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The Pentagon’s Carbon Boot Print

July 10, 2019

Two new studies show that the U.S. military consumes more fossil fuels—and emits more greenhouse gases—than many countries    

Two new studies show that the U.S. military consumes more fossil fuels—and emits more greenhouse gases—than many countries    


The Pentagon's Carbon Boot Print

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor. For years, analysts have warned that the climate crisis is a threat to national security. The United States spends more on its military now than at almost any other time in history. And according to many security experts and the US Department of Defense itself, as climate chaos further exacerbates geopolitical instability, the military could demand even more resources. But as the world’s top polluter and top institutional consumer of fossil fuels, the Pentagon also fuels climate change. Today, my two guests and I are going to dig into two new studies that show the extent of that impact. Now joining me is Neta Crawford of Boston University. She is a co-author of Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War. Also joining me is Patrick Bigger of Lancaster University. He is a co-author of another new paper, Hidden Carbon Costs of the “Everywhere War”: Logistics, Geopolitical Ecology, and the Carbon Boot-print of the US Military. Thank you so much for being here both of you.

PATRICK BIGGER Good to be here. Thanks.

NETA C. CRAWFORD Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR So, Neta, let’s start with you. Your new study found that in 2017, the Pentagon’s greenhouse gas emissions were actually greater than the greenhouse gas emissions of entire countries, like Sweden or Denmark. What does the Pentagon consume all of these fossil fuels for? And how does it produce so many emissions?

NETA C. CRAWFORD Well, quite simply, it’s a huge institution. And think of it this way: It’s like a multinational corporation with 500 military bases in the world, many thousands of buildings— not to mention ships, aircraft, tanks, which use enormous quantities of fuel. So one plane can get five gallons per mile— not miles per gallon, but gallons per mile, if you’re thinking in terms of standard fuel economy. So it’s quite easy for one of the largest institutions in the world to use that much fuel, especially because they use extremely inefficient— from the perspective of fuel economy— vehicles for transportation. So about 70% of their fuel use is for moving things, planes, people. And about 30% is for installations.

DHARNA NOOR And Patrick, your study found that if the US military were a country, again, its fuel usage alone would make it the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. And your team examined the carbon footprint of the vast network of operations on which the military depends too. Could you talk a little bit about that?

PATRICK BIGGER Yeah. That’s right. So what we looked at was a somewhat obscure sub-agency called the Defense Logistics Agency and the sub-agency for Energy, which is buried in a, kind of, nondescript office building in Fort Belvoir, Virginia where they coordinate every gallon of fuel or just about every gallon of fuel that we found in our study— sourcing it, procuring it, distributing it, and then ultimately delivering it to its place of consumption all over the world, at all those military bases that Neta talked about, at domestic and international locations. What we found was their primary consumption was in aviation fuel, which is the most damaging kind of fuel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide emissions, and its contribution to the climate crisis.

DHARNA NOOR And how have they been able to get away with this? Neta, we can start with you. How have they been able to sustain such a huge role in fueling the climate crisis? I mean, you write, for instance, that it’s exempt from, the Pentagon is exempt from the UN climate accounting process. How and why?

NETA C. CRAWFORD Well, that was one of the things that the United States did when it participated in the negotiation for the Kyoto Protocol. It specifically exempted military bunker fuels and the military’s activities in war from being counted as part of the overall emissions. That’s for every country. No country is required to report those emissions. So it’s not unique in that respect, but the US did lead in trying to get those fuels not accounted for. But the second thing here we have to keep in mind is the US doesn’t intentionally, through its military activities, produce greenhouse gases in order to make the climate worse. It just does what it does. That is, makes war, occupies countries, trains and deploys forces all over the world, and as a consequence this is what it does. And its capacity actually—Its emissions have been reduced in most recent years and in part it’s because they don’t like being vulnerable to someone who would like to interfere with the transportation of fuel to a war zone, so they’ve moved towards decreasing their vulnerability.

