Green Empire?

In its conviction that the climate crisis ‘changes everything’, and in its search for a historical agent capable of coupling deliverance from catastrophe with radical social transformation, left climate politics is often sustained by a residual optimism. Yet this mood is far from universal. Some commentators have suggested that, given the shortage of time and the dim prospects for seizing state power, climate saviours will have to be drawn from enemy ranks. Take Michael Klare. A longtime peace studies scholar and defence correspondent for The Nation, he is now a cheerleader for the eco-conscious vanguard forming within the United States Department of Defense (DoD). ‘As global temperatures soar and vital resources dwindle’, Klare writes, the climate-mitigation efforts of the DoD have become ‘a model for the rest of society to emulate’. Not only that; the Pentagon’s outlook on global climate politics should be seen as ‘the starting point for America’s future foreign relations’. Has it really come to this? It may be true that, in the absence of a powerful socialist-environmentalist movement, the best hope for humanity is decarbonization from above. But what role is the American imperial apparatus likely to play in this process? Can it plausibly claim to be a ‘climate leader’?

This is the question Neta Crawford takes up in The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War: The Rise and Fall of US Military Emissions, published last October. Crawford was recently appointed to Oxford’s top international relations professorship, previously held by League of Nations architect Alfred Zimmern and world-order theorist Hedley Bull. As an undergraduate at Brown in the 1980s, she studied a degree of her own design, ‘The War System and Alternatives to Militarism’, while working with E.P. Thompson and Joan Scott in the peace movement. At the same time, Crawford undertook exhaustive research on Soviet materiel as part of an Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies project to compile a database of all ‘major weapons’ manufactured globally in the post-war period. Within two years of graduating, she had authored a volume which runs to more than a thousand pages, documenting the quantitative minutiae of Soviet military aircraft.

This mastery of military data would inform Crawford’s later work. Since 2011 she has served as co-director of the Costs of War project, counting the human and economic toll of Washington’s war on terror. (At its last major count, the project estimated nearly one million people killed at a cost of over $8 trillion.) Crawford is also highly regarded as an IR theorist. In her first book, Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention (2002), she made the case that normative beliefs are a structuring force in world politics, and that persuasive ethical arguments can therefore effect historical change. A decade later, in Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars (2013), Crawford turned her attention to the US military, charting its gradual institutionalization of a regime of non-combatant protection, yet highlighting its enduring disregard for civilian harm ‘when military necessity is understood to be high’. This intellectual background has made her especially well-placed to anatomize the climate machinations of the Pentagon.

The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War is neatly divided into four sections, starting with an impressive account of the American military’s energy history. Citing an 1855 report by the US Secretary of the Navy which stated that the ‘increase in the number of steam-ships will make further purchase of coal necessary’, Crawford unfolds the argument that the US military was a significant driver of the widespread adoption of coal followed by oil. Fossil fuel, she explains, rapidly became the energetic basis of its force posture in the mid-nineteenth century. This led to a consensus among the political and military establishment that access to coal and oil supplies was a vital strategic interest, and protecting them an overriding military objective. As David Petraeus asserted in 2011, ‘Energy is the lifeblood of our warfighting capabilities’ – a claim that Crawford verifies by tracking the century-long arc from coal-fired US victory in the Spanish–American war to the establishment of Central Command (CENTCOM) as the lynchpin of Washington’s dominance in the Persian Gulf.

In this account, the carbonization of imperial power – gunboats combusting coal before fighter jets guzzled oil – imbued American expansion with a cyclical logic, ‘where the need for refuelling to expand and protect US interests required bases over ever-larger portions of the globe, while the bases and the fuel themselves became strategic interests.’ Crawford calls this ‘the deep cycle’: a spiralling process of ‘oil demand, consumption, militarization and conflict’. In her reading, it is most notably the beliefs of military planners and foreign policy elites about coal and oil’s centrality that helped institutionalize fossil fuel demand: ‘Institutions were constructed over the last two centuries to realize decision makers’ beliefs about the role of fossil fuels in war.’ By foregrounding the ideational dimension of historical change, Crawford makes the case that fossil fuel dependence was not inevitable; it was rather a contingent choice that could yet be overturned. As she wrote in her first book, focusing on the force of argument might ‘allow us to see room for human agency within the operations of seemingly inexorable political and economic forces.’

In the next section, Crawford considers the question of climate science and US military emissions, demonstrating that the DoD has been aware of the significance of carbon emissions since the late 1950s. Navy-funded research had determined that CO2 molecules dissolved into the ocean after fewer than ten years in the atmosphere, providing the impetus for systematic measurement of atmospheric CO2 levels. The CIA kept a watchful eye on these studies, as did the White House. Nixon’s urban affairs adviser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, outlined his concerns about ‘the carbon dioxide problem’ in a 1969 memo sent to the president’s chief of staff, warning that the next century could be marked by catastrophic sea level rises: ‘Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter. We have no data on Seattle.’ This was something ‘that the Administration ought to get involved with’, Moynihan counselled, adding that it was ‘a natural for NATO.’

