The US Military Has Long Stood in the Way of Climate Change Action

The Pentagon claims it’s serious about reducing American military emissions, which eclipse those of some developed nations. But the US military has helped perpetuate the climate crisis and continues to obscure its contribution to climate change.

A formation of armored vehicles manned by US Army and Marine Corps personnel stand ready to lead a convoy through the parade grounds established for the 50/20 celebration in Kuwait, on February 21, 2011. (Third Army / US Army Central PAO via Flickr)

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that the US Army had just released its “first ever climate strategy.” Generals and other strategists have argued for years that climate change will act as a “threat multiplier,” worsening violent conflict within and between countries, and the Pentagon, National Security Council, and CIA detailed the latest implications in a series of reports last October.

Now, we’re told, the Pentagon is serious about reducing its own substantial carbon footprint — which, the Post explains, makes up 56 percent of the federal government’s emissions and 52 percent of its electricity use. How serious? Their “ambitious goals” include:

Carbon-free electricity for installations by 2030. Net zero emissions from Army installations by 2045. An increasingly electrified vehicle fleet, including developing electric tactical vehicles — the ones that actually drive out into combat — by 2050. Microgrid installations on all Army posts by 2035, paving the way for increased renewable energy. Thinking more about climate issues when making decisions about how the Army manages its vast land holdings.

Left out of the Post article and US Army press release is a key bit of context: the global scale of the US Army’s current carbon footprint. According to political scientist Neta Crawford, codirector of Brown University’s Costs of War project, the Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and its single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases. The Pentagon produces more emissions than entire developed countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal. For the last forty years, its entire military strategy was premised on protecting access to Persian Gulf oil — as in so many other cases, helping to create the enemy it now fights.

There’s another bit of context absent from the Post story. It is well known that parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol bent over backward to accommodate US preferences. The key questions were: Would the United States commit to binding emissions targets? And would “key developing countries” such as India, China, and Mexico make their own pledges? In a 95-0 vote just months before countries met in Kyoto to sign the agreements, the US Senate (in the form of the bipartisan Byrd-Hagel resolution) provided an answer: the United States would agree to binding limits only if China and India also made pledges, and it wouldn’t sign any agreement that might harm the US economy.

Though President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto agreements, he called them a “work in progress,” and said that he would not submit them to the US Senate without the “meaningful participation of key developing countries in efforts to address climate change.” In 2001, the incoming George W. Bush administration readily adopted this reasoning to justify continued US inaction on reducing emissions. Bush declared:

[The Kyoto Protocol] exempts 80 percent of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the US economy. The Senate’s vote, 95-0, shows that there is a clear consensus that the Kyoto Protocol is an unfair and ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns.

What Bush (and the Post story) neglected to mention is how US negotiators ensured their country’s own major exemptions to reporting and meeting internationally agreed-upon emissions targets — in short, the reason why this climate action plan is indeed the army’s “first.”

Understandably, the Kyoto Protocol exempted counting humanitarian operations and other United Nations–sponsored interventions against any country’s emissions targets. More controversially, the United States obtained language exempting “multilateral operations, such as self defense, peacekeeping, and humanitarian relief,” giving a wide scope for future action. But most controversial was the United States’ pursuit of a waiver for all military use of “bunker fuels,” the reserves that keep American Humvees rolling, aircraft carriers sailing, and sorties flying wherever and for however long they please.

Clinton’s under secretary of state Stuart Eizenstat even bragged to Congress in February 1998: “We took special pains, working with the Defense Department and with our uniformed military, both before and in Kyoto, to fully protect the unique position of the United States as the world’s only super power with global military responsibilities.”

According to newly declassified documents from the Clinton Presidential Library, the Pentagon wanted to go much further, demanding “blanket exemptions” for all bunker fuels (including international passenger flights) and domestic training exercises. Even the State Department thought that was a bridge too far.

To advance its preferences, the Department of Defense emphasized its new use of energy-saving technologies to the press while ringing alarm bells about defensive readiness on Capitol Hill. The strategy worked. Clinton, in typical fashion, tried to out-conversative the conservatives in Congress, and in May 1998, Eizenstat promised that no military operations or training would be subject to Kyoto requirements.

Shortly after, Congress passed a new National Defense Authorization Act including all the “blanket exemptions” requested by the Department of Defense. Clinton described himself, and the Pentagon, as satisfied with the Kyoto text, but Congress was not, and Clinton neglected to try to convince them.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, Kyoto’s successor, finally included all countries, but at the cost of common or binding standards. Under Paris, countries define their own climate targets, and the decision to count military emissions (or not) is up to each government.

If the Pentagon is actually serious, its first challenge will be transparency about the full scale of military emissions. As Crawford explains, she arrived at her emissions numbers by triangulating multiple sources of government data: “The Pentagon does not release petroleum fuel consumption data and most US government accounting of US greenhouse gas emissions omit figures on how much the military and military industry contributes to US emissions.” Exemptions from counting bunker fuels and multilateral wars (i.e., Afghanistan and Iraq) meant that it never bothered to keep track of those emissions, much less curb them.

The arc of this story is a bracingly direct manifestation of how US empire defined down global climate responsibilities at a pivotal moment. Washington’s insistence on sharing burdens but not power or money in the fight against climate change signaled that the United States was not serious about reducing its own emissions, delaying action on mitigation in rich and poor countries alike and setting the stage for today’s conflict over adaptation funding. But it is also a reminder that nothing is foreordained and much is still contingent, particularly in the realm of climate change, where so many of the rules are still being — or yet to be — written.