Just how much does the US military pollute the environment? What is its role in climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions? The US military has taken some measures to reduce its impact on the environment and green gas emissions. But some researchers say these measures do little to assuage the military’s bigger effects on climate change. What are these effects, and what can be done about them? Maria Armoudian speaks with Benjamin Neimark, Oliver Belcher, and Neta C. Crawford.

Benjamin Neimark is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Lancaster. He is an expert in political ecology.

Oliver Belcher is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at Durham University. He is an expert in climate politics.

Neta C. Crawford is a Professor of Political Science at Boston University. She is an expert in international relations theory and is the author of Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Benjamin Neimark and Oliver Belcher, you have co-authored some research into the impact of the US military on the environment. I thought we would start with your study and how you came to this study and how you conducted it? Ben, do you want to start?

Benjamin Neimark: The study really came from a general interest from all of us and conversations we have been having about the previous research we have done and what we saw as a general lack of any independent studies on US military greenhouse gas emissions, something we have called the ‘carbon bootprint’. And we just started to dig in and realised that there were not many independent studies out there that we could find. There were a number of Department of Defence studies and a few other studies on the costs of war but nothing that had been published, particularly in geography journals.

MA: Oliver what would you add to this? How did you get the data? How did you crunch the data?

Oliver Belcher: Well, I think originally what we were trying to do was produce a kind of carbon emissions study of the US military, but what we found very quickly was it was difficult to get reliable data on those figures. I think Neta and Ben will have more to say about this than I will, but there is very sparse reporting on the US military’s hydrocarbon use and their emissions generally. And so what we did, we kind of took some routes looking at other agencies and we ended up in the course of our work coming across a massive bureaucratic agency called the Defence Logistics Agency. And what this agency does, what they are tasked with, is essentially delivering all sorts of goods and materials to the US military and all its bases and missions around the world. They can be humanitarian missions, humanitarian aid, to food to different bases, to weapons and hydrocarbons. And we became particularly interested in a sub-agency within the Defence Logistics Agency called the DLAE, the Defence Logistics Agency Energy sub-agency, which was tasked with providing hydrocarbons to the four branches of the US military. So we produced a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and submitted those and got back a pretty extensive dataset on the purchases made by the US military of various sorts of fuels ranging from [fuels for] warships to fighter jets to land vehicles to tanks and what have you. And it showed those receipts and the distribution of the hydrocarbons across the US and the world. And what is significant about that agency is that it is sort of a one-stop-shop for hydrocarbon purchases within the US military. So that is more or less how we came to the basis for our study which looked at the supply chains that supply hydrocarbons to various parts of the US military, both domestically in the US and across the world.

MA: Neta Crawford you also have studied the impact of the military on the environment. How did your study compare to Ben’s and Oliver’s?

Neta Crawford: Well I had no idea they were doing their work, and I independently needed to understand the way that the Pentagon was thinking about both the problem of climate change and their responses to it, in particular what they saw as their vulnerabilities. And so I went to find a number, any number, that would give me an indication of the scale of the Pentagon’s contribution to global greenhouse gases – and there wasn’t one. There were numbers for short time periods, you could find information scattered but there was no comprehensive database. And so what I did was I went to the Department of Energy and I used their data, because the Department of Defence explicitly does not release to Congress its fuel consumption, and that is the same thing that the others scholars ran into. So I had to use a proxy number which is the Department of Energy’s information. I got that data from 1975 to 2017, and then I had to convert US energy use into the components of greenhouse gas emitters like petroleum, jet fuel, diesel, propane, gas and then do a calculation adding those things up. And that is what I did, I looked at standard emissions and non-standard emissions, that is warfare-related emissions, and I just did the maths for that.

MA: That is remarkable that you guys did that. And also what I thought was remarkable from reading your work was that up until now when we measure climate emissions that a country emits it sounded like what you all have said is that it has all been left out, the military’s emissions have been left out when we calculate how much a country emits.

BN: Yeah, I mean the US never had to report for any particular reason. First of all, for a long time it was never asked, I don’t believe, and then when conversations started to bubble up around the time of the Kyoto Protocol, my understanding was it wanted to opt out from having to fully report on its greenhouse gas emissions. And then this was reported that this was down to an authorization bill in the late nineties, meaning they never had to then by any means voluntarily report their greenhouse gas emissions. And then under the Paris Agreement, the military wasn’t even in the conversation and I think that is just remarkable. In our preliminary research we started coming across different reports but not many that were questioning why the US military being the largest hydrocarbon consumer in the world was never asked to talk about this.

