The Challenge of Demilitarizing the Response to Climate Change
Authors: Nico Edwards and B. Arneson
Across the liberal West, militaries have jumped on the climate action wagon. They claim that there is an impending global battle against climate change, and they will lead us to victory. In so doing, they are aiming to move beyond “greenwashing,” that is, touting their efforts to develop more eco-friendly weaponry and practices. Moving further, militaries are seeking to leverage fear to define climate change in terms of impending security threats, with the intention of monopolizing discussion of the problem as something that only militaries can manage. But climate change is a problem that is ill fit for military metaphor or practice. There is no war to be won here! The politics of balancing human and more-than-human life requires recognition of the complexity, fragility, and interdependence of global ecosystems.
Below, we outline the challenge of demilitarizing the response to climate change in six propositions.
One: Major Western militaries are trying very hard to make war appear as “greenable.”
Greening the US Military
“The time to address climate change is now” and “the Army will lead by example” professes Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth in the US Army Climate Strategy (ACS). Published a few months after the Department of Defense (DOD) Climate Adaptation Plan (CAP), the ACS was the first release in a line of US military climate agendas, with the Navy’s published in May 2022 and an Air Force strategy on the way. The CAP identifies “climate change as a critical national security issue, … threat multiplier … and top management challenge” while emphasizing that ultimately “climate change adaptation must align with and support the Department’s warfighting requirements.”
To this end, the ACS and Navy Action 2030 ascribes respective agency a set of end goals focusing on various incremental greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction initiatives and proactively integrating the security implications of climate change into agency-wide strategy, planning, acquisition, supply chain, and other documents and processes.
To achieve these the ACS sets out three Army-specific lines of effort (LOE): installations;1 acquisition and logistics;2 and training.3 Essentially, this entails measures such as equipping all army bases – a total of 130 across the globe – with renewable power micro-grids and making all non-tactical (those not actively in combat) troops fully electric by 2035, integrating “climate literacy” into army training, launching “cold weather” training programs while attempting to reduce GHG emissions from the full training cycle, and adapting Army supply chains through a multi-step process set to be completed by 2028, including wargames and simulations where supply chains are “stress tested.”
Similarly, the Navy’s Action 2030 puts forth two performance goals: building climate resilience, including nature-based and energy resilience; and reducing climate threat. Across the implementation of the five LOEs set by the DOD CAP, the Navy promises that “the Department will pursue climate change efforts” that will not only “empower our people” and “strengthen strategic partnerships” but which will also “strengthen [US] maritime dominance.”4 Neatly reproducing the notion that military practice and environmental/climate protection are not in conflict with each other, the Navy Action 2030 concludes that…
There is no time to waste. … Climate change is already impacting our Department, our Nation, and the world in significant ways, and the threat will only intensify in the coming decades. … Together, we will build upon progress and meet the moment to bolster our climate resilience, reduce our climate impacts, and remain the world’s dominant maritime force.
Greening the UK Military
“Algae, alcohol and household waste will power RAF (Royal Air Force) fighter jets under bold Ministry of Defense (MOD) plans to slash carbon emissions,” reads an announcement launching the UK MOD’s Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach (CCSSA) as part of wider attempts to address climate change within the British military sector. The strategy recognizes that “climate change will affect the way we protect, operate and fight” and affirms that “we are determined to play our full part in helping the government address climate change head on and achieve our legal commitment of net zero by 2050.”
The CCSSA sets out a Strategic Ambition detailing that by 2050 the military should have adapted to “ever more hostile and unforgiving physical environments,” reduced emissions and increased sustainability activities, and become a recognized global leader in tackling security threats exacerbated by climate change, including impacts on food, increased competition over natural resources, climate-related disasters, and forced migration.5 The strategy takes an “epoch by epoch” approach starting with an initial action plan to “[set] the foundations,” featuring targets for 2025, including reducing emissions from MOD estates by 30% or more and developing a comprehensive emissions reduction trajectory for the military as a whole.6
Outlining the UK’s first ever sustainability strategic approach, the CCSSA functions as a primer towards establishing the UK military as a climate actor in its own right. As such, though less comprehensive in terms of concrete actions, the report does a better job than its American counterpart at moving beyond climate adaptation in military activity, to focus equally on the military as a climate mitigator – as captured in the subheading “Defence: not just adapting but addressing climate change.” In contrast to the US agenda, the CCSSA pushes hard to position the UK military sector not only as an ally in a society-wide green transition but at the very forefront of British climate action, as well as a global leader and role model in military greening: “Defence will play a leading role in supporting wider UK objectives for climate change” through “leading the debate in militaries about climate change and security.” “Through leading by example” globally, the UK military will “build international coalitions for greener and more sustainable militaries, and ultimately multiply the impact of the UK’s emissions reduction.”
