The Three Dimensions of Militarism in the Climate Crisis


The Three Dimensions of Militarism in the Climate Crisis


Cover photo: Donetsk Outskirts, Buffer Zone, Donbass, Ukraine. February 23, 2024. After two years of relentless high-intensity combat from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the landscape is a scorched wasteland. Once fertile and vibrant with homes, farms, gardens, and wildlife, it now lies blackened and desolate. © Gaelle Girbes

Cover photo

Donetsk Outskirts, Buffer Zone, Donbass, Ukraine. February 23, 2024. After two years of relentless high-intensity combat from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the landscape is a scorched wasteland. Once fertile and vibrant with homes, farms, gardens, and wildlife, it now lies blackened and desolate. © Gaelle Girbes

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War, famously, is the pursuit of politics by other means. Cliche it may be, the impacts of war and militarism are often overlooked by social movements focusing on formal political processes. And this is understandable: we cannot always have our minds on military spending and the structural conditions that reinforce the highly militarized, violent realities we are collectively living through. So many of us are already stretched thin by struggles for affordable housing, climate action, racial justice, criminal punishment reform, equitable health care, improved public transportation, and countless other issues. Under these conditions, learning about the political economy of militarism and the strategies for organizing against it seems like a daunting prospect.

The problem is militarism has a significant impact on these other struggles. For instance, the demand for transformative ecological policies in the Global North, has been critically undermined by militarist agendas. Making matters worse, social movements, both today and historically, have tended to be quite locally focused and reluctant to take internationalist positions and advocate for globally salient and safe climate action, either out of ignorance or misplaced belief that this must happen alongside other priorities of massive importance.

There is a steep learning curve for effectively confronting these global challenges together. But militarism at home, particularly in the United States, and the hard power of imperialism abroad have clear material ramifications for all sorts of social movements. This is true for the climate movement in particular. The climate crisis is, after all, an omnicrisis—it is a crisis in its own right, but one which will also exacerbate every other challenge to creating better worlds. Contending with the intensification of military spending and the deployment of actual violence and violent rhetoric around climate effects is a vital aspect of this work. Ramped-up militarism is slowing the pace of climate action, while organized state violence—or paramilitary violence in the service of reactionary state aims—is being brought to bear on a range of movement objectives, especially on those pushing for safer and more just climate futures in conjunction with racial and economic justice.

This essay is an entry point for thinking about the necessity of an internationalist approach to climate action that is attentive to the explicitly militaristic responses to the climate crisis that are making the world far more dangerous. To develop this approach and accomplish the task, I lay out three categories of systemically violent responses to climate-related phenomena: first in terms of maintaining fossil fuel economies, then in terms of securing energy transition resources, and finally in deploying militarized violence against climate-related movement and movements.

Maintaining fossil fuel economies

Throughout modern history, militaries have played an important role in fomenting the climate crisis. Militaries are responsible for about 5.5% of global carbon emissions, or double that of commercial air travel. Militaries generally comprise the majority of any government’s direct emissions. Global military spending hit US$2.4 trillion last year, a figure that could fill gaps in much-needed adaptation and mitigation finance to a significant extent—especially in Global South countries that have contributed the least to climate change but will suffer its worst impacts. Not to mention the looming threats of violence posed by contemporary imperial powers this spending represents—NATO military spending in particular has ballooned since 2014 with serious budgetary and climate ramifications.

No Blood for Oil, Bring the Troops Home poster by Steven Lyons.
No Blood For Oil: Bring Home the Troops Lyons, Steven (artist). Keith R. Potter (design) Published by Emergency Campaign to Stop the War in the Middle East, 1990. © Steven Lyons

As for what militaries are up to generating all these emissions? Nothing good, regardless of their various efforts to rebrand as humanitarian organizations. One way to look at this state of affairs—beyond simply remembering that the primary way that militaries achieve their goals is to “break things and kill people”—is to compare maps of global oil shipping routes and overseas US military bases. The overlap is just as tidy now as it was in 2003 when one of the rallying cries against the invasion of Iraq was ‘No Blood for Oil’.

In 2024, military force is still the foundation of the fossil fuel economy, both in terms of protecting the interests of fossil fuel firms and as an effective guarantor of demand. We can see both aspects of this in the ongoing bombing campaigns in Yemen by the US, the UK, and its allies. By targeting Yemen’s Houthi movement, the US and its allies seek to diminish the military capacity of Yemen, which is the enemy of Saudi Arabia and Israel, both US client states. The same operations also safeguard smooth global shipping for container ships filled with consumer goods bound for Europe and tankers filled with Persian Gulf oil. It’s not a stretch to view the US’ laughable ‘humanitarian dock’ off the coast of Gaza as a staging point for offshore gas exploration.

