Change the Military-Industrial Complex, Not the Climate

By  |  31 / August / 2015

This year, the governments of the world will meet in Paris for the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21). Their goal will be to try to come to a binding universal agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They will negotiate a new protocol—the Paris Protocol—this time obligatory for all nations. And just like in the debates leading up to it, during the meetings of COP21, two incompatible positions will be represented:

To keep doing business with the climate crisis, without substantially reducing emissions nor questioning the dominant economic and social model, at the risk of changing the climate dangerously and irreversibly past the border of the oft-cited 2 degrees Celsius … or to change the system.

The first position will be dominant at the COP21, represented by the governments aligned with Washington and corporations. The second will be defended by social movements and civil organizations around the world, through massive demonstrations and representatives who will attend the alternative space of the People’s Summit, also in Paris. The People’s Summit will be surrounded by the geopolitical-military interests of the United States that revolve around oil.

The United States government, after historically staying on the sidelines of the international agreements to reduce emissions, now intends to lead the process. But President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the recent US domestic policy proposal regarding climate change that was announced as “the biggest step yet to combat climate change” leading up to the Paris Summit, has proved to be the mountain in labor: a mouse that will try to limit carbon emissions from coal power plants (truly anachronistic beasts), by 32 percent in comparison with 2005, over the next 15 years.[1] A government that makes such ineffectual efforts domestically will offer only ineffectual leadership to the international effort to stop climate change.

If the new standards for energy production put forward in President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (which have unleashed the hysteria of the Republican right), many plants will be forced to close. However, these plants should have closed years ago; by virtue of not being subject to regulation, they have been able to contaminate with impunity and have continued operating for double their life expectancy.

Beyond nice-sounding phrases (“we are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it”), the Plan’s diagnostic element, which corresponds to scientific consensus, does little more than underline the huge gap between the seriousness of the issue, which Obama admits, and the insufficient measures that the Plan contains. It does not look at the contaminating industry as a whole, and it does not take back the administration’s actions that led to fracking and gave a green light to Shell for Arctic drilling.

The Pentagon and Petroleum

Obama used a meeting with the Pentagon to argue that climate change presents national security risks, but he would never even consider including the armed forces in his emissions reduction plan.

The military-industrial complex that holds power in the world is the principle levee holding back the currents that are trying to limit and eventually do away with our civilization’s addiction to fossil fuels.

What is the institution that consumes the most petroleum in the world? The Yankee army.[2] Who guarantees the continued hegemony of the global system led by oil companies (and others)? The Yankee army.

This is why the transition to clean and renewable energy sources is so difficult. Renewable energy sources still don’t have the energy density or availability to move military equipment and power the large industry of an empire.  At this point, the only viable option to avoid climate catastrophe is to reduce emissions through reducing energy consumption, industrial activity and military deployment.

But despite the warnings of scientists and social movements, almost no one in COP is talking about moving the world towards frugal and waste-free lifestyles. Almost no one appears ready to put a brake on the consumerist elites in their absurd race to waste energy. And no one is talking about the war. Furthermore, emissions from military installations are not even part of the debate.

The Pentagon is the institution that consumes the largest quantities of petroleum, but it is exempt from all measures aimed at controlling emissions in the US, both by domestic law and international agreements. In its long history of interventions and wars, the US Army is not held responsible for harm to the environment, to peoples and to biodiversity. During the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol, the United States demanded that its military operations all around the world be exempted from the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Even though the United States was granted the exemption for its armed forces, its congress refused to ratify the treaty, and later passed a bill prohibiting the restriction of armed forces under international emissions reduction treaties or executive orders.


The Pentagon is the institutional entity that consumes the largest quantities of petroleum, but it is exempt from all measures aimed at controlling emissions in the US.


Officially, the US Army uses 320,000 barrels of petroleum every day, without considering the fuel used by contractors, in rented installations, or in the production and maintenance of equipment.

According to the CIA World Factbook 2006, of the 210 countries in the world, only 35 consume more petroleum per day than the Pentagon. The endless wars, secret operations; the six thousand military installations in the US and more than a thousand more around in the world; all of the NATO operations; the aircraft carriers, jets, helicopters, wheeled vehicles of various types; the weapons and training tests; are all part of the macabre dynamic of the capitalist system, and none of it is subject to limits on greenhouse gas emissions, nor is it included in the total count of US emissions.

Notwithstanding, the US forms a part of the twelve countries with the highest rates of CO2 emissions per capita in the world (at 17 tons per year,[3] next to small nations like Luxemburg and Qatar, and far above China, India or Brazil). The world policeman, with less than a twentieth of the world’s population, produces an eighth of the global emissions of greenhouse gases, with more than five billion tons of carbon dioxide.

Sooner or later, the climate crisis will also jeopardize the model of subordination of nations to the corporate-military power of the United States; a model which is essentially based on the use of fossil fuels.

