“In order to achieve the massive systemic and cultural transformations required for mitigating climate change…we’re going to have to deal with the socially sanctioned, institutionalized violence perpetrated by U.S. foreign policy that is pouring fuel on the fire of global warming.”
Climate Change Causes War
There is the close relationship between war and climate change that can be seen in a cycle of feedback loops creating the interlocking crisis.
Take the case of Syria, the perfect example with its direct relationship between war and drought. In an exacting statistical analysis of warsfought between 1980 and 2010 the connection between war and climate change is undeniable.
The US military itself has long recognized climate change as a “threat multiplier.” The last three Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Reviewscharacterized climate change as a threat to national security.
Since the idea of climate change as “threat multiplier” tends to encourage militarized responses, (like Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposals) this information is widely reported in the pro-war media and I will not repeat it here. The military and their media allies fall silent when it comes to a far more important truth: war causes climate change.
War Causes Climate Chaos
At the core of the corporate state is the war machine, the world’s largest polluter. Despite the exemptions from reporting on military pollution that the US demanded in the 1997 Kyoto Accords and continued suppression of information by the military, the general picture comes through. Consider the evidence linking fossil fuels and war making.
+ The US military is the world’s largest polluters of all forms of toxins. Almost 900 of the nearly 1,200 Superfund sitesin the U.S. are abandoned military facilities or sites that otherwise supported military needs.
+ While there are many sources, a 2016 report by the GAOitself stated: “The Department of Defense (DOD) generally, and the military services in particular, are the largest consumers of fuel in the United States Government.”
+ Military pollution is particularly poisonous.Fighter jets, destroyers, tanks and other weapons systems emit highly toxic, carbon-intensive emissions, not to mention the toxins released from the detonation of bombs including the forever-poison depleted uranium munitions.
Given the historically unprecedented size of the US empire and its permanent war- footing we can safely assume that the US military is the largest consumer of fossil fuels and largest producer of greenhouse gasses in the world.
“Possessing the world’s largest fleet of…aircraft, helicopters, ships, tanks, armored vehicles…– virtually all powered by oil — the Department of Defense is, in fact, the world’s leading consumer of petroleum… [A]n April 2007 reportby a defense contractor…suggests that the Pentagon might consume as much as 340,000 barrels (14 million gallons) every day. This is greater than the total national consumption of Sweden or Switzerland.” Michael Klare
The military guarantees the profits and political power of the oil giants. As Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, explains in an articleabout the military-petroleum complex:
“[T]he DoD had some of the planet’s biggest petroleum dealers, and masters of the corporate universe, on its payroll. In 2005, alone, the Pentagon paid out more than $1.5 billionto BP (British Petroleum)…(on whose behalf the CIA…covertly overthrew the Iranian government back in 1953). In 2005, the Pentagon also paid out over $1 billionto…the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company (best known in the United States for its Shell brand gasoline) – and in excess of $1 billionto oil titan ExxonMobil. In 2005, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Petroleum, and BP ranked sixth, seventh, and eighth on the Forbesmagazine’s list of the world’s five hundred largest corporations in terms of revenue.”
The subsidy to oil is so great it’s hard to tell where the military ends and the oil companies begin. And this does not even count other forms of direct and — the even more massive and hidden indirect subsidies — showered on fossil fuel giants by the US government.
Securing America’s Future Energy, a group of retired military and business leaders counter the official claims that the military spends zero dollars defending oil by making a conservative estimate that $81 billion a year funds oil capture and production.
“[T]he US military consumes fossil fuel beyond compare to any other institutional and per capita consumption in order to preserve strategic access to oil — a lunacy instigated by a series of post-WWII Presidential decisions.” – Patricia Hynes
The war machine burns oil to capture oil to burn oil to capture oil. The empire is no marketplace: it’s both supply and demand. So while the consumption of oil by the military is a small percentage of the world’s total consumption, its role as coordinator and enforcer of the fossil fuel regime is what makes the US military a threat to our living planet. Hynes again captures the big picture in a recent article:
“The United States is the central actor and agent for more reasons than its historical megaconsumption of fossil fuels. The U.S. has functioned as the stimulant and model for social, economic and political systems driving GDP growth in other rich and newly rich countries, resulting in fossil fuel use spiraling “out of control since the mid 20th century.” Not only that, but the U.S. mode of consumption is continually being reproduced across the world.”
As the US empire grew around the world it held up the “American Way of Life” as proof of our superiority and a standard for others to follow. And that standard meant growth without limit and burning fossils, lot of them.
