It’s Climate Justice or “Climate Security”: We Can’t Have Both

Framing climate change as a national defense issue might be the biggest mistake of our lifetime.

Aligning climate change with a national security approach stands in direct opposition to a climate justice framework. A national security framework to address the climate crisis, fueled by defense contractors who are financially aligned with fossil fuel interests, threatens all people across the planet, but most acutely in regions that are already intensely impacted by militarism on top of the ravages of food and water insecurity, and forced displacement due to natural disasters. By setting the Pentagon and US military up to be a key player in “saving the world” from the climate crisis (which it played a huge role in aggravating), the political system is calling for us to recommit to a financial system that continues to fail the vast majority of people on the planet, to the benefit of a small few who take no issue with extracting wealth from an already failing economy where people are suffering without access to resources and the planet may, one day not too distant, no longer be able to sustain human life.

In 2019, the US military budget stood at a whopping $732 billion. That’s $6 billion more than the defense budgets of China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the UK, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil combined. Meanwhile, I and others in my generation (and after) have experienced two “once in a lifetime” recessions, a historically unprecedented wealth gap, a $1.6 trillion student debt crisis, unmatched incarceration rates, and the failures of both the war on drugs and the war on terrorism. Underinvestment in education, healthcare, infrastructure, and industry at the hands of an over-inflated military budget has shaped the economy that I’ve inherited. For millenials — and zoomers — the way that the global north, especially the US, addresses climate change will shape the rest of our lives and determine what the future of human life on this planet will be.

By framing the climate crisis as a national security threat, the US is positioning itself as a critical driver in the climate crisis solutions, despite having neglected to sufficiently address it on a global stage. By stepping up to the plate when it seems politically advantageous, the impact of the approach that President-Elect Joe Biden is promoting by prioritizing climate through a national security lens will sit squarely on the backs of Black and Brown people in the US and across the global south. He’s working to preserve the financial interests of the military defense contractors and oil and gas shareholders.

With its unrivaled budget and almost 800 military bases across the globe, the US political system has the power to center climate action that protects and entrenches the military complex and fossil fuel industry as they attempt to rebrand themselves as solutions to the crisis they almost entirely created. When the capitalist state throws down even more money, funneled through the Pentagon, into building infrastructure to mitigate the climate crisis, the US can then be seen as a hero, holding to the narrative of US exceptionalism and saviorism that perpetuates our obscene military budget and launders our tax dollars through defense contractors’ accounts into stockholder pockets. This move will effectively grow the massive wealth gap and re-solidify the US position as a key decision-maker in international geopolitics.

With the incoming Biden administration, many of us on the left and in the climate space were hopeful, and to a lesser degree still are, that we’ll be able to make strides in mitigating the climate crisis and meaningfully addressing the damages that it has already caused across the country and planet. But, climate activists across the country collectively released a collective shriek of horror when it was announced that Biden had tapped Cedric Richmond as head of White House Office of Public Engagement, or as some have coined it, “Climate Movement liaison.” Richmond (D-LA) is the Democratic congress member with the biggest financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. He continued to take this money for years, voting in their favor rather than in the interests of his constituents, who, because of toxic petrochemical plants scattered along the southern tip of the Mississippi River, have a 700 times higher rate of cancer than the rest of the country. This area also has some of the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths in the country, which many in the area account for the pollution from the plants that process crude oil into fuel and plastics. It just doesn’t make sense that someone who is so aligned with the industry that is unquestionably the root cause of the climate crisis be appointed to this role if Biden is serious about addressing climate change.

John Kerry’s appointment to a newly minted role under the National Security Council as Special Climate Envoy similarly has been cause for alarm for many of us working to promote a people-centered solution to the climate crisis. Yes, Kerry drafted the Paris Climate Accord, which was widely celebrated in 2016. Intending to limit global temperature rises to 1.5° celsius, the agreement neglected to include any accountability mechanisms to hold countries responsible for their commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. Even if all the emission reduction pledges had been held to, UN Environment Programme projections indicate we’d still hit 3.2° by the end of this century. And during this time, Kerry was still pushing for Obama’s “All of the above” approach to energy security, which even included growing international natural gas production.

