The Solution to Climate Change Isn’t Demilitarization

A new book argues that the Pentagon drives carbon emissions worldwide but ignores inconvenient realities.

By , the director of the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks.
Military aircraft is seen above plumes of spoke.
Military aircraft is seen above plumes of spoke.
An A-10 Thunderbolt fires rockets as it flies by smoke rising from destroyed targets during a U.S. Air Force firepower demonstration at the Nevada Test and Training Range near Indian Springs, Nevada, on Sept. 14, 2007. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in 2021, the U.S. military has released a Climate Adaptation Plan, a Climate Risk Analysis, various climate strategies, and a new National Defense Strategy that calls climate change a “destabilizing and potentially catastrophic transboundary challenge.” This month, the Defense Department sent a high-level delegation to the United Nations climate change conference (or COP27) in Egypt, led by the department’s first-ever chief sustainability officer. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has called climate change an “existential threat,” and many organizations—including the one I direct, the Center for Climate and Security—have lauded the U.S. military’s growing focus on climate risks.

For Neta C. Crawford, author of The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War: Charting the Rise and Fall of U.S. Military Emissions, these initiatives are likely too little, too late. All of this activity, in Crawford’s estimation, merely nibbles around the edges of the larger, more systemic problem of “a long-term cycle of economic growth, fossil fuel use, and dependency,” which is driven in part by “militarization and war.” Crawford is skeptical of security analysis that identifies risks of conflict and instability stemming from climate change. That analysis, she argues, will justify further military expansion under the guise of fighting “climate wars.” Instead, Crawford believes that a significant reduction of the U.S. military writ large will be necessary to meaningfully cut the world’s emissions.

For many years, Crawford has worked to develop a methodology to estimate U.S. military emissions as part of Brown University’s Costs of War Project. It’s no surprise, then, that the first portion of her book provides a detailed history of the military’s energy use. For example, Crawford delves into the U.S. Navy’s 19th-century reliance on coal power, describing the link between the development of coaling stations abroad and U.S. military basing decisions. Detailing then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 deployment of the Great White Fleet—a caravan of battleships and torpedo boats that circumnavigated the globe to demonstrate U.S. naval power—Crawford estimates the journey emitted 803,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Yet, given that the World Resources Institute estimates the United States emitted a total of 1.28 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide in 1907, the fleet’s journey is a mere drop in the bucket.

Since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in 2021, the U.S. military has released a Climate Adaptation Plan, a Climate Risk Analysis, various climate strategies, and a new National Defense Strategy that calls climate change a “destabilizing and potentially catastrophic transboundary challenge.” This month, the Defense Department sent a high-level delegation to the United Nations climate change conference (or COP27) in Egypt, led by the department’s first-ever chief sustainability officer. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has called climate change an “existential threat,” and many organizations—including the one I direct, the Center for Climate and Security—have lauded the U.S. military’s growing focus on climate risks.

For Neta C. Crawford, author of The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War: Charting the Rise and Fall of U.S. Military Emissions, these initiatives are likely too little, too late. All of this activity, in Crawford’s estimation, merely nibbles around the edges of the larger, more systemic problem of “a long-term cycle of economic growth, fossil fuel use, and dependency,” which is driven in part by “militarization and war.” Crawford is skeptical of security analysis that identifies risks of conflict and instability stemming from climate change. That analysis, she argues, will justify further military expansion under the guise of fighting “climate wars.” Instead, Crawford believes that a significant reduction of the U.S. military writ large will be necessary to meaningfully cut the world’s emissions.

For many years, Crawford has worked to develop a methodology to estimate U.S. military emissions as part of Brown University’s Costs of War Project. It’s no surprise, then, that the first portion of her book provides a detailed history of the military’s energy use. For example, Crawford delves into the U.S. Navy’s 19th-century reliance on coal power, describing the link between the development of coaling stations abroad and U.S. military basing decisions. Detailing then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 deployment of the Great White Fleet—a caravan of battleships and torpedo boats that circumnavigated the globe to demonstrate U.S. naval power—Crawford estimates the journey emitted 803,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Yet, given that the World Resources Institute estimates the United States emitted a total of 1.28 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide in 1907, the fleet’s journey is a mere drop in the bucket.

This brings me to a question I struggled with as I read Crawford’s book: Is the military really the independent variable driving carbon emissions? Yes, the U.S. military’s emissions are large—the largest of any U.S. federal agency or, in fact, any single institution worldwide. Crawford often highlights this, using comparisons designed to shock the reader. She estimates that annual U.S. military emissions are about equal to that of the 45 smallest-emitting countries; the emissions of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway combined; or the U.S. state of Wisconsin.

Yet these comparisons must be held up against another shocking fact—which, to her credit, Crawford acknowledges: Military emissions in 2019 made up less than 1 percent of total U.S. emissions. This figure underscores something the book is missing—an effort to contextualize military emissions within the broader economic, political, population, and societal trends that have also played a critical role in shaping the trajectory of global carbon dioxide emissions over time. Though Crawford acknowledges that “it is difficult to disentangle the role of military and commercial drivers of increased emissions,” the book does not grapple with this complexity.