DHARNA NOOR But as you both sort of note, you know, despite this giant role that the Pentagon plays, it’s often overlooked in studies of the climate crisis and in scholarship about the climate crisis. Neta, in your study you wrote that the US military has emitted the equivalent of 14 million passenger vehicles on the road per year. But Patrick, just to follow up on that, in a piece that you wrote about your new study for the conversation you say, “it’s no coincidence that the US military missions tend to be overlooked in climate change studies. It’s very difficult to get consistent data from the Pentagon and across US government departments.” What makes it so difficult? And then, how did your team manage to get your hands on the data?

PATRICK BIGGER I don’t know that it’s necessarily any more difficult to get your hands on energy data than any other kind of data. It’s just that— as we’ve seen with other efforts to audit the Pentagon that have failed miserably over the last 40 years now, and continue to fail— it’s really just hard to keep track of how much stuff is consumed by such a sprawling massive institution that has its operations all over the globe, and often has an incentive to hide what it’s spending in different categories and different types of [inaudible]. So what we did was to do a Freedom of Information Act request for every gallon of fuel that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Energy procured from 2013 to 2017, just to get a snapshot of those purchase records to see, kind of, what it looked like. And we’ve not even gone into doing the work of comparing that to what the publicly available data shows, but just from our little FOIA hunt, we think we found some pretty interesting data that really shows the extent of the Pentagon’s contribution to climate change.

DHARNA NOOR And just to follow up on that, you wrote that the Defense Logistics Agency’s Energy unit was “the invisible hand of imperialism.” Talk a little bit more about what role they play in energy procurement for the US military.

PATRICK BIGGER Everything— top to tail. So everything from individual fuel purchase cards that are given out to individual folks when they need to fill up their trucks on base, to contracting with the distributor, the regional distributors both domestically and abroad. So there’s probably some gallons here or there that escape our accounting of it, but the vast majority of what they buy has to go through DLA-E in one form or another. To the tune of 14 million gallons of fuel per day, the DLA-E handles, with somewhere in the neighborhood, ultimately, of $8 billion a year just on fuel.

DHARNA NOOR And so, for both of you, the Pentagon often testifies to its concern about the national security impacts of the climate crisis. Here’s a quote from former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Conger. He’s also the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment. And now, he’s the Director of The Center for Climate & Security.

JOHN CONGER So DoD has a lot of bases. DoD has bases across the world in every climate zone. They have bases on the coast, they have bases inland, and they all face different problems. Climate change can affect each one in different ways. And so, whether it’s an island in the Pacific, it’s structures on the permafrost in Alaska, or if it’s coastal facilities in a place like Norfolk where they’re building their piers higher because of sea level rise today— all of those impacts affect DoD’s ability do its job.

DHARNA NOOR So the bases will have to respond. Then on top of that, again, studies show that climate change fuels global unrest. For instance, many argue that drought worsened by the climate crisis led to mass migration and unrest in Syria. So the military is, as you found, both of you, fueling the climate crisis, but it’s also concerned about responding to the effects of the climate crisis. And many say it might demand more resources to further respond to that kind of conflict. Could you talk about these contradictions? Neta, let’s start with you.

NETA C. CRAWFORD Well I think there are two kinds of contradictions. The first is that the Pentagon spends— that is, uses as fuel— to protect access to Persian Gulf oil, which it’s increasingly clear that the United States and other countries are less dependent on.

DHARNA NOOR Right.

NETA C. CRAWFORD So that’s the first contradiction. The second is the fact that the United States is actually making the climate crisis worse by using so much fuel. And instead of looking to reduce fuel consumption, the United States is preparing to use more fuel to respond to climate crises— including potentially, war.

DHARNA NOOR And Patrick, I’d like to ask you the same question. How do you square the Pentagon’s attempts to respond to the climate crisis and adapt to it, with its contributions to that very crisis?