In a piece in the New Republic, Kate Aronoff offers, “US statecraft has long played an integral part in maintaining and encouraging the American fossil fuel sector, with generations of diplomats having seen energy security and national security as one and the same.” During Kerry’s time heading up the Department of State, Aronoff points out that US foreign policy actively encouraged expanding fracking internationally as part of Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy. Furthermore, Kerry was an active proponent of then Vice-President Biden’s initiative to expand hydrofracking in the Caribbean.

In fact, just five years ago, Kerry said: “ I don’t see oil changing significantly, and I don’t think most of the market folks I talk to [see] anywhere in the near term. And who knows, if even ever, depending on what happens with these other market signals and choices that people make. Now, we’re going to be using oil for years and years to come in one fashion or another.”

The appointments of Kerry and Richmond disastrously signal that despite the millions of hours of volunteer work from climate activists across the country that got him elected, Biden’s approach to climate will be anchored in preserving positive relationships with the oil and gas industry as well as the massive defense industry that is invested in the endless growth of US militarism. The US military is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet and the biggest consumer of fossil fuels; the aircraft carriers, patrol ships, oil tankers, bombers, fighter jets, tanks, Humvees, trucks, and the entire logistical structure of the war machine depends on fossil fuel, which for the most are found in communities of color at home and abroad.

Overall, half of the US military’s budget, or more than $370 billion dollars goes to defense contractors. Oil Change International estimates that the federal government spends more than $20 billion annually on fossil fuel subsidies in addition to our massive military budget, which, for decades now, has been invested explicitly in protecting privately owned fossil fuel infrastructure across the planet. Imagine instead what $390 billion dollars towards a Green New Deal that centers workers and the earth over violence and greed could accomplish towards rebuilding from covid-19 and transitioning folks away from toxic dirty-energy jobs into rebuilding the economy of the future that we need.

And while it’s rather easy in 2020 to say that we need to fund climate solutions and go all in to stop climate change (if you believe in climate change, that is), it’s a lot harder for folks to call to defund the military. The military is lauded as a harbinger of freedom, going back beyond even images of US soldiers freeing folks from concentration camps to those of Union Soldiers announcing to slaves of their freedom after the civil war. The US Army was the first federal employer to desegregate, opening up huge possibilities to Black families like my own, along with so many other communities of color, to build access to the middle class. But it’s also a double edged sword in so many ways.

Take my own family, for example. My grandfather, who served in the Pacific during World War II, was able to attend college at Claflin University in South Carolina thanks to the GI Bill, which is where he met my grandmother. When they married, he was the first Black person in South Carolina to use GI benefits to buy a house. And honestly, so much about my family’s trajectory would have been different if he had not, like so many other Black men, joined in the war effort to possibly die for a country yet to recognize their right to exist.

Similarly, my mother-in-law and her siblings grew up poor in a small town in New Mexico. One by one joined the military because it was the only pathway available to them in the ’80s to find their way to the stability of the middle class. It’s significant, in laying out this story, of course, to point out that this was during the height of the decimation of efforts to decimate the middle class via Reaganomics, with deindustrialization, price shocks, and attacks on organized labor even further limiting options for young high school graduates to find economic stability while stepping into adulthood.

These stories and the very real possibilities that a career path in the US military offers folks are too important not to overlook. And at the same time, young Black and Brown folks are recruited as minors into a war machine that often puts them on frontlines as collateral without regard for their well being after their terms are over. The trauma from violence and destruction experienced in combat that returning soldiers bring home and, in turn, reproduce in our communities is also real. My uncle, a Vietnam War vet who volunteered to join the effort in the early ’70s, came home to a post-civil rights landscape of severely divested urban communities, continued using heroin (which he was first exposed to during the war), and eventually contracted HIV and died when I was in the second grade.

While it serves as a reliable resource for young people struggling with a lack of options, the rippling effects of trauma that stick with our families as a result of the violence folks experience in war is ultimately just not worth it. And that’s not even touching on the unfathomable global violence that the military perpetuates in the name of democracy and human rights — all while murdering people across the planet daily.

Communities in Yemen are being devastated by US made bombs delivered by US made hardware sold to the Saudi Arabian led coalition prosecuting a war. At the end of 2019, an estimated 233,000 lives had been taken, according to Amnesty International. 252 drone strikes in Somalia killed an estimated 1859 people, and this is not counting the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians who have been killed in the empire’s almost two-decade-old so-called “war on terror” — a war that places Black and Brown folks on the other end of the empire’s weapons — fought by scores of Black and Brown folks who like my grandfather saw enlistment as their means out of poverty.