MA: Let’s talk about some of those numbers now. I mean the one that was sort of the headline-grabber was that the military’s pollution is bigger than some hundred and forty countries.

BN: Right, these are the sort of headline-grabbing numbers that came out. I think what was remarkable was that independently both Neta’s study and ours came up with fairly similar data. The positioning of the US military comparable to medium-sized countries, I think we were just a couple of countries off?

NC: That’s right.

BN: It made us feel pretty good that our data was verified through an independent study. The US military was the 47th largest emitter between Peru and Portugal, and I think I am correct in saying Nita’s study showed they were very close to Sweden.

NC: Larger than Sweden or Denmark. But I think what is interesting here is when you look at it over the long run, US fuel consumption, as you said, was exempted from the Kyoto Protocol and that included anything to do with war. And it is not just the US military who won that exemption but it was every country in the world. But of course, because the US military is by far the largest military in the world with bases all over, its greenhouse gas emissions are the ones that we really need to pay attention to, and as you said they are larger than many countries, in fact most countries in the world. And because my study goes from 1975 to 2017 what I can show is that because US greenhouse gas emissions by the military have gone down gradually and other countries have gone up, its position has changed. At the beginning of my study in 1975 it was in the top 25 leaders but because China and other Asian ‘tigers’ started using more fuel and the US military has gradually decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing fuel consumption, it has dropped in the rankings. But it is still an enormous emitter, larger than most countries.

MA: So I really want to get into how the changes have occurred and the trends and what that really means and if it is meaningful, and the contradiction that I think Oliver and Ben have written about as well. Before we go there, one of the things I wanted to do was understand all of the ways in which the US military is a top polluter and a large emitter of greenhouse gases. Nita, you have talked about aircraft, B2 stealth bombers, you gave us some number breakdowns, could you walk us through some of those?

NC: There are a couple of ways to think about it. One is the big picture, the way the Pentagon thinks about it which is installation, fuel usage vs operational usage. And when you think about installations that is about thirty percent of consumption, which is bases and buildings. For instance, the Pentagon is the largest office building in the world and consumes quite a bit of fuel just to heat and cool it. But then you look at the operational side which includes the transportation of troops, running of tanks and aircraft, even refuelling vehicles like tankers which themselves require fuel to refuel the B2 bombers and the fighter bombers. What you see is that each one of these is a large consumer. So the operational side if about seventy percent and if you think about this in terms of Air Force versus Navy versus Army versus Marines, the Air Force by itself is the single largest consumer, and all of the consumption is jet fuel, which from 1975 to 2017 is a major source of emissions.

MA: Can you give us some numbers that might make sense to us like some comparative numbers that could give us a sense of what scope we are talking about?

NC: Well, I have a Toyota Prius, it gets about fifteen miles per gallon. A B2 bomber gets about 4.2 gallons per mile. Or the new F-35 gets about 2.37 gallons per mile. The best vehicle that I talk about here is the Humvee. That gets about 8 miles per gallon. We are talking [about] enormously thirsty machines. And then in terms of comparing this to, let’s say, other sectors of the economy, it would be comparable to all the steel production in the US over one year. So it is really hard to get one’s head around because it is so enormous. But if you think about it in terms of the entire US economy it seems however that it is not as large, but you have to also understand that it is about between 77 and 82 percent of all US government emissions; all the military emissions in other words comprise the balk of US government emissions.

MA: I am just looking at some of the numbers that I pulled out of one of your papers, for example the B2 stealth bomber which holds more than 25,600 gallons of jet fuel burns 4.28 gallons per mile and emits more than 250 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas over a six thousand nautical mile range. Can you help us understand that in lay person terms?

NC: So, if the US wants to take a B2 from the middle of the country in Missouri to somewhere in the Middle East, it has got to put up about twelve tankers to make sure that it makes it there with adequate fuel and back again. And those tankers themselves get about three gallons per mile. So in any one mission – let’s say it is a 14,000-mile mission – it is itself putting out about 500 metric tonnes and then it will not go alone, as I said, it will go with these tankers and they will be flying about preparing to refuel this plane when it needs more fuel. So any one mission is quite fuel-intensive.

MA: Oliver what would you add to this? You looked at these path dependencies, how does this compare to what Nita is telling us?