Beyond the use of state violence to secure the global oil economy in international shipping, violence is also deployed against anti-fracking, anti-pipeline, and anti-mining movements in North America and Europe—violence especially targeting Indigenous people to keep the fossil fuels coming out of the ground and shareholders happy. Fossil fuel extraction is not only colored by military and paramilitary violence, but its effects have also deepened the environmental racism and widespread criminalization of protest that comprise part of the second and third categories of violence—the violence involved in securing materials critical to the energy transition, and the violence against movements contesting the climate crisis—or merely to survive it.

Securing energy transition resources

Attempts to secure access to potentially climate-beneficial materials and spaces— especially critical and strategic minerals necessary for the energy transition—are yet another way in which militarized responses to the climate crisis arise. To some extent, this form of militarization is a new phenomenon but it has its roots in existing means to secure extractive sites over the long arc of colonial history.This history includes the acquisition of land for carbon offsets that will do little to nothing to improve climate change outcomes or biodiversity loss through the expropriation of land bolstered by violence or the threat thereof. These are nothing but lucrative sideline investments for fossil fuel firms and ‘carbon cowboys’ developing offset projects that regularly dispossess vulnerable, often Indigenous, communities in tropical and equatorial countries. At the same time, these practices grant Global North governments and corporations a fig leaf to cover the material reality that emissions are not falling anywhere near fast enough to stave off the dire impacts of climate change.

This is an ugly geopolitical moment as far as rare earths and minerals like nickel, aluminum, copper, lithium, and coltan (among others) are concerned. The volumes required of these materials for the energy transition—both civilian and military—are staggering. One megawatt of electricity produced by offshore wind requires 8,000 kg of copper, 5,500 kg of zinc, 790 kg of manganese, 525 kg of chromium, and 240 kg of nickel. And offshore wind is just one of dozens of key technologies that will require huge new material inputs. The International Energy Agency estimates that lithium production will have to grow by 4,000% by 2040 relative to 2020 production to meet the Paris Agreement target to limit warming to 1.5 degrees; while cobalt production will have to rise 2100%, nickel by 1900%, and rare earth elements by 700%. The break-neck pace of mining for vital materials to meet these goals and support new technologies poses grave risks to landscapes and communities, while politicians in the Global North engage in another round of resource-capturing neocolonialism framed in terms of a ‘Great Power Competition’ between the US and allies on one hand, and China on the other—even as global fossil fuel production continues to grow.

The slow progression to a decarbonized global economy places us in what Emily Grubert calls ‘the mid-transition’, where fossil and renewable systems are operating side-by-side. Gilbert is concerned about this moment from the perspective of planning the energy transition, but it is also a helpful way to think through the kinds of violent entanglements produced by the imperative to secure both fossil fuels and transition minerals. The overarching geopolitical scene is set by the increasingly aggressive stance of Washington and its allies toward China, a stance predicated on extraordinarily regressive and racist thinking. This belligerent, imperial worldview is fundamentally out of step with just, peaceful transitions away from fossil fuels. Moves to resist the emerging crisis of a New Cold War will be a critical component of any leftist strategy to forge a safer future for all.

With the so-called Great Power Competition between the US and China as a backdrop, many nasty intersections between militaries and critical minerals are starting to emerge. In the US and other Global North countries, much of the rhetoric about the importance of critical minerals is framed in terms of national security tied to economic competitiveness through the newfound embrace of civilian industrial policy. This is in addition to the material requirements for maintaining—and expanding—the already enormous military capacity of the US military and NATO allies.

Again, using military force to secure strategic resources for industrial policy isn’t new, as decades of operations and a global network of military bases to secure and protect fossil fuels attest. However, this was rarely, if ever, explicitly named as an industrial policy over the neoliberal era. Even as social programs and state-led investment have shrunk dramatically since the mid-1970s, the US has been conducting wildly successful industrial policy for the military-industrial complex more-or-less uninterrupted since 1940. So this shift is more a matter of emphasis to signal the expanding scope of hard and soft power interventions the US is willing to take to maintain primacy in matters both economic and military.

