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No accountability for US carbon bootprint

Getty Images, Don Farrall

Why are some emissions entirely absent in climate negotiations? This is not simply a matter of whether to address them — but whether they are accounted for at all.

This was well illustrated at the recent UN climate summit COP 26. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a delegation from the U.S. Congress held a news conference at the summit celebrating the U.S. Build Back Better bill. Observing that the Speaker had just presided over an increase in the already massive Pentagon budget, journalist Abby Martin of the Empire Files pointed out that the Pentagon is a larger polluter than 140 countries combined. At the same time, the carbon footprint of the U.S. military is exempt from full inclusion in the overall U.S. contribution to global warming: a number that as the climate science consortium Climate Action Tracker has pointed out already significantly undercounts emissions.

In their non-response to Martin’s question, members of the congressional delegation emphasized the Department of Defense’s attention to problems of climate change. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) offered as an example the U.S. Navy’s need to respond to rising sea levels, concluding “So, I don’t see what we’re doing in any way or increasing the Defense budget as being something that’s inconsistent with climate action.” 

Pelosi added that “National security advisers all tell us that the climate crisis is a national security matter,” and that the Defense Department was committed to “stop our dependence on fossil fuels.” With that she ended the session.

This tone-deafness to the massive destruction wrought by the U.S. military bootprint was stunning, even for those of us who know well that U.S. military hegemony is one of the few legislative arenas that (with a few courageous exceptions) receives unwavering bipartisan support. 

Neta Crawford, of the Costs of War project at Brown University, explains that since Annex I of the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, signatories have failed to account fully for their military emissions. The U.S. has about 750 military installations abroad, for which there are no emissions counts (Kyoto requiring accounting only for the 400 bases inside the U.S. homeland). U.S. Navy operations in international waters are also exempt. There is no accounting for the enormous infrastructural and environmental damage from military operations, nor is there full accounting from the military-industrial complex and associated supply chains. Crawford estimates that the major military contractors have emitted about the same amount of greenhouse gas as the military itself in any one year.

The reason for these exclusions is straightforward, if indefensible from a planetary viewpoint. If the emissions from the military were included in U.S. accounting, the military might have to reduce its operations. As long as the U.S. Congress embraces the premise that military “readiness” is dependent upon the current Defense bootprint, those operations are sacrosanct. This despite the fact that the U.S. military is larger than the next nine armed nation states combined, including Russia and China. The premise that U.S. military hegemony is necessary to the security of American citizens requires a wilful ignorance of the many ways in which U.S. military operations render us less secure. More profoundly, it requires denial of the existential danger posed by climate change, and the conjunction of militarism and the catastrophic destruction of liveable habitat on our planet.

Lucy Suchman is professor emerita at Lancaster University in the UK.

Tags Climate change COP26 Global warming Lucy Suchman Military Nancy Pelosi

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