Dependence on Fossil Fuels

According to a report by the World Bank in 2013, only about 18 percent of the energy produced in the world is renewable. In the majority of developed countries, more than 80 percent of energy comes from petroleum, natural gas and coal. The capitalist economy is condemned to maintain its dependency on fossil fuels because its replacement with clean sources would be unaffordable in the logic of the system and still less practical for intensive use on large scales.

Nuclear fusion, and its promise of unlimited clean energy, is still not viable for nonmilitary uses. For now, solar energy is not dense enough to be profitable, given that industrial zones and densely populated areas receive less usable energy per square meter than they consume. Biofuels like ethanol or biodiesel are neither clean nor sustainable.  Nor is hydrogen a solution because it is not available from a primary source; it needs to be obtained through electrolysis.

For these reasons, there are those who refuse to abandon dependence on petroleum to maintain their enormous earnings, devising dangerous chimeras like carbon sequestration. Their reasoning is simplistic. If CO2 is waste, we should treat it as such, and put it in the trashcan.

The capture and depositing of carbon, injecting it into the place it came from, in old oil fields, unexploitable deposits or deep salty aquifers, is a decades-old idea that has recently been revived at the COP. However, carbon sequestration represents an unviable and extremely dangerous technology.[4] It would require huge public and private investments and technological, organizational and infrastructural changes.

On the other hand, according to an investigator at Stanford University, technological development currently in progress would allow the complete substitution of clean renewable energy sources for non-renewable sources through taking advantage of sun, wind and water energy, but this would be possible until 2030, or beyond that, if correct political decisions are made today.[5]

Other authors are less optimistic, because the technological challenge of renewable energy is enormous, especially for the conveyance and storage of energy. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources could bring us in to a vicious circle in which fossil fuel are replaced with minerals like lithium, silver and silicon, equally non-renewable. All energy consumption has an impact; renewable energy is not a perpetual motion machine.


The climate crisis obligates us to make deep changes in the model of development, the capitalist system and in civilization itself.


But while the technology advances, the world cannot continue to be yoked by the predatory dynamics of capitalism. There is no time to wait for renewable energy to achieve the density that the military industrial complex requires. The change needs to take place in the short term—in the current decade, let’s say—and this means reducing not only emissions but also energy consumption itself, and radically transforming our transportation systems, production and consumption.

Background Changes

The climate crisis obligates us to make deep changes in the development model, the capitalist system and in civilization itself. To avoid the worst climate effects, it is urgent that we abandon the logic of infinite growth (unviable in a finite world), that we reduce consumption of energy and that we accelerate the transition to clean and renewable sources.

But it is also necessary to do away with poverty. Close to one billion people in the planet go to sleep every day near the limits of survival. If there is something that characterizes the global capitalist world—in addition to planetary militarization—it is the enormous gap between rich and poor, which has grown tremendously in the last 30 years. Militarism and poverty are two sides of the same coin. It is estimated that with close to 5% of current military spending, extreme poverty could be eradicated.[6]

A new model of development, one that would correct the deviations that have brought humanity to a dead end, should be based on economic solidarity, food sovereignty and Good Living. The economy should produce wellbeing for all without destroying the environment. The society would create harmony to the extent that all benefits would have an equal impact, without exploiting workers, discriminating against women, or violating social rights and individual guarantees.

This crisis demands that we put a stop to free-market globalization and simultaneously end militarism, two very expensive elements of the current dominant system.

Who will have the necessary political will to radically transform the world?

Alfredo Acedo is a contributor to the America Program about issues of food sovereignty and climate change, and director of social communications and advisor for the National Union of Autonomous Regional Campesino Organizations (UNORCA).

Translation by Simon Schatzberg

[1] Barack Obama estimates that his plan will prevent 3,600 premature deaths and 90,000 childhood asthma attacks, in 2030, among other public health impacts.

[2] American military activities represent 80 percent of the energy use of the federal government. Sara Flounders, Pentagon’s Role in Global Catastrophe, 2010.

[3] The other countries with high emissions per capita are Saudi Arabia, Aruba, Australia, Bahrain, Brunei, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman. An American emits almost three times more greenhouse gases than a Chinese person.

[4] Friedmann, S. J., & Homer-Dixon, T. “Out of the Energy Box.” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2004.

[5] Mark Z Jacobson and Mark A Delucchi. in a 2009 article in Scientific American, presented a plan to produce 100 percent of global energy using wind, solar and hydraulic sources.

[6] Trustworthy studies indicate that it is possible to eradicate sickness, hunger and illiteracy with relatively modest investments. We know that spending 13 billion additional dollars would resolve the health and nutrition problems of the world. 9 billion dollars would provide water and sanitation for all. Educating the world’s children would require an additional expenditure of 6 billion. Last year, global military expenditures were more than 1.7 trillion dollars. More than 40 percent were from the United States. and