OB: I think it is very important. You were speaking earlier about reporting, which is kind of looking at the past and to what extent the US military complied or didn’t comply with stating its emissions production. But what path dependencies emphasises is really the future-oriented aspect of these weapons systems, or what Nita was speaking to, the instillations that the US military builds and uses for years to come. And what is significant about those is that it locks in the US military to hydrocarbon use for a generation or two of these particular weapons systems. So you might, for example look at the new F-35 program which has been a controversial jet fighter program but there has also been a lot of investment in that program for a decade now and the US military is selling that jet around the world to various militaries. And what that does is it locks the US military to a weapons system that consumes vast amounts of hydrocarbons in its own right, jet fuels are the biggest culprit for greenhouse gas emissions, but other militaries that buy that weapons system are also locked in to that particular hydrocarbon use. And so path dependencies are very important in thinking about how to actually mitigate or tackle this problem in the near term and the long term and thinking about what kind of priorities are being set within the military for particular weapons systems or instillations that use these fuels.

MA: It sounds like what you are also saying is not only does it lock us in to these weapons systems it also locks us into a particular economy?

OB: That is exactly right. And I think the big questions now that are circulating about how to transform an economy away from a hydrocarbon fuel-based economy to something else, I mean you can’t talk about that seriously without talking about the US military as the largest institutional actor within the US.

MA: Ben Neimark, what would you add to that?

BN: There are a few things here. As Oliver just mentioned, the US military is seen as many things but it is sometimes called out for its environmental record usually around testing of bombs and military base pollution and other things, but we rarely talk about it as a climate polluter. Most of the focus is on civilian uses of fuel consumption or large multinational companies’ use of hydrocarbons. And so we are trying to turn that gaze on the US military as an environmental actor, but, of course, as we mentioned it is also an economic actor, it is by far one of the largest economic actors: it moves markets. When the US Navy tried to make its fleet greener it moved biofuel markets in places like Southern California. I mean, there was an incredible logistical infrastructure built to literally move biofuels from where they were being processed to fuel these ships. So it is really important to think about the US military as an environmental actor but as a political and economic actor as well. Also, Oliver mentioned we need to think about the fuel supply chains. This is one of the things we bring out in our paper, not just the hidden aspects of the US military and its lack of carbon accounting, but also how its fuel tentacles allow it to reach all corners of the globe in its bases but also its different tactical manoeuvring and how it is able to conduct military operations anywhere in the globe. And that is because of its global hydrocarbon supply chain.

OB: I would just add to that, that we often hear about how there are around 700 US military bases around the world, and once you begin to think about that material infrastructure, you have to think about all those supply chains that supply those bases, all seven hundred. So once you begin to think about that sprawling base infrastructure you can begin to appreciate the hydrocarbon flows that are necessary to fuel those bases, not including the vehicles, to get a kind of scope of use just on a daily basis.

MA: Both papers discuss the idea of ‘continuous war’ and ‘everywhere war’. Is this kind of interconnected with the environmental impact?

NC: Well that is my argument. When you think about the seventeen-and-a-half years of continuous wars by the US and you just look at the period from 2001 to 2017, what you see is that about four hundred million metric tonnes has been associated with the fighting of these wars – just in terms of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. That is just the fighting of it, and then you add the installations which are essential to support the fighting.

But I wanted to actually go back and talk about the nature of the situation here. It is not just that the US has the world’s largest military, spends more than its adversaries combined, and has the capacity to intervene anywhere, it is that it uses greenhouse gas-emitting ships to patrol access to fuel, to protect the US’s access to fuel and other countries’ access to fuel. For example, we have about two aircraft carriers patrolling the Persian Gulf available to intervene to protect access to oil at the same time that global necessities to have oil has declined because of other sources of fossil fuels from Canada and elsewhere. So what we are doing is we are consuming fuel to protect oil without actually rethinking that mission. The circular nature of that has not been part of the Pentagon calculation. The other thing that is interesting here is the Pentagon’s increased concern about what I call climate wars or climate conflict. I don’t know that war is a necessary response to climate catastrophe, but it may be, but in any case the military really worries about that but they don’t connect it to their own contribution to the problem.

MA: I know from my days as an environmental commissioner in LA about this concern that the military had. They came and actually testified in front of our commission about what climate change really means in terms of conflict and there have been some studies in political science about how climate change correlates with more violence and of course the effects it has on resources, water droughts, food which can fuel conflict as well. So there are all of these inter-relationships and it sounds like they are expressing their concern on one hand and trying to do a little bit of greening but perhaps it is a little bit paradoxical?