NETA C. CRAWFORD Yeah. I think Neta’s identified the two key contradictions exactly right there. What I would add that we learned from the course of doing our study was the importance of the entire military supply chain around fuels and also in terms of securing global fuel trade, which is incredibly important to the US economy. Historically it’s imports, but now increasingly, it’s exports as well. And so, the US military plays a fundamental role in ensuring the continued operation of the supply chains that contribute to the climate crisis. As to the second contradiction— the US military’s contribution to climate change— I think it’s worth remembering that the way that the Pentagon prefers to talk about climate changes is as a threat multiplier, right? So it doesn’t necessarily produce any new threats, but it will make existing or other emerging threats worse, and then demand presumably further US response. And so this discussion of climate change as a threat multiplier becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when you continue to burn this level of fuel in order to respond to the threats, that then will produce new threats, and it kind of is this never-ending cycle.

DHARNA NOOR So after doing all this research, what do you both think that climate advocates’ response to the military’s role in fueling the climate crisis should be? For instance, should we be pushing for the military to become greener and less reliant on fossil fuels? Should we be pushing for demilitarization? Again, Neta, let’s start with you.

NETA C. CRAWFORD Well, the DoD is already trying to become green. In fact, the Marines have a little unit which they characterize their activities as green— G-R-E-E-N.

DHARNA NOOR Sure.

NETA C. CRAWFORD But I think that those efforts, even though they have led to some decreases, are not significant enough. What we need to see are three kinds of activities. First, the US should rethink its commitment to the Persian Gulf, and that means the one to two aircraft carriers that we’ve got there at all times protecting fuel access through the Strait of Hormuz. The second thing is that the United States should reduce its overall pattern of bases and infrastructure. We should be thinking about closing those bases or moving the bases that are vulnerable to climate disruption, or extreme heat, or rain, or other weather events, or sea level rise. But some of those bases should be permanently closed because they can be— and this is the third point— converted to either be producers of green energy, like solar or wind, geothermal perhaps. Or, they could be places where there’s increased forestation or reforestation, as the case may be. And if you plant trees in the locations where bases are closed, then you can turn some of these bases into carbon sequestration zones. That’d be very useful. In other words, the entire US military needs to rethink its both force structure and its commitments across the globe. And then thirdly, engage in conversion.

DHARNA NOOR And Patrick, in your piece for the conversation about your new study, you essentially say that we need to advocate not for a greener military presence, but for less military presence overall, globally. Could you talk a little bit about what your conclusions were that you drew from your research?

PATRICK BIGGER Yeah, absolutely. So in previous work that I’ve done with one of my co-authors, we looked at the US military’s biofuel program, which was running from about 2007 to 2016-17. And a lot of good work got done in coming up with third-generation biofuels that could come from a variety of feedstocks, and then just be used in existing military hardware. But that was really dabbling, kind of— the way that we put it in the conversation piece is— “dabbling at the edges of the war machine.” It’s good that we have these, kind of, technological advances, but at the end of the day, it’s not really doing much if anything to decarbonize the military. And so, I think that a lot of what Neta said is very sensible.

At the end of the day, I think we just need a massive draw-down in military spending, and that money needs to be re-appropriated towards any number of goals that we can align with the green new deal or not. It doesn’t have to come under that rubric, but that money could be better spent doing any number of things. And we can think about this as a, sort of, peace dividend that never emerged after the Cold War. Military spending stayed relatively equal, even went up, and now we need to recognize that we are in the midst of an extremely serious environmental crisis. And so, the Pentagon resources need to be redirected elsewhere in a way that isn’t going to, kind of, continue producing existential threats for everyone on Earth.

DHARNA NOOR All right. Well as we see what the response is to both of these studies, and see of course what the policy responses are to this giant role that the Pentagon plays in fueling the climate crisis, we’d love to talk to both of you again. Thank you so much for your work and thanks for being on today.

NETA C. CRAWFORD Thank you very much.

PATRICK BIGGER Thanks so much for having us.

DHARNA NOOR And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.