Using documents from Georgetown’s National Security Archive, declassified through freedom of information requests, Crawford goes on to explain how the Pentagon successfully lobbied for the exemption of the bulk of military emissions from the Kyoto Protocol, having convinced the Clinton White House that ‘imposing greenhouse gas emissions limitations on tactical and strategic military systems would . . . adversely impact operations and readiness.’ The legacy of this American diplomatic triumph is that in IPCC accounting, whose conventions are followed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ‘emissions from [military] activity at overseas bases and multilateral operations are excluded from national totals.’

In an effort to redress this wilful oversight, Crawford spends more than fifty pages setting out her own meticulous calculations of US military and military-industrial emissions. Her conclusion is unsurprising: that military emissions track conflict and have declined overall since the end of the Vietnam War, though they remain gargantuan. On her count, US military greenhouse gas emissions stood at just over 109 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) in 1975. By 2020, they had declined to 52 MMTCO2e. Energy consumed by DoD facilities has decreased by a similar magnitude over the same period, thanks to the closure of more than a thousand bases since 1991. Though direct Pentagon emissions are a very small component of the US national total (which stood at 5,222 MMTCO2e in 2020), military industrial emissions accounted for around 17% of total greenhouse emissions from industrial manufacturing in 2019, according to Crawford’s conservative estimate. 

A major polluter whose force is used to ‘protect access to Middle East oil’, the Pentagon has nevertheless devoted more thought to climate change and its consequences than most state institutions. Crawford follows this development in part three of the book, showing how the DoD has been at the forefront of conceiving climate breakdown as a major threat to American national security. What began in the 1990s with concern about battlefield efficiency and the link between environmental degradation and conflict gradually hardened over fifteen years into panic about the implications of ecological breakdown for American power. A series of military-linked reports were released in 2006-7, arguing that climate change ‘acts as a threat multiplier for instability’ which would ‘require the United States to support policies that insulate it as well as countries of strategic concern from the most severe effects’. This emergent consensus was evident in the DoD’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, which stated that ‘the Department is developing policies and plans to manage the effects of climate change on its operating environment, missions, and facilities.’ By 2019, a group of fifty-eight self-described ‘senior military and national security leaders’, led by John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, were pushing back against Trump’s attempt to use his National Security Council to subvert Pentagon and CIA climate change research programmes, writing in a letter to the president: ‘We support the science-driven patriots in our national security community who have rightly seen addressing climate change as a threat reduction issue, not a political one, since 1989.’

Crawford is broadly impressed by the Pentagon’s adaptation efforts. Yet she is also disturbed – and puzzled – by its failure to take climate mitigation more seriously or to recognize its own carbon footprint as a problem. Why are ‘some of the smartest, best-trained, and most determined people on this planet, given the resources of the richest nation on earth’ – long aware of anthropogenic warming and seeking to climate-proof their installations – so ‘strategically inflexible and blind’? For one thing, DoD leaders are surely right (on their own terms) to worry that stringent curbs on their emissions would begin to undercut American military pre-eminence. Greener equipment and weaponry can in some contexts be necessary for tactical and protective reasons, as US forces in Iraq learnt from the vulnerability of their fuel convoys to insurgent attacks. But as Crawford notes, the best that has been managed to date is the Navy running warships on a 10% beef fat, 90% petroleum mix as part of the ‘Great Green Fleet’ gimmick in 2009. It is hard, then, to envisage the Pentagon’s operations being more thoroughly decarbonized without a dramatic retrenchment. Cutting military emissions by massively downscaling the DoD’s size and operations – closing one-fifth of bases and installations, withdrawing from the Persian Gulf – is what Crawford proposes. But there is no mystery as to why the Pentagon would refuse to accept this. Generals are naturally reluctant to opt for their own liquidation. Indeed, even if the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department were to wield their power to accelerate decarbonization globally, they would struggle to build an eco-military. Unless the Pentagon can rapidly learn how to rule the skies and patrol the South China Sea propelled by biofuels rather than oil, a reconfiguration of American empire is more likely to take the form of green capital adjoined to a carbon military.

