Thursday, April 11, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - II

Climate change is passed off as a matter of individual responsibility and consumer choice. The notion of the per capita carbon footprint is a good example. It is calculated by dividing a nation’s total carbon emissions by the sum of its population. This measure is used to attribute climate change to the usage of gas-guzzling cars, wasteful usage of domestic energy, meat-heavy diets, and so on. Such a framing excludes institutional emissions, like those related to the US military and to the projection of American power. 

In The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh writes that the literature on climate change mysteriously ignores numbers regarding emission of  greenhouse gases by the military. This is because a decision was taken, at the behest of the US, that emissions related to military activities would be excluded from the negotiations for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Ever since then the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has continued “to treat national military emissions, specifically international aircraft and naval bunker fuels, differently than other emission types.”

In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate of consumption of fossil fuels was sixteen gallons per soldier per day. Amitav Ghosh says that today the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States — and probably in the world. The US military maintains vast fleets of vehicles, ships, and aircraft, and many of these consume huge amounts of fossil fuels. A non-nuclear aircraft carrier consumes 5,621 gallons of fuel per hour; in other words, these vessels burn up as much fuel in one day as a small town might use in a year. 

A single F-16 aircraft consumes 1700 gallons of fuel in one hour of ordinary operations. The US Air Force has around a thousand F-16s, and they are but a small part of the air fleet. Add to this battle tanks, armoured cars, Humvees, and so on which also require large amounts of fuel. Nor are these machines idle in peacetime; many of them are in constant use, not just for training and maintenance, but also because the US’s nine hundred domestic military installations need to be connected to its network of around a thousand bases in other countries.

In the 1990s the three branches of the US military consumed approximately 25 billion tons of fuel per year. This was more than a fifth of the country’s total consumption, and “more than the total commercial energy consumption of nearly two thirds of the world’s countries.” In 2017, the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions was greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel. During the years of the Iraq War, the US military was consuming around 1.3 billion gallons of oil annually for its Middle Eastern operations alone. That was more than the annual consumption of Bangladesh, a country of 180 million people.

The operation of military equipment requires the use of many kinds of toxic chemicals like thinners, solvents, pesticides, and so on. As a result, the Department of Defence “generates 500,000 tons of toxic waste annually, more than the top five US chemical companies combined", and it is estimated that the armed forces of the major world powers produce the greatest amount of hazardous waste in the world. This does not include the emissions and waste products that are generated in the process of constructing weapons, warships, and warplanes. 

The armed forces of China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and India are expanding very rapidly, and they are all spending huge amounts of money on energy-intensive systems. “Militarization,” it has been said, “is the single most ecologically destructive human endeavor.” Yet the subject is so little studied that, according to three leading scholars in the field, “research on the environmental impacts of militarism [is] non-existent in the social sciences.”

At the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, it was agreed that wealthy countries would channel $100 billion a year to poorer nations, to help them cope with the impacts of climate change. But the Green Climate Fund set up by the UN succeeded in raising only $10.43 billion and is now running out of money: it never came close to being funded at the level envisaged at the summit. In that same period the world’s annual military expenditure has risen from slightly above $1.5 trillion to almost $2 trillion.

What is ironical is that the US military knows the reality of climate change. Yet, the Pentagon does not acknowledge that its own fuel use is a major contributor to climate change.  The military’s climate-related plans are mainly oriented toward dealing with the conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate: for instance, struggles over water; regional wars; terrorism; and mass movements of people caused by hurricanes and desertification, droughts and flooding. They assume that the effects of climate change as a “threat multiplier” will only continue to grow more severe, requiring more and more military interventions.

Every year governments around the world justify $1.7 trillion in military expenditure for protecting citizens against entirely uncertain and ill-defined threats. This is supported by many people who, in other regards, would strongly oppose government spending. They argue against climate change on the basis of uncertainty but use uncertainty as a justification for militarypreparedness. 

Mitt Romney, the first presidential candidate to openly deny climate change, justified increasing spending for the military because “we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.” Former vice president Dick Cheney, another outspoken denier of climate change, said that “even if there is only a one percent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.” 

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