Strategic Sustainability in Context
What does it mean then, to make war “green?” Judging by the above, it means everything from lithium-battery ground vehicles, algae-powered fighter jets, and solar-powered drones, to increasing pollinating insect populations on military lands, ramping up wargame training and promoting sector-wide sustainable behaviors. So far so good, right? However, taking a closer look at the backdrop to the US’ and UK’s green military promises will shine a different light on the notion of military action and climate/environmental protection as compatible.
Two: The green promise is coming at a time of military expansion. This expansion is belying the promise of greening – few funds are actually spent on greening. “Greenwashing” is not only a distraction, it is a lie.
In both countries, pledges towards sustainability in military practice and thinking have come in conjunction with recent historical increases in military budgets, including plans for military spending and strategic approaches which still privilege weaponry and troop deployment, demonstrating little to no integration of “climate literacy” or “climate change considerations.”
Looking at the UK context, greening or otherwise ensuring the compatibility of British Armed Forces’ activities with the UK’s climate action needs is looking exceedingly difficult. The strategic sustainability agenda was launched in conjunction with the 2021 Integrated Review which holds the UK’s combined visions for security, defense, development and foreign policy. The green defense turn thus forms part of a key set of policies comprising the Government’s vision for post-Brexit Britain, presenting “the biggest program of investment in defense since the end of the Cold War.” This program includes an increased troop presence abroad, a raised cap on British nuclear warheads, and a £24 billion defense spending increase spread across four years, mostly falling on restoration, expansion, and innovation in military equipment to accompany plans for British global leadership in navy, air and other capabilities. This already historical increase in military expenditure promised in 2021 is now set to grow even further, with ongoing debate around lifting military spending to 3% of total GDP by 2030. Notably, this expansion of UK military capabilities adds to a defense-industrial sector with an existing annual carbon “boot-print” (military GHG emissions) of 11 million tons,7 on top of the military already accounting for 50% of UK central government emissions.
In the US, while 2021 and 2022 featured the launch of the DOD Climate Action Plan as well as both Army and Navy climate strategies, we also saw military spending going from $753 billion in 2021 to $778 billion in 2022 – eleven times the size of Russian military expenditure and four times that of China. With his defense budget proposal for 2023 President Biden has set a peacetime record asking for $813 billion, earmarking $773 billion for the Pentagon. Congress proceeded to add $45 billion to the administration’s FY 2023 request, resulting in a final total for national defense — the Pentagon plus nuclear weapons work at the Department of Energy — of $858 billion. Notably, the amendment alone boosts funding for a significant amount of conventional weapons programs, including contracts for five new warships, eight fighter jets, five planes and around $1 billion for four missile units – heavily benefiting the largest American military manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics. It also features the Pentagon’s highest ever RDT&E budget geared towards the advancement of new weaponry like hypersonic missiles. This boost in military spending does not by default undermine promises towards climate mainstreaming across the US military sector, but a quick glance at where the spending is intended to go brings the DOD’s military greening plans into question.
Given this context then, what are we to make of states like the US and the UK which promise to refashion the military sector into a climate action ally and to strengthen and expand military capabilities to the point of ensuring global operational superiority, in the same breath? How are we to make sense of the logic nestling in this rereading of the defense-climate nexus currently promoted by liberal military actors8 of there being a, if not positive, then at least compatible relation between the military and climate action? Can it be summarized as: let’s continue to drop bombs, as long as they are biodegradable? Or as Scientists for Global Responsibility put it so nicely, the main narrative undergirding this myth simply reads: less fuel, more fight!
In the next section, we explore this narrative further, looking beyond practical promises of greening to explore the implications of military climate strategies for each state’s wider thinking around security and strategic interests – in narrative, and practice.
Three: Both countries will need to reduce military emission if they are to meet their goals. Climate requires that militaries function differently.
The US’ and UK’s strategic sustainability approaches mobilize both military sectors as integral to respective states’ climate action obligations and commitments. Without reducing military emissions, neither state will achieve its Net-0-by-2050 goals. Yet, there is a myth arising here found in the argument that the military can help the state come true on its climate commitments not through reducing state reliance on military practice for national security but rather through continuing or even expanding its reliance on the military sector – only this time, a greener version of it. What underlying interests and worldviews – political, economic, social – does this less fuel more fight narrative promote and/or protect?
Four: Our understanding of climate change has been militarized.