One example of this omission is found in Crawford’s account of the military’s role in the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty committing state parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As she writes, in 1997, the U.S. government succeeded in achieving an exemption in the protocol for “counting some military emissions in national emissions reporting, ensuring that there would be no full and transparent accounting of the United States’—or for that matter, any government’s—military greenhouse gas emissions.” This precedent, Crawford laments, kept global military emissions off the books for decades, even as other climate negotiations progressed.

More relevant to global progress toward combating climate change, however, is the broader political context surrounding Kyoto Protocol negotiations. As Crawford details, the very possibility that the treaty might limit military emissions was used as a cudgel by the protocol’s opponents. She cites, for example, a Senate hearing in which then-Sen. John Kerry discussed a letter from national security leaders—including Jeane Kirkpatrick, Dick Cheney, and Caspar Weinberger—that “suggested that the Kyoto Treaty threatens to limit the exercise of American military power.” In response, Kerry emphasized that the treaty would do no such thing. But of course, the Senate never ratified Kyoto anyway.

Though Crawford recounts the Senate hearings where the military exemption was debated, she does not dig deeper into the political dynamics surrounding the protocol. At the time, Republican senators cited a litany of reasons to oppose Kyoto: They claimed, among other things, that it would raise energy prices, decimate U.S. agriculture, and harm the U.S. economy. In this context, the Clinton administration’s support for a military exemption can be seen as an effort to peel off some opposition and win ratification, leading to large emissions reductions—not a nefarious plot to exempt military emissions indefinitely.

If such an effort had worked, the overall climate win would have been worth it. As Crawford cites, former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s advisors noted that military operations and training emissions only made up around 0.8 percent of total U.S. emissions at the time—again underscoring my question about how much the military is responsible for the climate problem.

Crawford does not have the same question. Throughout the book, she focuses on the points that support her argument that U.S. military demand for fossil fuels has been a key driver of fossil fuel adoption across the entire world economy and has shaped geopolitics for the worse. What the world needs, she writes, is a “fundamental rethinking of the beliefs that have led to high military and military-industrial emissions,” including a broader military demobilization and significant reduction in overall U.S. military spending. She points to the U.S. military presence in the Middle East as particularly problematic: Not only have the multiple wars in Iraq resulted in high military emissions, but U.S. posturing in the region has also been driven by the misguided belief that Washington must protect its access to oil.

Crawford is right that there is an important role for the military to play in decarbonization. A military transition to renewable energy in its vehicles and bases, as I have written, can drive broader market demand for such technology. And a reduced U.S. military presence in the Middle East—which is already taking place—makes sense given the scope of threats facing Washington today. Yet there is reason to be skeptical that the key to U.S. decarbonization is demilitarization, that pulling troops from the Middle East would make a significant dent in the United States’ carbon footprint, or that targeting U.S. military emissions as the top climate priority has any chance of garnering political support.

But perhaps Crawford’s biggest missteps are that she equates climate security concerns with an excuse for further militarization and minimizes the importance of adapting to existing climate hazards. Biden administration reports on climate security, she writes, are evidence of the U.S. government asserting that the climate-conflict nexus is “taken for granted” and almost inevitable. She’s right to say conflict due to climate hazards is not a foregone conclusion, but that does not mean the risks are nonexistent. A variety of security ills associated with climate hazards should rightly worry the U.S. government, including mass death, political instability, and a reduction in the capabilities of its allies and partners. Analyzing and articulating these risks, as the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence community have done, is a prudent first step to prepare for climate impacts. That does not mean the military is the best—or only—tool that Washington will use to address these threats.

Crawford worries about what she calls the “securitization” of the climate issue, arguing that it “risks militarizing our response, which itself could be wasteful and ineffective, or at worst, counterproductive, exacerbating global warming.” Yet the world should worry that neglecting to integrate climate considerations into U.S. national security policy is the bigger risk. A slew of new reports shows that already—at just 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming—suffering and instability caused by climate change is significant. International policies that do not adapt to this reality—using a whole-of-government approach that incorporates diplomacy and development alongside defense—will leave everyone less secure.

Crawford’s book is a useful addition to climate security literature insofar as it provides a history of the military’s fossil fuel use and its efforts to address climate change over the decades. Her work to develop an independent measure of Defense Department emissions is valuable, as is her argument that curbing emissions expeditiously will make the United States and the world a safer place. It is her estimation of the military’s role in moving toward decarbonization that should be questioned. Does the military’s very existence, as Crawford argues, drive climate change above and beyond the direct impact of military emissions? Her book attempts to make that case, but ultimately, her argument that the military is more than just one entity among many that have created the systemic climate risks facing the world today is unconvincing.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. We earn an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Erin Sikorsky is the director of the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks. Twitter: @ErinSikorsky

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