NC: It is ironic and actually what they are doing is counterproductive: they are making the problem worse. And I think that one of the reasons why that hasn’t been acknowledged is the certain allergy in this administration but also in previous administrations to admit that climate change is human-caused and that burning fossil fuels is the cause of it. But I also think there is little incentive to really rethink US foreign policy if what you have got is an entire economy that believes it is dependent on fossil fuels. But as we move away from that, as we create an economy based on other things, I think with renewable energy there is an opening to rethink US foreign policy. But these things have to go hand in hand, we have to be willing to say that we will accept a little bit more vulnerability in the world to help make sure that the worst things don’t happen.

MA: Ben and Oliver, have also written about a little of this as well. Oliver how do you see what is going on here?

OB: Having been studying the US military now for over a decade there have been several instances where the US military has, unlike Republican administrations, acknowledged that climate change is a human-made problem and has begun to rethink its strategic orientation in various parts of the world around the changing climate. I used to live in Finland for five years and during that time, one of the big geopolitical question marks in Finland and the surrounding area was ‘What is going to be the status of the Arctic once the ice cap melts?’ And the US military, along with Canada and Norway, the UK, Russia, Sweden have been strategically orienting themselves to these new channels that are opening within the Arctic where there were no navigation paths before. And so what you see, is on the one hand, an acknowledgement of human-made climate change and how that is creating the conditions for new types of global warring around places where you have jockeying for geostrategic position. But the way to get there, as Neta was just saying, was by relying on weapons systems and vehicles and all sorts of weaponry that rely on fossil fuels themselves that are creating this kind of feedback loop. So you have a farcical scenario, in a way, that it is hard to see what direction that is going to go through without a grassroots movement in those countries that begin to reignite critical questions about the US military and its role around the world.

MA: Ben Neimark?

BN: The American military’s climate policy is fundamentally contradictory. There have been these half-hearted attempts to green certain aspects of its bases and its fleet which was probably the largest initiative in the early 2000s to demonstrate a particular type of green military. But it is fundamentally contradictory because you are seeing a number of countermeasures done to ensure that hydrocarbons are protected and keep flowing and that we build particular hardware that is dependent on these fuel sources. So it would be silly to not call out the fact that climate change, although it can be linked to conflict, at the same time it presents an opportunity for the US military. Now they will be called upon to be the humanitarian force that comes in and directs missions in flood-prone areas and also to use different parts of their hardware to show a sort of soft power abroad through new humanitarian crises that will come through climate change-induced effects.

I guess having said that, one of the reasons why we don’t call out the US military is because we just don’t see it beyond the sort of political lens, it just seems like an intractable problem that is too big and thus we instead try to tinker around the edges. We are arguing that no, it is not too big, it is extremely important that we start independent research and that we start to look at the military as an environmental actor. In saying that, one of the things we have also been speaking about is how our papers and publications get used in getting transformations in politics. I don’t think we have seen anti-war environmental activism since nuclear testing in the 1970s and 80s. And so I think what we would really be looking for is a certain similar type of coalition politics that might come out of this work on what we see as the US military being such a large climate actor.

MA: A big chunk of Americans deny the connection between carbon emissions and climate change. How do you even envision something like that in this environment?

BN: Yeah, I mean it is a great question right and so already we are starting to see some movement, it has been a hot button topic on the campaign trail. Elizabeth Warren has already mentioned that we need to call out the US military, there has been the Green New Deal talk, we need to support student protests that have been taking place across the world, and we need to get that conversation going with the youth.

MA: Neta, you are a political scientist, what do you say to this?

NC: There are things that I did not calculate in my paper and one of them is the war-related emissions that have to do when the US and ISIS or Iraq have targeted oil infrastructure. Oil infrastructure has been targeted in the most recent wars including in the US war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. So there are other ways that the military contributes massively to greenhouse gas emissions and we have to question whether or not the long term value of taking a particular piece of territory is worth the emissions. Oil well and refinery fires go on for months and sometimes longer than a year. There are other of course economic and environmental costs of targeting oil infrastructure but that is just one. But then the connection to conflict in another way is that, yes, it is not necessarily the case that war will happen because people are feeling extreme temperatures, are on the move migrating, or because they lack access to safe drinking water, but we need to be aware that tensions will rise in the world. Now the response can not be to then say ‘This needs a military response’, there are other things to do and I think we need to think more carefully about that. The US military however is looking potentially at the ways that they need to be prepared militarily.

