Elizabeth Warren’s Lean Green Fighting Machine

The way to cut military climate emissions is to scale back the United States’ enormous empire. Elizabeth Warren has no plan for that.

Illustration by Harry Haysom

In June 1991, volcanic Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines. At that same moment a typhoon hit. Heavy rain dampened plumes of ash, creating an admixture thick as concrete. More than 350 people died, most trapped in buildings smothered by the sludge.

Refugees fled to nearby Clark Air Base. The base had been operated by the United States since 1903, but was serendipitously in the process of being vacated. About five hundred families built a makeshift village on the site, where they lived for years, drinking out of shallow wells and waiting for disaster relief that never came.

They didn’t know that their safe haven was poisoned with massive quantities of oil, pesticides, and lead. Seventy-six of the refugees at Clark Air Base have since died from toxic exposure. Nineteen children were born there with severe disabilities. The US government has washed its hands of the matter entirely.

Environmental contamination from US military bases, both foreign and domestic, continues to have devastating consequences. In addition to the millions worldwide who make direct contact with hazardous military waste, the Department of Defense is a key driver of the climate crisis that will eventually harm every person on the planet.

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that, sort of. The presidential candidate recently introduced a bill to impose stringent environmental regulations on the military and convert all noncombat bases to net-zero renewable energy. If her Department of Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act were to pass, it would curb some of this pollution, and that’s a good thing.

In an article introducing the bill, Warren writes that its purpose is to “harden the U.S. military against the threat posed by climate change.” Her rationale mentions nothing about the environmental health impacts of US military infrastructure on non-Americans, like the Clark Air Base refugees. Instead, Warren wants to green the military for its own sake, so that it can continue operating “effectively” across the globe.

“Our military’s top priority,” Warren writes, “is readiness — ensuring that our service members are prepared to perform their mission.” Absent is any meditation on the nature of that mission. Not only does Warren decline to interrogate why the United States has so many foreign military bases, but she unquestioningly affirms their right to exist, calling for “clean energy solutions that will improve our security by allowing military bases to remain operational when traditional power sources fail.”

The United States has roughly eight hundred official foreign military bases and countless semiofficial stations worldwide. All other countries have a few dozen combined.

These bases come with a price tag of $100 billion per year, and for that investment every corner of the world is within striking distance. Combined with economic coercion through sanctions, debts, and the promise of investments, weaker nations avoid bucking US prerogatives. This twin strategy of military and financial intimidation is the modern embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt’s motto, which purportedly originated as an African proverb: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

After World War II, America took responsibility for maintaining a global system in which free trade is protected at all costs and capital accumulation is unimpeded by cumbersome pro-worker and pro-environment regulations. As Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch put it, “the American state was now acting as a self-conscious agent in the making of a truly global capitalism, overseeing the drive to universalize the law of value through the restructuring both of states themselves and of inter-state relationships.”

This global capitalist project is the reason we are looking down the barrel of a climate crisis today. Capitalism’s insatiable compulsion to maximize profits leads to wanton and unsustainable expansion. If the US military is devoted largely to protecting capitalism, and capitalism is itself responsible for climate change, then greening the military will not suffice to get us out of this predicament. And, in fact, promoting US imperialism further separates us from our goal. Those eight hundred US military bases that Warren wants to “green” are key to this project’s survival.

It would be one thing if Warren’s green military proposal simply failed to address some basic concerns about US foreign policy. Even the best reforms are by nature incomplete, and closing down overseas military bases, developing a non-interventionist foreign policy, and reversing neoliberal trade deals are beyond the scope of legislation aimed at switching the Department of Defense to renewable energy.

But the problem with Warren’s plan isn’t simply that it overlooks these concerns, it’s that her plan sanctions the role of the United States on the international stage. For example, the bill directs the Department of Defense to submit “an assessment of how adapting climate change impacts the readiness of the military to counter the threats posed by” a list of competitor nations, and to recommend base closures and relocations on that basis. The metric used to determine base closures remains the ambiguous and tautological notion of “national security.” The avowed purpose of Warren’s bill is not so much to spare the world from the dangers of the US military-industrial juggernaut, but to better prepare that juggernaut to withstand the dangers of a changing world — chaos partially of its own making.

“Accomplishing the mission depends on our ability to continue operations in the face of floods, drought, wildfires, and desertification,” Warren writes. The mission goes unstated, but we know its name: global domination by the United States intended to safeguard capitalism. As long as this objective remains unchallenged, a permanent solution to the environmental crisis will remain beyond our grasp.