An oil pipeline piercing through a forest near the Copper river in Alaska, United States.
An oil pipeline near the Copper river in Alaska, the US. CC Luke Jones

What is different now compared to previous eras where the deployment of military force (or threat thereof) was normalized, is the use of force to secure underground resources and impose where and how those materials are used. For example, there is a major push in the US right now to authorize seabed mining to secure some critical elements specifically for military use—particularly cobalt, nickel, and manganese—all of which are used for advanced electronics and renewable energy generation. The sense of urgency comes from the fact that contemporary military technology heavily depends on many of the same elements required for the energy transition. Adding to this mood, is the US’s supposedly precarious access to a range of strategic materials—particularly rare earth elements—necessary for high-tech weaponry in addition to important civilian applications: from consumer electronics to electric vehicles, to drive renewable energy build-out. Meanwhile, US military stockpiles are said to be depleted, largely because the US and its allies are arming both Ukraine and Israel (to disastrous environmental effect).

This same logic of ‘scarcity’-justified resource extraction is being used to fast-track new projects from California to Minnesota and on to North Carolina under the rubric of ‘onshoring and friend-shoring’ —to secure supply chains for transition minerals. Once again, it’s not just the militarized approach to securing materials that is awful, but the uses of those materials. Continued US military support for Israeli apartheid and genocide in Palestine, high-tech border surveillance and militarization, and the expansion of manufacturing for obscene, wasteful, and highly climate-damaging weapons systems like the F-35 fighter plane both for US armed forces and export to US client states is only made possible by militarized extraction and violence.

Militarized violence against climate movements and movement

The militarization of the climate crisis also manifests in more explicitly violent ways, both in terms of how states respond with violence to climate movements and environmental defenders and in how violence is enacted upon people on the move as a result of so-called climate apartheid. Like other violently mandated spatial segregations historically, climate apartheid is the logical endpoint of deteriorating social and environmental conditions that lead increasing numbers of people to flee their homes for safer prospects only to be greeted with violence and exclusion in their host communities.

The US national security blob is so keen to secure minerals, not only because of their uses in conventional weapons systems but also in surveillance and data processing systems that underpin its war and carceral machines. This confluence of materials and systematic violence is visibly emerging around border militarization in the US, where the Customs and Border Patrol is starting to deploy high-tech Artificial Intelligence (AI) kits to apprehend migrants and asylum seekers; alongside the cruel, inhumane, and environmentally destructive infrastructures that have expanded over the last two decades along the US-Mexico border. Conventional infrastructure is paired with computing-power-hungry AI systems that are primarily located in sprawling data center agglomerations across the Washington DC area. Ghoulishly, one of the Pentagon’s stated interests in AI (and all of the materials that go into building data centers) is to ensure “fast, precise, and resilient kill chains.”

This is precisely the logic at play with Israel’s use of an AI targeting system called “Lavender” that seeks to shield the IDF from culpability for war crimes charges—no one is responsible if the computer made the decision. It’s not difficult to imagine how this logic gets ported over to border security or protest policing, nor is it hard to reconcile with the adoption of similar tactics by the EU’s gruesome Frontex border security scheme, which is somehow even more inhumane than the border regime in the US.

Then there is the criminalization and violent repression of climate protest itself, as evidenced by the murder of Manuel Paez Terán, an activist fighting against the Cop City development in Atlanta. The Cop City development will train police in the use of these technologies while at the same time destroying an ecologically important forest at the site of its development. Meanwhile, Global North activists from Germany to Texas are facing state-level criminal penalties for contesting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, while in the Global South we are witnessing the acceleration of state and paramilitary violence against environmental protectors. Alarmingly, an environmental protector is killed every other day, a statistic that has endured for the last decade, according to a 2023 report from Global Witness—with the majority killed in Latin America.

Moreover, twenty-one US states now have “critical infrastructure protection” laws that are primarily focused on protecting extractive sites, pipelines, and even roadways that protestors might seek to block. These laws are based on language from the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, which in turn is exporting the model through the global reactionary ATLAS Network to locations from Canada, to Germany, and Australia. The enforcement of these laws is then conducted by thoroughly militarized police forces in cities that—especially in the US—are more lethally equipped than some national armies.