As far as other things go with regards to things like the Green New Deal. Elizabeth Warren’s plan that she put in a resolution with a member of Congress was actually about not reducing greenhouse gases but essentially monitoring the military’s response and about decreasing the military’s vulnerability. It could have been a much more ambitious proposal and I think she can be pushed there. Congressman Ro Khanna of California has staff members who are interested in much more robust congressional action on this score. I think the fact that several of the US candidates for president on the first night of the Democratic debate raised climate as the number one problem was a significant change over past election cycles.

And finally, I want to talk about decreasing consumption because really that is what we need, we need to move away from consuming as much fuel with a military that is able to do everything everywhere all the time. One way to do that is to push for more transparency over how they use their fuel and then we might actually see what portion of their consumption is actually for training that may or may not be necessary, or for air shows that may or may not be necessary. Transparency will help us make changes on the margin. The military itself has made changes that have been quite significant but not just because they wanted the greenwashing, they want to be less vulnerable in the field when they don’t require as much oil to be transported, and they want to have lower bills, and they have realised that if you want to spend your money fighting rather than paying for oil you should green up your military. So it is not just the greenwashing aspect, I think there are a lot of ways to get at this problem. I don’t think that movement in the streets is going to come from this, I think a movement in the streets will come from other things but this has to be part of the solution.

OB: Just one thing on the climate politics dimension. You might have seen in the UK and across Europe there has been a massive movement that has emerged called Extinction Rebellion which is a youth movement made up of people who are very worried about how human-induced climate change is affecting the conditions for life on earth. In terms of the language that is being circulated, we have to be very careful when we are thinking about this dimension of the military and you might have seen that here in the UK in the media there has been a large adoption of this use of words like climate crisis and climate emergency, and while I agree with the sentiment and principle, I think we have to be worried a little bit about that kind of language in terms of how we use it…The problem this language poses is how we approach this issue politically. We are in a situation now where democracies are more fragile than ever before, but democracy is a deliberative exercise which requires time and patience and if you are committed to democracy you can’t have rash decisions that are put in place to address any sort of problem. But you have this massive global climate change problem that is effectively shifting the sand beneath our feet and you have this tension at work where our political institutions may not be aligned to deal with this particular problem that poses potentially a massive problem for our children and grandchildren in the future. So when you use words like climate crisis and climate emergency, what you are evoking there is a state of emergency which is not a democratic exercise, that is something that requires a different type of power to address things and where militaries are there at the forefront of ensuring order in states of emergency. So I think we need to think about the language that we are using to talk about this problem if we are going to be thinking about climate politics in the near term because certain terms have connotations to them that don’t necessarily have a fidelity to the democratic enterprise that I am assuming we are still committed to.

MA: Ben Neimark?

BN: It is a really important point. When we are thinking about just ourselves, this does seem such a massive thing to take on. It is one thing to talk about our own emissions reduction, for example the number of flights we take, but then when we start thinking about how do we crack the US military here, I mean if anything I think that is where the conversation needs to start. If we don’t start thinking about it, what we really need is ultimate transparency to begin with, we need to be pushing for it and demanding it. And because the more and more we see, I mean we already look at the US military as a trendsetter, as an innovator, I mean how many times do we hear someone say that amazing inventions come out of war, more specifically because the US military has privileged access to space and nature and oodles of money. And so on one level of course they are going to be able to move forward in the direction that suits them best, but I agree that once we start to look at the numbers and then we start to peel the way the layers and see their supply chains, I think we are going to be able to crank up the heat on the US military and they will have to start looking at the way in which they operate and start thinking about its budget sheet. If we present them with particular options by which they might make choices that they will be kind of forced to make or they choose to make then we can start to really make a difference here. I mean call me an optimist but I really think this is the start of something.

MA: Final thoughts Neta Crawford?

NC: I think that it is right to be wary of the militarisation of climate change. But it is also right to feel extremely urgent about taking action immediately. There are ways that the US military has reduced its consumption and could further reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, there are plenty of ideas on that. But I also don’t want to dismiss something like decreasing meat consumption or planting trees, very effective ways to reduce methane and sequester carbon. Just focussing on the military, let’s say we did make it possible to close some bases or to convert them into renewable energy sites for wind and solar and we planted trees in those bases, the military or the former bases could be an important part of the solution and that is what I think we need to see, not militarisation. Militarisation, by the way, is the enemy of democracy.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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