Can war be environmentally sustainable? Many will think this question goes without answering. When I first heard of “environmentally friendly weapons,” it struck me as a mind-boggling paradox to place environmental care next to the means of war. Yet, somehow, we are. This is not a rhetorical question to policymakers, think tanks, military staff, and arms producers across Europe and North America.
As states and military alliances push strategic “sustainability approaches” and military manufacturers find themselves back on sustainable investment indexes, the idea that “war is greenable” is becoming commonplace, swallowed whole by unsuspecting journalists, civil society organizations, and concerned citizens. The world is at a breaking point. Something has to happen, right? Surely a green(er) military is one step in the right direction. This is the self-affirming argumentative loop we have to break. The myth that military practice and climate action can be compatible has dire consequences for realizing a “just” transition based on non-military forms of care for both people and the planet.
THE MAKING OF A GREEN MILITARY MYTH
Since 2020, there’s been a frenzied release of military climate action plans across Europe and North America. From climate strategies for the US armed forces to the UK Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach and the European Union’s Climate Change and Defense Roadmap, these sectors have put their military noses to the greening grindstone.
Common to each agenda is how they define and fix climate change as a threat-multiplier, or “hyperthreat,” with grave geostrategic and national security implications. This corresponds with the climate and environmental security narratives that have dominated policy approaches to climate change in recent years. In essence, these narratives reduce thinking and action around environmental crises to a concern with the “security implications” of climate and environmental change.
Even more striking is how the agendas not only suggest military remedies to environmental emergencies but also position the military sector itself as a climate action pacemaker and a frontrunner in the green transition.
This framing makes it possible to position the military as a necessary actor in an inevitable “war on climate change” and promote military security doctrines and military-industrial solutions as natural responses to the global insecurities that are assumed to spread with worsening environmental conditions. “The threats of our modern world, made worse by rising seas, extreme weather and creeping desertification, will almost certainly lead to more conflict,” writes the general behind the UK’s green military approach.
What is particularly striking is how the agendas take for granted the dystopian worst-case scenario understandings of climate change and peoples’ assumed inability to respond to environmental insecurities in nonviolent ways. This normalizes the military’s response as one based on adapting to and preparing for these scenarios rather than putting all our might toward preventing them from becoming true.
Even more striking is how the agendas not only suggest military remedies to environmental emergencies but also position the military sector itself as a climate action pacemaker and a frontrunner in the green transition. “The time to address climate change is now” and “The Army will lead by example” are promises that the US Army Climate Strategy makes. The British sustainability approach confirms how the military will play a “leading role in supporting wider UK objectives for climate change,” and NATO’s Climate Change and Security Action Plan has afforded the military alliance the title of “a driver of climate action.”
HOW TO MONETIZE SUSTAINABILITY
To make the sustainable war narrative credible, defense ministries and armed forces rely on close collaboration with the military industry to drive research and production of green military technologies. These are meant to reduce the military’s reliance on fossil fuels and decrease pollution from weaponry and warfighting. Initiatives range from powering fighter jets and navy vessels with cooking oil and algae, to developing everything from low-carbon laser weapons and speed-of-light microwave systems, biodegradable explosives, and lead-free bullets. They include solar-powered drones and submarines, lithium-ion battery tanks, toxin-reduced rockets, and solutions for turning waste explosives into compost.
Military actors’ co-option of environmental sustainability is made painfully clear by the Aerospace, Security and Defence Industries Association of Europe, which defines military security as intrinsic to sustainability. “Security is the precondition for any sustainability,” they write, to support the argument that through helping to ensure security, the European arms industry “de facto makes a vital contribution to a more sustainable world.”
What to make of this? The green turn in military policy communicates a simple message: that such a thing as environmentally sustainable warfare exists. Evidently, there’s a lot of money to be made from selling the idea that war is indeed “greenable.”
Needless to say, the military has to cut emissions and make progress on greener options for any of these nations to meet their climate commitments. However, the agendas make clear that these military sectors will only work toward climate action as long as this helps maintain or boost their nations’ military superiority. The US Army specifies that climate change adaptation must align with and support the Department’s warfighting requirements and the UK Ministry of Defense chirpily clarifies that “Defence will seek to use the green transition to add to capabilities.”
By presenting war as greenable, it also becomes possible to present climate action and environmental care as compatible with military practice. What’s more, it makes it possible for the military to promote itself as going green without being challenged on the fact that it is doing so only so far as a greener practice allows these nations to become better at war, not to save the planet.
CENTERING THE “JUST” TRANSITION
We are witnessing the creation of a powerful myth that the military sector utilizes to undermine climate justice arguments that highlight the military as a primary culprit behind ecological crises. Movements like the Climate Justice Alliance make it clear that the kind of alternative regenerative economy that we have to work toward to stand a chance against compounding environmental crises is based on human and ecological forms of security and practices of radical connectivity and solidarity. These stand in direct opposition to the extractive economy that is causing climate disaster and the militarism that protects it.
Green militarism thus particularly harms just transition movements that know — from foregrounding lived experiences of climate colonialism and the policing and militarization of racialized communities — that disarmament equals decarbonization equals decolonization. Rather than military security being intrinsically linked with sustainability, the real link runs seamlessly between demilitarization and climate justice.
Continued reliance on military security doctrines, however “green,” directly worsens conditions of violence and insecurity among the global majority that are already bearing the brunt of CO2lonialism and militarism. Unless we resist the militarization of climate change action and environmental sustainability pathways, we will end up defenseless against the real non-military challenges posed by environmental crises.
Nico Edwards is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Sussex, advisor to Scientists for Global Responsibility, and a research associate for the World Peace Foundation’s Revitalizing Debate on the Global Arms Trade program.