Military’s Role in Greenhouse Gases Raised in the Streets of Glasgow

By Barry Sheppard

The most important events at the UN-sponsored climate conference in Glasgow occurred not inside, but in meetings and demonstrations outside.

On November 8 there was a march of climate activists, mostly young, of some 100,000. On this march, one of the issues raised was the huge contribution of the U.S. military to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“War Is Not Green” was a banner held by members of the U.S. organization, Code Pink.

The U.S. military budget of over three-fourths of a trillion dollars this year, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, is greater than that of the next 11 countries combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute.

Estimated carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 (million tonnes) Statista

These are in decreasing order: China, India, Russia, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia.

U.S. war spending comprises 10 percent of the federal budget, and one-half of “discretionary” spending by Congress which doesn’t include fixed programs such as social security, medicare, etc.

The U.S. has about 750 military bases in 80 other countries, plus another 400 or so in the U.S.

This huge military is one of the pillars of the U.S. empire that spans much of the world. Another is the dominance of the world financial system, symbolized by the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.

Just the maintaining these bases, including all their equipment as well as the soldiers in them, burns vast amounts of fossil fuels in aircraft, gas-guzzling tanks and other vehicles.

Wars increases all these emissions

The Costs of War project estimates the military produced around 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon emissions between 2001 and 2017, with nearly a third coming from U.S. wars under the rubric of the “war on terror”.

But military carbon emissions have largely been exempted from international climate treaties dating back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol following lobbying from the United States.

Speakers at the large Fridays for Future rally in Glasgow also called out the U.S. military’s role in the climate emergency.

One was Ayisha Siddiqa, who said:

“I come from northern region of Pakistan. … The U.S. Department of Defence has a larger annual carbon footprint than most countries on Earth, and it also is the single largest polluter on Earth.

“Its military presence in my region has cost the United States over $8 trillion since 1976. It has contributed to the destruction of environment in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the greater Persian Gulf and Pakistan.

“Not only have Western-induced wars led to spikes in the carbon emissions, they have led to use of depleted uranium, and they have caused poisoning of air and water and have led to birth defects, cancer and suffering of thousands of people.”

Democracy Now interviewed three of the activists on November 8, which shed more light. The activists were Ramón Mejía, anti-militarism national organizer of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and Iraq War veteran; Erik Edstrom, Afghanistan War veteran turned climate activist; and Neta Crawford, director of the Costs of War project at Brown University and professor of political science at Boston University.

Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now, interviewed Crawford at the march, and asked ,”Why are you at the climate summit? We usually just talk to you about the costs of war.”

Crawford said, “I’m here because there are several universities in the U.K. which have launched an initiative to try to include military emissions more fully in the individual countries’ declarations of their emissions.

Goodman then introduced Erik Edstrom, an Afghan War vet, who went on to study climate at Oxford and write the book Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of Our Longest War.

Amy Goodman: “I’ll ask you the same question as I asked Ramón… you were a veteran. [tell us] how you went from that to a climate activist, and what we should understand about the costs of war at home and abroad?”

Erik Edstrom: “The journey to climate activism, I think, started when I was in Afghanistan and realized that we were solving the wrong problem the wrong way. We were missing the upstream issues underpinning foreign policy around the world, which is the disruption caused by climate change, which endangers other communities.

“It creates geopolitical risk. And to be focusing on Afghanistan, effectively playing Taliban whack-a-mole, while ignoring the climate crisis, seemed like a terrible use of priorities.

“So when I was done with my military service, I wanted to study what I believe is the most important issue facing this generation. And today, when reflecting upon military emissions in the overall accounting globally, it’s not only intellectually dishonest to exclude them, it is irresponsible and dangerous.”

Democracy Now’s Juan Gonzales to Edstrom: “I’d like to ask you about the relationship between oil and the military, the U.S. military but also other imperial militaries around the world. There’s historically been a relationship of militaries seeking to control oil resources in times of war, as well as being the prime users of these oil resources to build up their military capacity, hasn’t there?”

Edstrom: “Not only is the military the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world, I think that that definitely drives some of the decision-making in the military.

“The emissions attributable to the U.S. military is more than civilian aviation and shipping combined. But one of the things I really wanted to drive home in this conversation is around something that’s not discussed very much in the costs of war, which is the social cost of carbon or the negative externalities associated with our global boot-print as a military around the world.”

Edstrom referred to the “1.2 billion metric tons of estimated emissions from the military during the time of the global war on terror. And when you look at public health studies that start to do the calculus to say how many tonnes must you emit in order to harm somebody elsewhere in the world, it’s about 4,400 tonnes.

“So, if you do the simple arithmetic, the global war on terror has potentially caused up the 270,000 climate-related deaths around the globe, which further heightens and exacerbates an already high cost of war….

“Morally, it is also further undermining the very mission statement and the oath of the military, which is to protect Americans and be a global force for good, if you take a globalized or globalization perspective.

“Undermining the climate crisis and turbo-charging it is not the [stated] role of the military, and we need to apply additional pressure for them to both disclose and reduce its massive carbon footprint….

I think that probably at the senior levels of brass within the military, there is understanding that climate change is a real and existential threat. There is a disconnect, though, which is a point of tension, which is: What is the military going to do specifically about it, and then specifically its own emissions?

“If the military were to disclose its full carbon footprint and to do so on a regular basis, that number would be deeply embarrassing and create a tremendous amount of political pressure on the U.S. military to reduce those emissions going forward. So you could understand their reluctance….

“We must count every tonne of emissions, irrespective of whether it is politically inconvenient to do so. And without the disclosure, we are running blind.”

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