When thinking through the notion of sustainable warfare it is necessary to take as our starting point the concept of climate security. Developing across academia and politics over the last two decades, climate security has become a guiding framework driving contemporary state, private and third sector policy formulation and research and advocacy agendas. In essence, it entails “[analyzing] the impact of climate change on security”, assuming that the effects of global warming “will cause disruption to economic, social and environmental systems – and therefore undermine security” (Buxton 2021, 1). A large part of the answer to how states like the US and the UK can merge strategic defense-based interests and international climate obligations in the same policy documents (without being properly challenged on the paradoxical relation between the two) can be found in this prevalence of climate security narratives in contemporary policy making.
At its core, climate security espouses a specific version of security – security for whom, and of what kind – that is limited to and most often entirely conflated with national and military security interests and concerns. Through situating climate change as first and foremost a security issue, it has been deeply subsumed within and co-opted by strategic and military framings of the climate “crisis” and its various causes, consequences, and possible cures. Why should we be concerned by this? As pointed out by Nick Buxton, the kinds of solutions made available through securitizing climate breakdown “seek to secure what exists”, that being “an unjust status quo” (2021, 1, emphasis added). By framing the climate crisis as a security issue, we thus end up reinforcing…
… a militarised approach to climate change that is likely to deepen the injustices for those most affected by the unfolding crisis … [viewing] as ‘threats’ anyone who might unsettle the status quo, such as refugees, or who oppose it outright, such as climate activists (2021, 1).
Militaries are not exempt from or unaffected by public opinion or the distribution of state resources. Like political parties, government departments or state agencies, the military sector writ large and the military institution per se, too must justify its needs and practices to the public as well as the state and industry. Situating climate change as an intrinsically security-related issue – away from more holistic, inclusive, and preventative social, political, and community-based readings of and responses to climate challenges – is thus no minor thing. Instead, it has directly provided defense and military actors with a renewed raison-d’être in an era where one of the primary, if not the most prominent, threats facing humanity is not strategic or political in nature, offering an otherwise outdated institution a definite role in the struggle against a non-military foe.
The turn towards greening the military in the US and the UK thus serve a particular purpose in offering the full military machinery its telos in the age of the climate emergency. Through mobilizing – in public discourse, policy, and battlefield practice – climate change as a security issue, military ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies are given a natural, even objective, purpose of continued existence; with no small consequences for how climate change and appropriate action is narrated and understood by society as a whole. Both of the US and UK military climate agendas make a point of the proximity between the military and State in addressing climate change and achieving climate commitments, positioning the military as a “shaper” as much as implementer of government policy. Who is to argue against military practice and environmental protection or international climate obligations as being compatible, when the very starting point from which society is taught to view and comprehend global warming or environmental degradation is securitized and militarized?
Five: Destroying the world is not the same as protecting it.
Given the contexts against which US and UK military sectors are joining the green transition, and the interests – political, economic and even social – directly and indirectly promoted through the strategies and narratives now seeing to the greening of warfare: are we destroying the world to protect it? The military wishes to lead by example yet is (naturally and unsurprisingly) unwilling to properly reckon with the inherent tension between military and climate action – seeking instead to apply surface-level remedies which fail to confront and thus also to cure systemic root causes. Will the weapons we are now investing in at record levels of spending in human history protect us – or the planet – from extreme weathers, crop failure and rising sea levels, if only they are solar powered, algae-fueled and biodegradable?
That it is beneficial, even necessary, for the UK and US militaries to transition into sustainable sectors is beyond doubt. It holds true that military action can become compatible with and supportive of state climate commitments, to the extent that it would be impossible to fulfill climate action obligations without an environmentally aware military machinery. Yet, our questioning of this narrative should not end here. As each of these military sustainability strategies make explicit, the ethos behind greening the military is first and foremost to safeguard each state’s operational upper hand. “The imperative is clear: The Army must help the United States mitigate climate change while ensuring competitive overmatch in crisis and conflict and adapting to a rapidly changing landscape.”
The objective is to become better at war by adapting it to a changing climate, not to recognize and once and for all admit to the inescapable environmental toll of armed conflict on the one hand, and the fact that military action and military security are utterly without raison d’être in the real struggle against climate change, on the other. That the former rather than the latter is the imperative behind greening the military perhaps goes without saying, yet by accepting this we help reproduce, naturalize, and normalize militarism – the militarization of most if not all spheres of human life – as a necessary and viable force in society and the world. It is this lack of questioning of the actual purpose, of what actual gains society – or humanity for that matter – stands to make from military action, that we need to start counteracting. The martial cycle in which climate change causes conflict, which causes military action, which causes climate change, will not be interrupted by way of decreasing military fuel use, deploying solar-powered drone swarms requiring less boots on the ground or investing ever more in wargames to reduce troop movement for training purposes. Ultimately, it is the spell of society-wide militarization, that of militarizing today’s global existential challenges – from climate change to poverty, migration and beyond – and the continued militarization of international politics writ large, that needs to be broken.