The Historical Context Reveals Everything: It’s an Oil Empire
The fusion between the military and oil giants created a dramatic spike in fossil fuel use starting around 1950. This merger and its consequences occurred in a particular historical context: the supremacy of the US empire in the years following WWII.Elaine Graham-Leigh sets it out:
“The rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions that created the current climate crisis began around 1950…in the period immediately following the Second World War…..The Allies would not have won had they not been able to cut off German access to oil and to maintain it for themselves. The lesson for the US…was that… monopolization of the world’s oil was essential if it was to be the world’s superpower. This made oil a central military priority, and also cemented the dominant position of the petroleum/automotive sector in the US.”
Oil became “a central military priority” and engine of seemingly unlimited economic growth. The US empire became traffic cop for the oil trade.
A Marriage Made in Hell
In the decades following WWII only two global superpowers were left standing: the neoliberal regime of huge transnational corporations that operated above and beyond national borders and the US empire with its vast global network of military bases and perpetual wars operating above and beyond international law. The global economy and the global empire were a perfect match. It was a marriage made in hell.
In 1980, President Carter reasserted the connections between US policy, military force and oil. Shaken by the overthrow of a CIA-installed regime in Iran in 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter’s State of the Union Address proclaimed US control over Middle East oil.
The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil….Let our position be absolutely clear: an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
The so-called “Carter Doctrine” was the work of Zbigniew Brzezinski (organizer of the Mujahadeenand father to corporate media star Mika Brzezinski). Apparently the US was not an “outside force” in the Middle East but there was nothing “outside” of its “vital interests.” Ronald Regan built on Brzezinski’s vision of limitless world hegemony by defining the security of Saudi Arabiaas essential to US interests — to this day it still is.
The US government married its fortunes to oil — “until death do us part.” We shall see about that.
The Arctic as the “Last Great Frontier”
The other revealing context reaches to our oldest cultural mythologies of frontier and American exceptionalism. Only in the US could the disaster of climate change become a new frontier complete with profitable business opportunities.
The Obama Administration discovered, in the melting Arctic, both our past glories and potential for future wealth.
“The Arctic is one of our planet’s last great frontiers. Our pioneering spirit is naturally drawn to this region, for the economic opportunities it presents and in recognition of the need to protect and conserve this unique, valuable, and changing environment.”
Are we supposed to believe that the very institutions that melted the polar ice caps can now be trusted to “protect and conserve” what’s left? The same document claims it’s going to “account for indigenous communities.” Right, just like natives were accounted for at Standing Rock (to name but one of many examples).
Falsehoods of this magnitude can only seem believable when they are part of a culture’s deepest mythologies. The “last great frontier” and “pioneering spirit” is code for empire, the colonial project and in this case — an updated version of the Doctrine of Discovery. Obama called forth the frontier spirits — a year later the US staked its claim to the newly “discovered” territory with a military strategy for the Arctic.
Then along comes Trump, another frontiersman — without the righteous pretensions — but still a product of the same myths each and every President has passed on to us.
Trump is rushing us toward destruction by escalating wars inherited from Bush and Obama even adding new fronts in Venezuela and Iran. He declared open season on Arctic oil production and native rights. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated the age-old formula seeing “opportunity and abundance” and military advantage in the ice-free waters of the north pole. Trump’s new Arctic military strategy totally misses climate change while targeting Russia and China. Now we havea new arms raceand record global military spendingled by Trump but provoked by the Russia-obsessed Democrats and pro-war media.
It’s a perfect storm of a system.
In elevating military power over climate change Trump takes his proper place as an All-American President much like the ones that came before him — at least when it comes to core issues of power and control. Deal with it. Trump did not drop from the sky.
Unless we reckon with our past we will not have a future.
The war on Mother Earth demands the kind of transformative change that only a massive “movement of movements” can create. I hate being the bearer of bad news but we face an interlocking crisis of militarism and climate changedriven by the interlocking institutions of corporate power — all deeply rooted in national mythology.
Hope alone is not a strategy. Hope leads us to shallow moral politics that substitute our desires and dreams for the concrete work of organizing ourselves to confront power. A real political strategy begins with an honest assessment of the problems we face. Yes, we face a ruling class with a single-minded fixation on profit and power. No, there is no evidence that they will regulate themselves. In fact, they are driving us to the precipice.
Only we can steer us away from cliff. Grab the wheel.
1/For more on “threat multiplier” see Ben Hayes, “Colonizing the Future: Climate Change and International Security Strategies,” in The Secure and the Dispossessed: How the Military and Corporations Are Shaping a Climate-Changed World.
2/ The persistent idea that the Soviet Union was a superpower on par with the US was ultimately proven false by the collapse of the Soviet state. The massively researched and award-winning book by Melvyn Leffler, A Preponderance of Power, shows that during the early formative years of the Cold War the US was without rival.