Popular culture is filled with many infamous villainous partnerships: Bonnie and Clyde, Sauron and Saruman, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. As long as one thrives, the other survives. The climate crisis and militarism are the same. And just as we would the other devastating duos, champions of environmental and human justice must recognize the climate crisis and militarism as partners, rather than isolated evils, in order to truly confront them.
Fortunately, the House of Representatives took two important steps on Thursday to begin confronting the militarism of U.S. foreign policy by historically passing measures to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and defund any Congressionally unauthorized war with Iran. Americans have several reasons to celebrate Thursday’s House votes, as well as demand that their Senators support similar legislative vehicles. Not only does preventing war with Iran — and countering the militarism that sends us hurtling towards one — save the lives of civilians and service members, it also combats the climate crisis.
Young people are acutely aware that our generation and those after us will pay the price for the damage our planet has suffered. To truly address the climate crisis, those of us concerned about our planet should oppose war with Iran just as we would carry reusable shopping bags and support fossil fuel divestment. After all, the climate crisis and militarism aid and abet one another at the cost of our collective security, and the longer we ignore their partnership, the more devastating the consequences will be.
Harming the Environment
A report from the United States Army War College concludes that the Department of Defense (DoD) “does not currently possess an environmentally conscious mindset.” To call that an understatement would be an understatement — not only does DoD fail to protect the environment, it actively contributes to its destruction.
Five years into the U.S. invasion of Iraq, researchers estimated, conservatively, that the Iraq War was responsible for emissions amounting to at least 141 million metric tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases between 2003 and 2008. That’s about as much as six million passenger cars would emit, collectively, over a five-year period. A war with Iran would be even larger – requiring more troops, more resources, and more emissions.
Already, the DoD emits more greenhouse gases as a single institution than many small industrialized countries. And since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the DoD has been consistently responsible for between 77 and 80 percent of all U.S. government energy consumption.
The DoD’s large-scale dependence on fossil fuels is concerning, given the links between worsening air quality and premature death. Recent studies reinforce the health impacts — lung cancer, chronic asthma, and increased risk of miscarriage, for example — of certain airborne pollutants, some of which are significant components of the particulate matter emitted by burning the types of fuel on which the military most heavily depends. Health issues caused by air pollution are therefore yet another danger of the militarism that propels us towards war.
In addition to polluting our air, the military’s large-scale emissions accelerate the consequences of the climate crisis, like extreme weather and resource scarcity, that will drive further conflict. Poor environmental conditions have already prompted mass displacement, political instability, and violence. And it’s likely to get worse, even without another war. The aforementioned U.S. Army report finds that by 2040, the global demand for freshwater may exceed availability, with water scarcity driving unrest and the collapse of food systems.
Besides emissions, using military force to address conflict poisons the environment. In Iraq, the environmental impacts of U.S. military operations in Fallujah may have led to increased rates of cancer, birth defects, and infant mortality. Traveling further back in time, about 45 million liters of Agent Orange the U.S. sprayed over swathes of Vietnam poisoned soil, water, and rice paddies, imbuing the food chain with toxic chemicals. The mere development of weapons of war is also damaging — in the U.S., communities exposed to contaminants dispersed after nuclear weapons tests fell victim to nearly twenty types of cancer.
These grave consequences demonstrate why approaches directed at “greening” the military are insufficient (looking at you, Senator Warren and Mayor Buttigieg). Even if militaries achieve net zero emissions, the weapons they deploy will never achieve net zero environmental harm. Instead of focusing on “greening” the military, we must fundamentally reimagine our response to conflict. If we don’t, we risk trapping ourselves in a vicious loop where the climate crisis drives conflict and military approaches to conflict devastate the environment — a cycle that benefits only arms manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry that powers them.
United We Stand, United They Fall
We cannot allow this dangerous partnership to march into yet another war. As the House passed a war powers resolution to rebuke Trump’s provocative actions, people at more than 350 events in the U.S. rallied to oppose war against Iran. And in September, millions of young people took to the streets and demonstrated the power behind the climate movement. We must combine that energy and direct it towards common-sense solutions to curbing militarism.
We can start by demanding our representatives in Congress support every possible measure to prevent war with Iran. Then, instead of pouring billions into the Pentagon’s already bloated and unaccountable budget, we should invest in climate adaptation. We should drive job creation in green industries, not protect jobs in fossil fuels and weapons manufacturing. In the same vein, we must inject climate-related legislation, like the Green New Deal, with a healthy dose of anti-militarism in order to bring about the change we seek.
Working together, the environmental and peace communities can champion a progressive vision of U.S. global engagement that holds both human and environmental justice at its center, because one cannot be fulfilled without the other. As people concerned with the future of our planet, we must make every effort to show decision makers that militarism and climate change must be addressed as partners. Failing to do so would be like ending the rebellion after destroying the Death Star — despite one victory, the Empire still wins.