transition, the government is contributing to the continued militarization of global fossil fuel extraction and trade. As Simon Dalby puts it in his book Anthropocene Geopolitics, “security has always been about mitigating the contradictions of capitalism and providing the conditions necessary for its reproduction.” Central to this is securing uninterrupted access to fossil fuels which power “carboniferous capitalism” through the use of military force. It also involves the sale of military hardware to major fossil fuel-producing states like Saudi Arabia which is currently waging a war in Yemen that the United Nations says, “has produced the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”

It is, therefore, clearly not possible to achieve a just transition in any sense of the term so long as our governments pursue a course of continued militarization. Rather, to achieve a just transition and avoid or mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we must recognize the role of militarization in perpetuating climate and ecological destruction. We must push against the current wave of calls for increased military spending and seek to reinvigorate the inherent connection between the environmental, labour, and peace movements.

Joshua K. McEvoy is a PhD candidate in Political Studies at Queen’s University. His research focuses on environmental politics and just transition movements.


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