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Can the US Be a Climate Leader?

Instead of increasing spending on its carbon-intensive military, the US should spend on climate action.

Words: Lorah Steichen
Pictures: Luca Bravo

President Joe Biden arrived at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland vowing that the United States “is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example.” Biden was drawing a contrast with the Trump administration, which bluntly denied climate science and pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord. However, while US officials spent the summit trumpeting their supposed return to leadership, the reality was not so flashy.

At home, conservatives in Congress have dragged their feet on passing even a watered-down version of the Build Back Better Act, which includes $500 billion worth of climate investments over 10 years. COP26 fared little better, with world leaders ultimately agreeing to delay the action and finance needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the primary ambition of the Paris Agreement. 

Even after accounting for new pledges made ahead of the summit, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 are still projected to be around twice as high as necessary to limit the temperature rise to the 1.5 degree threshold. It Takes Roots, an alliance of over 200 climate justice groups, slammed the Glasgow Pact, stating “incremental commitments made at COP26 sacrifice the most vulnerable communities, including the most vulnerable within the US and in the Global South.”  


Rich, polluting countries stalled on delivering climate finance for developing nations to reduce emissions, adapt to climate change, and compensate for the now unavoidable climate harms that are linked to wealthy countries’ emissions. Over a decade ago, rich countries pledged to mobilize $100 billion annually in climate finance by 2020. The target itself is a fraction of what’s needed, and yet wealthy countries failed to meet it, pushing it back several years.

Due to exemptions in both the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, military emissions go uncounted and under-reported globally — an emissions gap that activists brought attention to at COP26.

These developments point to a revealing failure of US climate “leadership.” Yet, the problem isn’t simply that leadership has been absent. It’s that much of it has been merely lip service at best and obstructionism at worst. Not only has the US watered down its international climate commitments, but it’s about to dramatically scale up spending on its carbon-intensive military.

As the world’s wealthiest country and the biggest historical contributor to climate change, the US should deliver the largest share of climate finance in the world. Yet, in Glasgow, the US blocked efforts to establish funding mechanisms to compensate climate-vulnerable countries for loss and damage caused by climate change. 

While Biden has pledged to quadruple US international climate finance from Obama-era levels, which would set a new target of over $11 billion annually by 2024, by numerous calculations that commitment continues to fall short. By one accounting, the US share of the $100 billion goal should be closer to $43 billion annually. A number of US climate groups have called on the US to go further and commit at least $800 billion in climate finance by 2030, averaging about $90 billion annually, “as a good faith down payment toward our fair share.”


Those numbers sound big, but they’re a drop in the bucket compared to what the US is currently planning to spend on its military. The Senate will vote soon on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which would boost military spending for next year to $778 billion. Calling for $25 billion more than Biden asked for, the NDAA would prevent the US Navy from decommissioning three aging cruisers. It also requests $1.5 billion for another DDG-51 missile destroyer. In the end, that adds up to about as much in one year as even some of the most ambitious climate groups have requested over nine. 

By their very nature, militaries produce high levels of greenhouse gas pollution — in fact, the US Department of Defense is the largest institutional user of petroleum in the world. Yet, militaries are exempt from climate agreements. The United States lobbied for military emissions to be excluded from the Kyoto Protocol and for reporting to be made voluntary under the Paris Agreement. As a result, military emissions go uncounted and under-reported globally — an emissions gap that activists brought attention to at COP26.


When asked in Glasgow how the US can tout its climate leadership while overseeing massive increases to the Pentagon budget, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke about climate change as a “cause for migration” and “conflict over habitat and resources.” 

Pelosi’s remarks reflect a line of thinking from the national security establishment that has existed for decades and was endorsed by a suite of reports released by the Biden administration ahead of the COP. The reports present climate change as a “national security” threat that institutions like the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security are positioned to respond to. 

While this might sound like a framework that takes the climate crisis seriously, in reality it has little to say about how to prevent the worst of the climate crisis. Instead, this approach focuses on military preparation for resource conflicts and militarizing borders against climate refugees — all while leaving military emissions fundamentally untouched.

The US is already the undisputed world leader in military spending. By some calculations, funding for carbon emissions mitigation in the recently passed infrastructure bill is 21 times less than the proposed Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2022. In other words, US militarism is the most robustly funded climate policy.

It’s a good thing that the US is engaging again with international climate diplomacy. Real leadership, however, would prioritize limiting climate change and meeting the US responsibility to the world for our emissions, not beefing up our military for a more violent future once the worst happens.

Even while conservatives in Congress do their best to hamstring the president’s domestic climate priorities, the administration can still lead by working with like-minded members of Congress to rebalance budget priorities toward real climate responses, not the Pentagon. Senator Bernie Sanders has announced his plan to vote no on the Senate’s defense bill, adding, “As a nation, we need to get our priorities right.” He’s right. 

Lorah Steichen is a researcher on the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and lead author of IPS primer No Warming, No War: How Militarism Fuels the Climate Crisis — and Vice Versa.

Lorah Steichen

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