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America’s Climate Security Dilemma

If Biden is serious about creating a more inclusive foreign policy, environmental security can’t be framed in military terms.

Words: Nick Cleveland-Stout
Pictures: Cole Keister

The long National Defense Authorization Act season is upon us. For DC budget wonks, that’s like March Madness, the Superbowl, and the World Cup combined. Okay, maybe not. But if there is one thing to learn from all of the talk of the goliath defense bill, it’s that security matters. After all, the word “security” was mentioned a whopping 3723 times in the defense bill for fiscal year 2021. But with each new defense bill, it becomes increasingly clear that the US has a security dilemma.

No, not the foreign policy term. Let’s call it a climate security dilemma; rather, it’s the US’ obsession with the military as a means for climate security despite it itself causing insecurity.

The US military has the distinct honor of being the largest institutional consumer of petroleum and emits more greenhouse gas than 100 countries combined. Just one of the military’s jets, the B-52 Stratofortress, consumes about as much fuel in an hour as the average car driver uses in seven years. Climate change caused primarily by the Global North — including the US military — results in drought, crop failures, and rising sea levels. Mass migration ensues, which is then framed as a national security problem, justifying greater defense spending. Rinse, and repeat.

This dynamic is already playing out. An internal report from the United States Customs and Border Protection agency found that the overwhelming reason behind the recent record migration from Guatemala was a crop shortage that left citizens impoverished and starving. Crop shortages like the one in Guatemala stem directly from the warming of the planet caused by greenhouse gas emissions, with one of the biggest culprits being — you guessed it — the US military. An econometric study by Alan Krueger and Michael Oppenheimer found that Mexican migration to the United States pulsed upward during periods of drought and projected that by 2080, climate change there could drive 6.7 million more people toward the southern US border.

The 2020 wildfires in my home state of Oregon were exacerbated because six CH-47 Chinook helicopters capable of performing aerial drops of 2,000 pounds of water had been sent to Afghanistan earlier that year. At a time when Oregonians pleaded for governmental support, America — due to its climate security dilemma — came up short.

Meanwhile, the annual US Border Patrol budget has increased tenfold since 1993. These displaced populations become a “security threat” to the US, thus further legitimizing the need for budget increases. Rhetoric surrounding migration demonstrates this dynamic. After all, Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid was in large part due to the demonization of migrants symbolized by his signature border wall.

If we are to truly address the climate crisis, framing it in military terms is unlikely to do the trick. When the defense bill does mention climate, it is often in order to further legitimize obscene defense spending. Lorah Steichen and Lindsay Koshgarian at the Institute for Policy Studies write that “the military’s concerns about climate change are rooted in the military’s operability and invite ‘solutions’ that justify expanded militarization and bigger military budgets, not a renegotiation of priorities to shift funds away from the war-machine and towards climate solutions.” For example, projected resource scarcity and climate destabilization will cause the military to call for bigger budgets in response to conflict and mass migration. The same industries with records of profiting off of insecurity can’t be trusted to propose meaningful solutions for environmental security. But hey, forget the 1.5 million bombs, at least Raytheon switched to energy-efficient lighting, right?

Christian Parenti describes this as the “politics of the armed lifeboat,” in which the US escalates its military presence to protect key interests amidst a violently warming planet. However, the “armed lifeboat” itself is a small one; the US’ militarized approach to climate poses a threat to everyday Americans too. Climate change will likely cause more droughts in California, hurricanes in Florida, disruptions in global food supplies, and higher food prices and electrical bills. The brunt of these consequences will be felt by everyday Americans.

One Department of Defense report from 2014 describes the effects of climate change as “conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” In a sense, that report was right; Afghanistan’s long drought led more farmers to turn to poppy since it requires only a sixth of the water needed for wheat. In turn, this fueled more conflict between NATO and the Taliban, which profits from the opium trade. Only, the logic of “we’ll fight them over there so we don’t have to face them in the USA” doesn’t work when it comes to climate change. The 2020 wildfires in my home state of Oregon were exacerbated because six CH-47 Chinook helicopters capable of performing aerial drops of 2,000 pounds of water had been sent to Afghanistan earlier that year. At a time when Oregonians pleaded for governmental support, America — due to its climate security dilemma — came up short.

Many of Biden’s first moves have begun to address this, investing more in green infrastructure domestically while drawing down forces abroad. The American Rescue Plan included giving $100 million to the EPA to tackle environmental justice, much of which has gone to training community members in environmental jobs. Meanwhile, drawing down America’s post 9/11 wars — which altogether cost around $6.4 trillion according to Brown University’s Costs of War project — will free up resources to spend on infrastructure. According to Steichen and Koshgarian, funding the green economy instead of a bloated military budget will be a net job creator; for the same level of spending, clean energy and infrastructure create over 40% more jobs and energy efficiency retrofits create nearly twice the level of job creation.

But to tackle America’s climate security dilemma, there also has to be a greater reimagination of national security. With estimates that 200 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050, the environment can’t afford to fall under the typical military security umbrella. Climate refugees — a term not even recognized by the UN — must be given agency rather than demonized and othered. The “armed lifeboat” approach has to be utterly dismantled and replaced with independent investment in green infrastructure. Otherwise, the lifeboat will just keep getting smaller.

Nick Cleveland-Stout is a Spring 2021 Marcellus Policy Fellow and the chair of the John Quincy Adams Society at Colorado College.

Nick Cleveland-Stout

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