Six: Getting serious about climate change means demilitarization.
It is true the military needs to “get serious about climate change.” Yet what do we want (and need) this to mean? Judging by current efforts towards greening, the military is indeed getting serious about climate change. Naturally, however, not in a way that recognizes that the ultimate path to greening the military is to dismantle it. A key issue arises in this tendency to not only privilege but often end the conversation at the notion of adaptation – how to adapt the military to an environmentally and climatically hostile world? Just as with global capitalism, we tend to ask the wrong questions and enable the wrong – surface-scraping, feedback-looping – solutions, responding to symptoms rather than causes.
How are we to shift the conversation in the direction it needs to go? How can we provide the conditions in which even military staff or defense department civil servants dare acknowledge that it is in their strategic interest as well to shift, at least incrementally, attention towards other forms of security as well as other ways of ‘knowing’ society, environment, and world? To make military actors understand that it is in their operational interest as well to reconsider our disproportionate reliance on military security nationally and globally, to sway resources and thinking towards diplomacy and development as much as defense, towards human and common as much as national and military security.
Through taking seriously the acts of narration that go hand in hand with military action – the myth-building through which military security doctrines and accompanying institutions gain and reinvent their raison-d’être – we invite you all to an exercise in not only questioning the efficacy of military modernization strategies, but rather to challenge the military sector’s very ethos. Seeing through the naturalization of the military’s role in fighting climate change, or even as a protector of both people and the planet, we take on Mikhail Gorbachev’s so simple, yet brilliant challenge posed already back in 1988 – to first and foremost acknowledge and oppose “the militarisation of the mind.” Only when accepting armed solutions to social and planetary challenges like climate change for what they are – unquestionably futile, however green the arms – can we hope to make actual progress toward demilitarization and climate justice, instead of buying into the kind of climate action which is compatible with continued militarization.
- LOE1 includes actions towards resilient energy and water supply, carbon-pollution-free electricity, non-tactical fleet electrification and land management.
- LOE2 focuses on advanced technology, future contingency basing, clean procurement, and resilient supply chains.
- LOE3 gears towards what and how the army trains, preparing troops “to operate in a climate-altered world.”
- Examples of what this entails in practice are: folding climate change impacts and threats into wargames, training and budget processes; electrification, hybridization, alternative lower-carbon fuels and advanced propulsion solutions for tactical ground vehicles, combatant and logistics ships; supporting energy and built- and natural-infrastructure resilience through large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts, expanded use of natural infrastructure to sequester carbon and achieve local, landscape, and regional-scale climate solutions, and implementing distributed generation, smart grid, microgrids and control system cyber security; achieving supply chain resilience through investments in transformational, low-carbon technologies and advanced energy storage and power generation solutions (including standardizing lithium-ion battery use e.g. for tactical ground vehicles); working closely on mitigation and adaptation initiatives with public, private and third sector science and technology partners on state, federal and international level.
- To arrive there, the military will follow six guiding principles, such as the “[full involvement] in shaping and implementing government policy,” enhancing operational capability and resilience “while never compromising capability solely for a sustainable solution,” and “actively [encouraging] cross-sector collaboration.”
- Practically, sustainable solutions range from carbon sequestration and protecting pollinating populations across military lands, adopting sector-wide circular economy principles, instigating systemic change through promoting sustainable behaviors across the defense community, increasing the use of simulation training, and becoming a “fast follower” of new developments in commercial and civilian RDT&E ramping up the exploitation of “civilian discoveries” for military settings. Essential to the CCSSA’s promise of making the military a key partner in the UK’s green transition is this emphasis on state-industrial collaboration, fostering close relationships between the MOD/Armed Forces and industry to promote eco-RDT&E in civilian, dual use and military technologies. Great examples of these linkages include the ongoing development of solar powered drones and zero emissions aircrafts (like Airbus’ Zephyr S, BAE Systems’ PHASA-35 and Elbit Systems’ Sustainable Aviation Pathfinder), or industry-driven steps toward greening the UK Royal Navy featuring HMS Tamar and Spey (BAE Systems), two of the world’s most “eco-friendly” navy ships which draw on green-tech solutions to drastically reduce nitrous oxide emissions.
- The equivalent of more than 60 individual countries the size of Zambia (Selwyn 2020, 2).
- Even beyond the US and the UK, see: NATO Climate Change and Security Action Plan; EU Climate Change and Defense Roadmap.
ESRC-funded International Relations PhD student at University of Sussex, and active volunteer at Youth Fusion and Scientists for Global Responsibility.
Director of the World Peace Foundation’s Global Arms Trade and Corruption program and a Research Coordinator for the Corruption Tracker.
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