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Will the US end military domination to save the planet?

Biden signs order that elevates climate to a national security issue. Let's see if the DoD takes on board their own role in the crisis.

Analysis | Global Crises

At yesterday’s “Climate Day” at the White House, President Biden announced a whole-of-government approach to combating what he called “the existential threat of climate change.”  He signed three executive orders, one of which, he said, “makes it official that climate change will be at the center of our national security and foreign policy.” 

That’s terrific news. The Quincy Institute has been saying all along that the threat from climate chaos poses a much more direct threat to the American public than does any nation state. Specifically, we have been arguing that Washington needs to refrain from backing itself into a cold or hot war with China. The former would divert massive resources away from the climate-friendly infrastructure plans Biden outlined yesterday, and the latter would most likely sink efforts to stabilize and reverse global warming.   

Support came swiftly for Biden’s elevation of climate. “It changes defense posture, it changes foreign policy posture,” John Podesta, who served among other top posts in the Obama administration as counselor on climate policy and initiatives, told the New York Times.  

Over at the Pentagon, however, the depth and breadth of change were not clear.  Newly minted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he fully supports the decision to “include climate considerations as an essential element of our national security and to assess the impacts of climate change on our security strategies, operations, and infrastructure.”   

The issue is not new to the military. For more than a decade, the Department of Defense has acknowledged the implications of climate change and rising seas on its own installations and as a driver of conflict around the world.  What it has not yet done is connect the dots regarding how the current strategy of global military primacy contributes directly to the existential threat fueled by CO2 emissions. 

With respect to national security, Washington’s guiding imperative since World War II has demanded that  its military have the wherewithal to respond to instability and conflict anywhere around the world at any time. That self-imposed responsibility today rests on having 800-plus foreign military bases and a whole lot of jet fuel. As Heidi Peltier wrote in an essay for QI’s “Greening U.S. - China Relations” symposium back in September, the U.S. military is the world’s single biggest institutional consumer of petroleum. While the military’s emissions account for only one percent of the overall U.S. total, the DoD’s impact still exceeds the total emissions of many small and medium-size countries.  

While Austin did not pledge to halve or radically reduce the Pentagon’s massive carbon bootprint, he did note that “the Department can also be a platform for positive change, spurring the development of climate-friendly technologies at scale.”  The DoD is probably not the most cost-effective innovator of climate-friendly technologies, but it is currently where the money is. A transfer of funds from DARPA, the Pentagon’s very well- funded weapons technology incubator, to E-ARPA, the Energy Department’s cash- starved green technology incubator, could help. Similarly, supporting export promotion and assistance funds for green technology, modeled on U.S. arms export programs, would be a constructive contribution. 

An important area needing clarification is whether and how the White House will prioritize efforts to save the planet in relation to its efforts to contain the rise of China.  As the world’s top two emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States and China are both vital to reining in emissions on the scale needed to limit warming. But John Kerry, the administration’s special envoy for climate, was far from crystal clear at the White House press briefing yesterday:

"The issues of theft of intellectual property and access to markets, South China Sea. Run the list. We all know them. Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That's not going to happen," he said. But he did add that “climate is a critical stand-alone issue that we have to deal on ... So it's urgent that we find a way to compartmentalize, to move forward.”  Exploring and promoting environment-related confidence-building measures with China, including green technology policy and projects, would be a real sign of commitment to work through the challenges in the bilateral relationship for the good of the American people and the planet. 

Meanwhile, taking on a more restrained global military posture, reducing America’s forward presence, overflights, and overseas bases would dramatically reduce the Pentagon’s overall CO2 impact and would signal the seriousness of Washington’s commitment to combating this existential threat. It would save American taxpayers billions of dollars and diminish the threat to the American people -- and to the world.  

(Shutterstock/ Alexander Smulskiy)
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