How Warren’s Climate Defense Bill Undermines Itself

Elizabeth Warren has a new bill that pledges to “green” the military. But it would neither attack climate emissions nor scale back the US's enormous footprint around the world.

US Army tanks are loaded onto trains in Bremerhaven, Germany on January 8, 2017. Alexander Koerner / Getty

Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has rolled out a new proposal — the Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act (DCRRA) — with the declaration that “our military can help lead the fight against climate change.” The proposal is actually a series of distinct initiatives that, in tandem, would create what she calls a “green military”: one that runs on clean energy, that monitors and reports on its environmental impacts, and one that remains “effective.”

So far, the response to Warren’s proposal has largely revolved around two debates. The first simply asks whether the bill would make meaningful progress in the fight against climate change. The second asks whether it is in some sense complicit in US militarism. Both of these debates, however, have remained gridlocked in an exchange of abstractions and truisms: “militarism is incompatible with ecosocialism,” “yes but we must be pragmatic,” etc.

Fortunately, both of these debates can be quickly resolved if we look at the specifics of the legislation. The language of the bill guarantees that it cannot succeed even on its own narrow terms — precisely because it includes loopholes that seek to preserve the US military’s dominant position in the world.

The Market Waiver

The bill’s problems stem from two key passages.

First, consider section six: “Climate Conscious Contracting of Department of Defense,” where Warren lays out her plan to bring the military-industrial complex to heel. “[I]f we’re serious about climate change,” she writes, “then industry also needs to have skin in the game.” In a Medium post last week, Warren explained how the scheme would work: contractors that haven’t achieved carbon neutrality would be charged a small fee, which would in turn be invested into a Energy and Climate Resiliency Fund. But buried in the bill, there’s a passage she doesn’t mention:

WAIVER: the Secretary of Defense may waive the requirements of this section . . . [if] he determines that market conditions for a product or service make it difficult for the Department to acquire that product or service and the waiver will accelerate the Department’s acquisition of the product or service.

In other words: if someone in the government decides that “market conditions” (say, prices) are making it “too difficult” to buy that electric Humvee, he can just throw Warren’s entire scheme out the window. This is the military-industrial-complex loophole par excellence — it gives contractors direct cover to argue that Warren’s eco-fee would make production too expensive.

And that’s not the only way the private sector could wriggle out of the DCRRA’s eco-fee. Even if the waiver were removed entirely, capitalists have a standard strategy for dealing with this sort of fee: they simply raise their prices enough to offset it. Warren’s proposal is therefore unlikely to create the kind of market pressure on military contractors that could force them to change their energy consumption with the urgency that climate change demands.

It is true that this system still provides money for Warren’s Energy and Climate Resiliency Fund (at least when contractors don’t get the government to waive the bill’s eco-fees). Yet it’s a byzantine funding scheme. Those eco-fees were paid for by inflated contracting prices charged to the DoD, which in turn got its funding from budget requests for the goods and services the contractors provide.

One alternative would be to just put the ECRF into annual budget requests as a stand-alone item, which would make it clear that the fight against climate change is a funding priority. But the Warren bill doesn’t do this. Instead, funding for the ECRF would only appear in the budget in the form of funding for tanks and missiles that are suddenly, say, 1 percent more expensive.

The War Waiver

It is not difficult to see why the legislation has a waiver that lets the government opt out of Warren’s contracting plan: it is there to protect military “readiness” against the possible costs of the fight against climate change. In her Medium post, Warren repeatedly invokes this imperative of readiness. We are told that climate change “is undermining our military readiness,” that “our military’s top priority is readiness,” and that we need to “improve readiness.”

But readiness for what? In a DoD report Warren links to in her post, the Pentagon is characteristically blunt:

Our 2018 National Defense Strategy prioritizes long-term strategic competition with great power competitors by focusing the Department’s efforts and resources to . . . build a more lethal force . . . To achieve these goals, DoD must be able to adapt current and future operations to . . . weather and natural events.

Time and time again, the DCRRA invokes these priorities. “Resiliency,” it explains, means that the US military must be able to respond to climate change “while continuing normal operations.” In section three, the bill pointedly excludes from its “Net Zero Energy” plan all military bases, infrastructure, and vehicles that “support combat operations.” And in section eight, it calls for an annual report with “an assessment of how adapting climate change impacts” the “readiness of the military” to “counter threats posed by Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and violent extremist organizations.”

While it is not clear what “threats” the bill is referring to, one comment in Warren’s Medium post is suggestive. In passing, she warns of “competition” in the melting Arctic over “access to . . . natural resources” and links to a Washington Post article that discusses the Pentagon’s plans for “countering Russia and China,” since “both nations have shown interest in Arctic resources as the ice melts, including fossil fuels.”

All of this provides crucial context for the DCRRA’s second key passage — another waiver:

WAIVER: the Secretary of Defense may waive the requirements of this section . . . [if] he determines that meeting these requirements would adversely affect the national security interests of the United States . . .

Another waiver with similar language also appears in the bill’s section calling for “net zero energy,” and their meaning is clear: the “national security interests of the United States” evidently include things like “competition with great power competitors,” namely Russia and China, among others.

These two waivers — the market waiver, and the war waiver — seriously compromise the bill’s ability to wage a serious and urgent fight against climate change. Warren insists that “we don’t have to choose between a green military and an effective one,” but the bill’s waivers suggest that we do have to choose between a war against climate change and wars against other nations. And when that choice comes, the DCRRA ensures that our government will always choose the latter.