Reviewing The Pentagon, Climate Change, and War, Erin Sikorsky cast aspersions on Crawford’s argument that ‘the military is more than just one entity among many that have created the systemic climate risks facing the world today’, querying the assumption that ‘the key to US decarbonization is demilitarization’. This objection is to be expected from Sikorsky – once a CIA officer, now the director of two leading military-linked climate security institutions. Yet perhaps there is a grain of truth in her criticism. For all the strengths of Crawford’s study, its fixation on military emissions can be inhibiting. Given the Pentagon’s emissions make up only around 1% of the US national total, the author’s suggestion – in the final part of the book – that the military could ‘play a major role’ in broader climate mitigation efforts by reducing its carbon footprint seems dubious.

More importantly, Crawford’s painstaking focus on quantifying the DoD’s emissions fails to capture the fundamental purpose of such energy expenditure. In excavating the American military’s energetic foundations since the nineteenth century, Crawford has, to be sure, provided us with an invaluable historical understanding of the relationship between climate change and US imperial firepower. Her concept of ‘the deep cycle’ illuminates the catalytic effects of war and the military industry on the general growth of emissions. Yet, given the specific form American power has taken since the second world war – a global empire of capital – the significant thing about military emissions is not so much their magnitude as the reason they are generated in the first place: namely, the Pentagon’s need to maintain unparalleled supremacy in order to underwrite a much wider, ecologically ruinous regime of accumulation. Washington’s role as guardian of global capital – and the military’s role as coercive guarantor of that position – is conterminous with what environmental historians call ‘the great acceleration’. The advent of the ‘Anthropocene’ and the spread of American-led transnational capitalism are intertwined. As such, the Pentagon’s deadly atmospheric legacy far outstrips the effect of its own emissions.

Crawford’s intellectual project is perhaps best understood as a progressive immanent critique of American empire, defined by intricate attention to the military as an institution – its political history, energy composition, ideologies, procedures, rules, and modes of killing. This kind of granular attention to military politics is vanishingly rare for contemporary scholars of the left, yet both its brilliance and its limitations derive from this immanent position. It is only by seeing the Pentagon as if from the inside that Crawford can produce such rich studies of its machinations. But taking the institution on its own terms can also weaken her critical perspective. In Accountability for Killing, she writes that

the US military has acted as an imperfect moral agent, and its gradual recognition of the problem of collateral damage, its initial ad hoc responses to the problem, and the gradual institutionalization of a program of civilian casualty mitigation illustrates a cycle of moral agency and a process of organizational learning. I argue that this process has been, with exceptions, mostly positive. But I also show where and how the US military could further act to reduce systemic and proportionality/double effect collateral damage.

Here, as with her suggestion that the potential for carbon and methane release caused by airstrikes should be incorporated as a consideration in targeting guidance, Crawford ends up missing the wood for the trees by focusing on – and overplaying – the Pentagon’s potential for ethical self-improvement. So too in some of her 2003-4 articles on the Bush administration, which describe the ‘best intentions’ of Washington policymakers and lament the military’s ‘unfortunate lapses’ in continually bombarding civilians. Crawford’s technocratic prescriptions are premised on a conviction that the practices of the US military, and indeed the empire more widely, are driven by normative beliefs which might be subject to change through ethical persuasion. Considering the ‘moral duties of American hegemony’ in a piece for the house journal of the US Navy, she insists that Washington ‘can in fact pursue a moral policy in Iraq and the rest of the world’, pointing to ‘the integration of ethical reasoning with prudence’ as the best path forward for its foreign policy.

This framework stems from Crawford’s first book, which recast the history of decolonization as a grand teleology of ethical argument: ‘if the roots of decolonization are in the demise of . . . slavery and forced labor, and the cause of abolition was changing normative beliefs through ethical argument, then ethical arguments are a powerful underlying cause of decolonization.’ There is an important continuity of method between this study and Crawford’s work on US empire: the Pentagon’s failure to take climate mitigation seriously is likewise attributed to ‘habits of mind’. The author’s stress on the determinant force of ethical argument, revolutions in normative beliefs and their subsequent institutionalization, helps to explain her moments of credulity about the extent to which the Pentagon can be reformed.

Green empire seems like an idea whose time has come in the West: NATO’s new security concept says it ‘should become the leading international organization when it comes to understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change on security’, while the European Greens promote retrofitting with the slogan ‘Isolate Putin. Insulate Homes.’ Crawford’s empirically rich work does much to deepen our understanding of this trend and its prehistory. But when her anatomy of the military is affixed to an analysis of the empire it shields, the strictures of the Pentagon’s role as a climate actor become clear. With the left in purgatory, it is understandable that scholars like Michael Klare should hope for Washington to take up the mantle of planetary rescue. The notion that there might be anything ethically palatable in a green American empire, though, is a delusion that must be dispensed with.

Read on: Lola Seaton, ‘Painting Nationalism Green’, NLR 124.