In January, when the Biden-Harris administration is inaugurated, it will be the 60th anniversary of Eisenhower’s speech leaving the office where he coined the term military-industrial-complex: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Those unwarranted influencers, or special interests as we call them today, are driving the ways we depend on the military to understand our security, especially since 9/11. In the past 60 years, there have only been five years where the US hasn’t been engaged in major military conflict.

In that time, we’ve seen weapons and equipment developed for tactical warfare brought into our own communities stateside. From tanks and police outfitted with semi-automatic weapons at protests for a better world to surveillance on many street corners, the impacts of a country whose economy is dependent on militarization are coming to our doorstep, which was a process intentionally crafted under the Reagan Administration called the “Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act,” further drilling down these connections between policing Black and Brown bodies both in the US and abroad are inherently linked. Additionally, policing often becomes a career path for vets, most of whom unable to find adequate support after coming home to address the traumas they encounter in war.

In July, The Guardian published an article that exposed oil companies like Chevron and Shell and utility companies like Exelon to be funding police foundations across the country. They, in turn, lobby to increase police budgets that inherit military overstock, driving demand for even more weapon production, profiting military contractors. The impacts of the military-industrial complex are a matter of both international solidarity and local survival — and that’s without going into the critical social infrastructure like the safety net, education, healthcare, and more that we don’t have resources for because so much of our money is spent on war.

In a piece that breaks down many of the intentions around framing the climate crisis as a matter of material, rather than diplomatic importance, Adam H. Johnson brings lessons from abolitionists to the forefront of the conversation: After decades of “police reforms” simply adding to the budgets of police with body cams and more training, prison abolitionists caught on to the scam and decided to firmly plant their feet and say “no more money” into violent institutions…Climate activists must adopt a similar approach with respect to climate change. We cannot keep falling for framings that, when all is said and done, dump more resources into violent institutions like the Pentagon, Border Patrol, and ICE.”

Joe Biden’s appointment of Cedric Richmond and John Kerry shows us where his priorities are. He’s interested in maintaining the status quo, where Big Oil and the bloated military budget are able to sustain our crumbling financial system in order to continue turning a profit for billionaires while continuing to defund education and growing the largest wealth gap in human history. Just as we’ve seen the covid pandemic be manipulated to maintain the stock market, we’re seeing how the Biden administration is following down that same path to protect capital at all (human) costs.

When climate activists talk about climate justice, we are working towards a vision for leveraging the climate crisis as a way to move away from fossil fuels in a way that funds our communities, like with the movement to defund the police, a climate justice framework must call for defunding the military in order to stop investing in the protection of the fossil fuel industry through not just massive subsidies, but also through the incomprehensibly large military budget.

When I think about a militarized approach to the climate crisis, I think about the story of the National Guard being deployed to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After the news media produced a series of racist and eventually disproven stories about violence in the streets, the National Guard heavily armed themselves when they were supposed to be dispatched to support recovery efforts and provide food, water, and other resources to people who were surviving the worst fall out from a natural disaster in US history. Instead, they were openly carrying semi-automatic rifles through the streets, making criminals out of everyone they saw, murdering dozens of people they said were “looting” in the streets.

By its own admission, the military is a nationalist enterprise that prioritizes the interests of the United States above all else. This is not more glaringly clear than in the way that we see our immigration system become increasingly militaristic since the development of Immigration & Customs Enforcement. This horrific level of militarization is seen on the US Mexico border today, where even asylum seekers are met with violence and suspicion rather than dignity and respect. With the climate crisis already creating millions of refugees across the globe, it’s incumbent upon us, as people who believe in justice, to stand up against leveraging militarism as a solution to the climate crisis.

The world that we’re living in today is absolutely unmatched in both crisis and possibility. Between the COVID pandemic and the very real threat of climate collapse, there are new possibilities that are emerging to support replacing the status quo that got us into this place, to begin with. If we have learned anything over the past four years, it should be that returning to “normal” isn’t acceptable if it means returning to the neo-liberal status quo. This is a better time than ever to throw down for alternatives to the military-industrial complex to address the climate crisis and fund our communities in order to allow us to heal from the violence of generations of divestment (and much worse).

It’s climate justice or the military-industrial complex.

Both can’t co-exist.

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