An anti-coal activist is removed by federal police forces from a sit-in blockade in the Lützerath encampment against a RWE coal mine.
An anti-coal activist is removed by federal police forces from a sit-in blockade against the police evacuation of the Lützerath encampment against a RWE coal mine. Lützerath, Nordrheinland-Westfalen, Germany. January 11, 2023. © Philippe Pernot

Another aspect related to the deaths of environmental defenders is the rising threat of violence against protesters both from state actors and their reactionary supporters. This, along with the use of climate-related disasters as a pretense for violence against out-groups, has been seen in the US Northwest in the wake of devastating wildfires. In the shadow of a continually escalating wildfire crisis, local militias have been organizing, driven by paranoia and racist conspiracy theories, to seek out imagined antifa arsonists with methods including armed checkpoints in rural areas.

This trend has emerged alongside the rise of militarized responses to disasters, institutionally illustrated by the fact that the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was relocated under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 after 9/11 rather than remaining an independent civilian agency. Militarized responses to disasters worsened by climate change are often the first step in a shock-doctrine playbook for remaking places and communities while prioritizing profit. This was evident back in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when police, vigilantes, and, eventually, the US National Guard were dispatched to protect businesses from ‘looting’ while at the same time, aid took weeks to arrive and people died while hiding in their attics waiting for flood waters to recede.

Even in less spectacular, but still damaging disasters, cops are often on the front line of response. For example, by using the pretense of looking for unhoused people to shelter during extreme heat events as a license to harass, intimidate, and arrest the unhoused and people of color. In the absence of significant investment in care and social workers and systems to support them, cops and militaries will continue to be the default first responders as climate change-infused disasters continue to intensify, both in the US and around the world.

Internationalist solidarity in the climate crisis

To get a more cohesive picture of the political economy of violence shaping our climate-changed futures and to forge a deeper internationalist approach to the climate crisis, it is imperative to contextualize hard power within the soft power imperialism of the global financial architecture. Here one might think about the 21st-century structural adjustment policy of the World Bank and IMF that is playing out across the Global South—imposing austerity, repealing environmental standards, and facilitating extraction of materials and profits. Ecuador is being punished with higher borrowing costs in part because of the referendums to restrict new oil and gas extraction, as well as withdrawing from the Investor State Dispute Settlement system, because of credit rating downgrades. In the case of Ecuador, this comes on top of IMF-imposed austerity that forced cuts to the health service during the pandemic.

Across the world, the simmering Global South debt crisis is restricting countries from pursuing low-carbon development and critical adaptation needs. This is the slow violence of the imperial world order that goes hand in hand with militarized interventions by Global North countries, especially vicious border control policies and the implied threat of force against states and communities who dare resist. These challenges are indicative of the kinds of issues that a more internationalist approach to climate justice must incorporate alongside a radical critique and accompanying actions against militarization. Issues to focus on may include: reforming international trade and taxation rules, strong policy action for the Global South sovereign debt crisis, and advocating for fiscal justice and the right to development as part of reparations for colonialism. All of these priorities against the slow violence of the imperial world order often fall by the wayside-—or are never considered at all—given the complications and unfamiliar policy terrain on which these issues could be contested.

This is not a happy place to end, but there are some glimmers of hope as coalitions of anti-imperialist, economic justice, climate and peace movements tentatively begin to form across the world. Formations like Debt for Climate are contesting the soft power imperialism of economic subordination, while some climate-first organizations are beginning to recognize their responsibility to speak up on war as the realities of militarism are unfolding in full view as the genocide in Gaza continues. These new connections are good because the need for coordination and power building across geographies and movements could not be greater than at this moment. As President Gustavo Petro of Colombia observed in the immediate wake of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, “The life of humanity, and especially of the people of the south, depends on the way in which humanity chooses the path to overcome the climate crisis produced by the wealth of the north. Gaza is just the first experiment in considering us all disposable.”

Right now, these three categories of systemic militarized violence—for fossil fuels, energy transition resource extraction, and for punishing resistance and even survival—are all on the rise; resisting and bucking those trends will be imperative for genuine human security as the ecological crisis intensifies. As we at the Climate and Community Project wrote in our statement on the climate justice case for an immediate ceasefire in Palestine, there is climate justice everywhere or nowhere. Where we shirk internationalism and a clear-eyed analysis of the violent political economy in which the climate crisis is unfolding, we do so at our collective peril.

Patrick Bigger author portrait.

Patrick Bigger

Patrick (he/him) is the Research Director at the Climate and Community Project. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from Science to Dissent.

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This article was published in Turning Point, an independent online magazine created by and for those actively seeking for a radical change. Read more articles at www.turningpointmag.org.

Published under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.