On October 13, in Peru, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the U.S. military would begin treating climate change as an immediate threat to national security. The press conference was planned to coincide with the release of the Defense Department’s 20-page 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, which lays out steps by which armed forces will “prepare for a future with a wide spectrum of possible threats, weighing risks and probabilities to ensure that we will continue to keep our country secure.”
Referring to Hagel’s announcement, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — co-chair of Congress’ Bi-Cameral Taskforce on Climate Change — said that lawmakers traditionally slow to act on the issue now “face a simple question: Do they trust the big polluters, or do they trust our nation’s military sworn to defend us from harm?” Unfortunately, those categories are one and the same; the Pentagon is the world’s largest polluter and one of its largest institutional consumers of fossil fuels, taking in an estimated 320,000 barrels of oil per day.
While the roadmap lays out contingency plans for protecting military interests through climate-related disaster, it conspicuously fails to acknowledge either the armed forces’ own track record on emissions, or their tendency to clear the way for continued extraction with wars and imposed economic policy. For climate organizers, the roadmap itself is a bleak reminder of the need for a just transition, rather than just any transition away from fossil fuels.
On the one hand, the Pentagon’s newfound stance on climate is a movement victory: Even the most seemingly stalwart governmental bodies are now being forced to accept the science and the human and political realities of the crisis. On the other hand, it’s predictable: The military might of the United States is no stranger to dealing with disaster. As Naomi Klein lays out methodically in her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine,” state forces worldwide have often been the first, often violent responders to moments of crisis from New Orleans to Buenos Aires — most of them with strong ties back to corporations and the U.S. foreign policy interests. The war in Iraq is one such example.
The Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, was established by the Multi-National Force as a transitional government in Iraq following a brutal “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in January 2003. Enacted in September of that year, CPA Order 39 enabled the privatization of the country’s economy and opened the way for virtually unlimited foreign investment by allowing for 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi assets.
CPA chief executive L. Paul Bremer, ruling “by decree” and reporting directly to the Pentagon, sought to rebuild Iraq as a free market paradise. He dropped the corporate tax rate of 45 percent to a flat 15 percent with Order 49. Order 17 allowed private contractors like Blackwater and Halliburton total immunity from Iraqi law. There were no mandates placed on companies or investors as to where their profits should flow, meaning that little of the money made by foreigners in Iraq saw its way back to Iraqis. The results have been devastating: Since the war began, Iraq has been transformed from a food exporter to importing 80 percent of its food from abroad. Many lack food, water and other necessities. In addition to an estimated 131,000 civilian casualties, the war in Iraq has left as many as 600 million tons of CO2 in the atmosphere as of 2010. According to the Guardian, that’s as much as “everyone in the U.K. flying to Hong Kong and back between one and three times.”
In 1997, long before his tenure as Secretary of Defense, Hagel earned the title of “Climate Treaty Slayer” by leading the charge in the Senate against adopting the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Byrd-Hagel Resolution stated that signing onto international climate agreements would “result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.” The resolution passed 95-0, and the United States never ratified the Kyoto Accord. As a result of this battle, too, the carbon emissions from the militaries of the United States and every other country in the world are not counted in the yearly greenhouse gas totals considered by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in drafting its annual reports.
In 2013, the military accounted for nearly 25 percent of federal tax budget expenditures, having spent $618 billion through the year. Confronting and adapting to the worst effects of the climate crisis will mean reigning in bloated defense budgets, and reinvesting at least some portion of that money into building, rather than privatizing, a public sphere that can provide healthcare, education and other basic services.
The Pentagon’s roadmap will change the way the military goes to war, not whether or not it does in the first place. Tamara Lorincz, who has conducted considerable research into the military’s climate impacts with the International Peace Bureau, told Real News “We simply are not going to be able to maintain a military … and all of these wars, and still protect the climate. It’s just not going to be possible.” As the saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” The climate crisis, then, is a catastrophic nail to the market-friendly hammer that brought free trade zones to Iraq and Guantanamo-style detention centers to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Instability is a siren song for free market forces, and climate change may be the biggest shock yet. Clearly, the will to confront the climate crisis will not come from the Pentagon or any other arm of government, but from popular movements that can envision a future free of endless growth and endless wars.
As K-pop fans and Black organizers and artists are demonstrating, joyful, powerful movements draw more people in and reflect the kind of world we want to live in.
If soldiers train for armed combat, why wouldn’t activists train for toppling the political-economic structure that’s killing our chance for a just future? The stakes are just as high.
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