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The One Thing Causing Climate Change No One Wants to Talk About

Photo: Getty

Why is the climate changing? Viewed the most obvious way, it’s because the burning of fossil fuels is releasing exorbitant amounts of greenhouse gases, trapping too much heat energy in the atmosphere. Viewed another way, it’s because the world’s dominant economic system is premised on unending growth, meaning private industry will always prioritize profits over the health and well-being of people, animals, and the planet. It also means the world’s governments will tend to prioritize their own country’s GDP growth at the expense of the environment.

Numerous thinkers have noted the idea that our climate change crisis is rooted in the “grow or die” capitalist system. However, it is important to keep in mind that the modern global economy is not genuinely capitalist — in reality, almost every country in the world has an economy that is at least somewhat state-guided, with the public sector driving a substantial portion of innovation and growth. Thus, most modern economies could be called state capitalist.

One important factor driving modern state-capitalist economies, especially in the United States, is the military. In fact, the Defense Department has been one of the main drivers of high-tech innovation over the past several decades. As economist Mariana Mazzucato explains in her book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, “Nearly all the technological revolutions in the past — from the Internet to today’s green tech revolution — required a massive push from the State.” Mazzacuto provides the example of the iPhone:

The iPhone is often heralded as the quintessential example of what happens when a hands-off government allows genius entrepreneurs to flourish, and yet the development of the features that make the iPhone a smartphone rather than a stupid phone was publicly funded. The iPhone depends on the Internet; the progenitor of the Internet was ARPANET, a program funded in the 1960s by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is part of the Defense Department. The Global Positioning System (GPS) began as a 1970s US military program called NAVSTAR. The iPhone’s touchscreen technology was created by the company FingerWorks, which was founded by a professor at the publicly funded University of Delaware and one of his doctoral candidates, who received grants from the National Science Foundation and the CIA. Even Siri…is a spinoff of a DARPA artificial-intelligence project.

What does all of this have to do with climate change? Well, though public spending through the military brings many benefits to the economy, the military-industrial complex as a whole brings substantial costs, including opportunity costs—where spending for war and war preparations could instead be spent on green energy projects and social services.

Militarism is an unacknowledged cause of climate change. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the world spent a combined total of $1.7 trillion for military purposes in 2016, or $227 per person. The United States was far and away in the lead, spending $611 billion, more than the next eight highest spenders combined and accounting for more than a third of the world’s total military spending.

Some analysts have calculated U.S. military spending at even higher levels. If spending on intelligence services, nuclear weapons, veterans’ benefits, interest on the debt to pay for past wars, and other programs are included, the United States spends $1.5 trillion a year on its military, or 48 percent of the federal income tax budget.

Other than using funding that could otherwise go to social services or programs for renewable energy, spending vast amounts of money on the military and its network of thousands of bases worldwide has a direct consequence on the environment. As Newsweek reported in 2014:

The US Department of Defence is one of the world’s worst polluters. Its footprint dwarfs that of any corporation: 4,127 installations spread across 19 million acres of American soil. Maureen Sullivan, who heads the Pentagon’s environmental programmes, says her office contends with 39,000 contaminated sites.

In fact, the Defense Department is “the largest single consumer of fuel in the world” and every year “buys about 100 million barrels, or 4.2 billion gallons, of refined petroleum for its aircraft, warships, tanks and other machines,” as the Washington Post reported.

Investigate journalist Gar Smith breaks down the Pentagon’s “carbon bootprint”:

The Pentagon has admitted to burning 350,000 barrels of oil a day (only 35 countries in the world consume more) but that doesn’t include oil burned by contractors and weapons suppliers. It does, however, include providing fuel for more than 28,000 armored vehicles, thousands of helicopters, hundreds of jet fighters and bombers and vast fleets of Navy vessels. The Air Force accounts for about half of the Pentagon’s operational energy consumption, followed by the Navy (33%) and Army (15%).

As Smith points out, “most of the Pentagon’s oil is consumed in operations directed at protecting America’s access to foreign oil and maritime shipping lanes,” meaning that “the consumption of oil relies on consuming more oil.”

Just the first five years of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq were responsible for at least 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, more than what 139 countries in the world emit annually. Furthermore, according to Oil Change International, “Projected total U.S. spending on the Iraq war could cover all of the global investments in renewable power generation that are needed between now and 2030 in order to halt current warming trends.”

War and militarism have traditionally been bad for the environment. Forests, animals, waterways, the air, and the soil have all been destroyed, killed, or polluted either directly as a way of depriving an enemy of resources or as a consequence of deploying weapons. As weapons become more technologically sophisticated, the consequences of deploying them become worse. Nuclear weapons, for example, pose enormous environmental problems if ever deployed. Even a limited, regional nuclear war could have devastating global impacts. A study published in the journal Earth’s Future found that a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan involving 100 small nuclear weapons:

could produce about 5 Tg of black carbon (BC). This would self-loft to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally, producing a sudden drop in surface temperatures and intense heating of the stratosphere…Our calculations show that global ozone losses of 20%–50% over populated areas, levels unprecedented in human history, would accompany the coldest average surface temperatures in the last 1000 years. We calculate summer enhancements in UV indices of 30%–80% over midlatitudes, suggesting widespread damage to human health, agriculture, and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Killing frosts would reduce growing seasons by 10–40 days per year for 5 years. Surface temperatures would be reduced for more than 25 years due to thermal inertia and albedo effects in the ocean and expanded sea ice. The combined cooling and enhanced UV would put significant pressures on global food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.

During the Vietnam War, the United States sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides and destroyed 5.5 million acres of forests and croplands in Vietnam. Dioxin, the toxic compound in Agent Orange, has been linked to numerous illnesses and birth defects. Other than its devastating impact on people, “[dioxin] defoliated millions of acres of forests and farmland,” causing “[l]arge tracts of [land to be] degraded and unproductive to this day,” according to the Aspen Institute. Rivers and soil are contaminated, threatening animal species with extinction and reducing biodiversity.

In the first Gulf War, Iraqi forces in Kuwait destroyed more than 700 oil wells, spilling 60 million barrels of oil. The average air temperature fell by 10 degrees Celsius because soot from the burning oil wells blocked the sun. Millions more barrels were released into the Persian Gulf, causing one of history’s largest oil spills and harming local wildlife and habitats.

The existing economic and hegemonic order is caught in a self-perpetuating cycle that is having devastating effects on the planet’s ecosystem. Resources such as oil are consumed in order to continue consuming those same resources.

The militarism and conflict contributing to the destruction of the environment is symptomatic of the larger problem of people being divided into hierarchical institutions, such as states. States around the world prioritize their own security above others. And some states — such as the United States — were borne out of expansion and thus view the way to security as dominant hegemony. What one state views as good for itself may be bad for everyone in the long run, just as individual consumers in a capitalist economy getting a good deal for themselves may cause externalities for society as a whole (for example, any one individual may like cheap gas, but this may cause worse pollution and traffic congestion for everyone as a whole).

No sane culture should destroy the environment that it depends on for survival, but to an independent outside observer, that would appear to be what is happening. If climate change is to be prevented, or at least mitigated, citizens must see past the dominant and short-sighted ideologies of profit seeking, nationalism, and militarism and instead dedicate themselves to the common public good—which includes the natural world, of which we are a part.

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