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The US military's carbon footprint is making Africa less secure

Man-made climate change is a 'threat multiplier' as competition for resources mounts. The DoD can do its part to scale back.

Analysis | Global Crises

Rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and increasing temperatures are becoming more frequent as a result of anthropogenic, or man-made, climate change and show no indication of slowing down. As Vice President Kamala Harris once noted in a subtle reference to China, “one country’s emissions can threaten the stability of the whole Earth.”

Ironically, it is the United States, particularly the Department of Defense, whose carbon intensive practices play an overrepresented role in global emissions. 

Climate change transcends national borders and can have far-reaching consequences. While the effects of climate change in the developed world will be incremental, they will be immediate in many developing countries as climate change acts as a “threat multiplier” — aggravating underlying tensions while increasing political, social, and economic insecurity.

Nowhere is this more acute than on the African continent, where many countries are already under severe stress from poverty, water shortages, population growth, ethno-religious conflict, and governance dysfunction.  

As one of the world’s largest emitters, the United States has a responsibility to address these intertwined issues. It also has a strong security interest in doing so. While there has been a focus on great power competition with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and growing rivalry with China, the concerns surrounding climate change and these fragile states have not disappeared. As is already apparent in the Sahel and Great Lakes region, these dangers include mass displacement, epidemics, and violent extremism. 

The Pentagon’s Role in Fueling Climate Change

The United States has committed itself to several international climate agreements including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, which radically aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order limit Earth’s warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Domestically, there are also a number of executive orders that address extreme heat and offshore wind, environmental justice, and clean energy industries. Despite these commitments, the United States, specifically the Pentagon, has cumulatively contributed the greatest amount of GHG of any nation or region. In fact, the Defense Department has the carbon footprint of 140 countries combined and, like slow onset disasters, has inflicted damage for decades. 

Its military and naval operations heavily depend on fossil fuels; and operations — including the production and transportation of defense materials — have increased in light of perceived threats to U.S. security interests abroad. Additionally, the construction, operation, and maintenance of the DoD’s energy intensive infrastructure, such as training facilities, logistic centers, and bases, require significant resources — which often come at the expense of the surrounding land that is deforested and contaminated with hazardous materials.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon does not publicly or regularly report its overall GHG emissions and estimates rely on the Department of Energy, which disclosed that the Defense Department, in the most recent year for which statistics are available, produced an average of 59,000,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2017. Further, U.S. industries producing and housing defense materials includes more than 560,000 facilities with over 275,000 buildings at 800 bases located on 27 million acres of land (42,000 square miles) in the U.S. and across the globe.

In January 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that DoD “will immediately take appropriate policy actions to prioritize climate change considerations in our activities…[as] it is a national security issue.” Many would argue, however, that the Pentagon and its contribution to climate change is both a global and a national security issue as it contributes to insecurity in key areas of the world. 

Humanitarian, Health, and Security Implications in Africa

Seventeen out of 20 countries estimated to be the most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa. Many African economies and livelihoods heavily rely on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and pastoralism. Climate change related impacts such as drought, floods, and heatwaves adversely affect agricultural activity, leading to decreased crop yield and livestock death. This contributes to food insecurity, inflated food prices, and economic instability. As of 2022, about 6.3 million people in South Sudan, for example, were experiencing acute food insecurity, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, as were 5.6 million in Somalia, 4.4 million in Kenya, 1.1 million in Uganda, and 4.4 million in Ethiopia.

Climate change also affects water availability with many regions already experiencing water scarcity and unreliable water supplies. Drought zones tend to overlap with areas of high poverty and even when there is rainfall, the transmission of vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and yellow fever increases. In Southern African countries such as Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, cholera epidemics are recurring as water supplies are often contaminated and limited institutional capacity in several countries is unable to provide quality healthcare.

The loss of livelihoods and increased competition over scarce resources also leads to climate-induced displacement and conflict. While migration has traditionally functioned as a coping mechanism to a changing climate, small-scale farmers and herders are infringing on each other’s land more often. In Nigeria, erratic rainfall has intensified resource competition between farmers and herders, exacerbating intercommunal violence to the point where in 2018, violence killed up to six times more people than the Boko Haram insurgency in the country’s Northeast.

For a time, climate induced displacement will occur internally, but within these countries there will be a rise in drought brides, rebel group recruitment, displacement, and tensions with host communities due to strains on social, economic, and political systems. These effects could also spill over into neighboring countries leading to greater regional instability. The U.S. Defense Authorization Act of 2018/2019 has stated, “…as global temperatures rise, droughts and famines can lead to more failed states.” 

Doing more than “Greening” the Military 

After criticisms that the United States has failed to live up to its self-assigned global mission of leadership, there are calls for the United States, at a minimum, to reduce the Pentagon’s emissions. House Resolution 767, proposed by Rep.Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), is a prime example. However, limiting CO2 emissions requires determined state action over a long period of time. And while the Defense Department has reduced its fossil fuel consumption by using renewable energy (i.e. electric and solar powered vehicles), these efforts are viewed as “greening” the military as they only address a fraction of the U.S.’s emissions. 

To have a sustainable military, domestic action that creates a clear reduction strategy that is consistent with the Paris Agreement, sets a hard limit on DoD emissions, prioritizes decarbonization rather than climate adaptation, and considers emissions implications when deciding how to meet threats is required. A popular option among environmentalists and academics is to simply scale down. The military cannot maintain its global presence as it is now and become carbon neutral at the same time. 

The planet is warming at a speed that existing international climate commitments are insufficient to match. And while there are uncertainties around the world’s ability to meet targets, population trends, and conflict and displacement projections, what is certain is that the scale and nature of the U.S. Defense Department contributes to climate change and poses ongoing challenges for countries around the world.

Image: Riccardo Mayer via
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