The 2020s Has To Be the Decade We Stop Climate Change—Not Start Another War

We can’t let Trump’s belligerence undermine the climate fight of our lives.

Sarah Lazare January 7, 2020

A US military plane takes off from Ramstein Airbase in dense fog on January 8, 2020. The Ramstein Airbase is the headquarters of the US Air Force in Europe and acts as an international hub for US troop transfers worldwide. (Photo by Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

This is the decade we have to stop cli­mate change. But now, thanks to the bel­liger­ent Trump admin­is­tra­tion and Democ­rats who laid the ground­work, we also have to stop anoth­er poten­tial war.

The harms perpetrated by U.S. militarism must be measured not only by its direct violence, but by its foreclosure on other possible futures.

To stave off the worst effects of the cli­mate cri­sis, the world must slash car­bon emis­sions in half by 2030 and — at the absolute lat­est — bring them to net zero by 2050. In Octo­ber of 2018, the UN Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) said we have 12 years to keep glob­al warm­ing to a max­i­mum of 1.5°C — and pre­vent the worst of floods, droughts, storms and result­ing human deaths. It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, co-chair of an IPCC work­ing group. For many of us, as we rang in the New Year and chart­ed out our hopes for the com­ing decade, this urgent real­i­ty was front and center.

It will be no small task to do what is need­ed. The IPCC says that lim­it­ing glob­al warm­ing to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reach­ing and unprece­dent­ed changes in all aspects of soci­ety.” Sci­en­tists esti­mate that 80% of glob­al coal reserves, half of gas reserves and a third of oil reserves need to stay in the ground. The Unit­ed States shares a dis­pro­por­tion­ate respon­si­bil­i­ty to curb the cli­mate cri­sis, as the num­ber-one per-capi­ta emit­ter of green­house gas­es in the world, with Chi­na the high­est over­all emit­ter. But this respon­si­bil­i­ty is not even­ly dis­trib­uted: A study released in 2017 found that just 100 com­pa­nies –  – and the down mar­ket con­sump­tion of their prod­ucts and ser­vices –  – are respon­si­ble for 70% of all car­bon emis­sions in the world, with cor­po­ra­tions like Exxon­Mo­bil, Shell, BP and Chevron among the worst pol­luters. The key dri­vers of the cri­sis sit in cor­po­rate board­rooms and gov­ern­ment offices; they are bil­lion­aires and CEOs and the U.S. politi­cians they buy off. 

We enter into this decade fac­ing a tremen­dous uphill bat­tle under a Trump admin­is­tra­tion that has rolled back for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama’s mea­ger cli­mate pro­tec­tions, includ­ing the Clean Pow­er Plan. But we also face a polit­i­cal cli­mate where a resurg­ing Left is iden­ti­fy­ing cap­i­tal­ism as the prob­lem — and demand­ing bold pro­grams to fight the cri­sis, includ­ing a Green New Deal with the teeth to shut down the fos­sil fuel indus­try and guar­an­tee jobs under a just tran­si­tion for work­ers. And young peo­ple around the world have shown they’re will­ing to walk out of school and flood the streets to demand cli­mate action. The cli­mate cri­sis is height­en­ing con­tra­dic­tions in our soci­ety, and this moment could not be more pivotal.

Which is why the pos­si­bil­i­ty of war with Iran could do incal­cu­la­ble harm. We already know the U.S. mil­i­tary — with more than 800 bases and com­man­dos deployed to 75% of coun­tries — is a cli­mate vil­lain. A study from Brown Uni­ver­si­ty released in 2019 found that the U.S. mil­i­tary is a big­ger green­house gas emit­ter than a major­i­ty of coun­tries, and would rank 47th if it were a nation to itself. Between 2001 and 2017 alone, the study finds, the U.S. mil­i­tary emit­ted 1.2 bil­lion met­ric tons of green­house gas­es.” In an arti­cle about their find­ings, the study’s authors wrote, the U.S. mil­i­tary is one of the largest pol­luters in his­to­ry, con­sum­ing more liq­uid fuels and emit­ting more cli­mate-chang­ing gas­es than most medi­um-sized coun­tries.” Anoth­er war would only inten­si­fy this pollution.

But the military’s direct car­bon foot­print doesn’t ful­ly cap­ture the cli­mate harm wrought by the prospect of war with Iran. At exact­ly the moment U.S. orga­niz­ers need to be build­ing sup­port for a cli­mate jus­tice pro­gram that’s big­ger, more pow­er­ful and more anti-cap­i­tal­ist than we’ve ever seen, they are instead rac­ing to respond to a bar­rage of esca­la­tions: the U.S. assas­si­na­tion of Maj. Gen. Qas­sim Soleimani, who was com­man­der of Iran’s Quds Force and a rank­ing offi­cial of the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment, Trump’s threats to tar­get Iran­ian cul­ture sites, and to his calls to unleash very big sanc­tions” on Iraq. We face a media and polit­i­cal cli­mate falling into the famil­iar right-wing tropes, with news out­lets report­ing Trump admin­is­tra­tion talk­ing points of main­tain­ing a defen­sive pos­ture at face val­ue, and Democ­rats fre­quent­ly endors­ing the premis­es of Trump’s aggres­sion, even if they hand-wring over process. The U.S. Left, just as it’s final­ly gain­ing momen­tum, now faces a polit­i­cal land­scape where right-wing racist forces are emboldened.

It is dif­fi­cult to quan­ti­fy the role war plays in erod­ing polit­i­cal space to address envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe, but his­to­ry offers some clues. Dur­ing the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, the glob­al jus­tice move­ment made deep con­nec­tions between cor­po­rate pil­lag­ing and envi­ron­men­tal and cli­mate destruc­tion. Demon­stra­tors decried the World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion’s Investor-State Dis­pute Set­tle­ment sys­tem, a cor­po­rate tri­bunal that allows com­pa­nies to under­cut pub­lic pro­tec­tions, from labor rights to cli­mate reg­u­la­tions. The U.S. wing of the move­ment mobi­lized in sol­i­dar­i­ty with move­ments in the Glob­al South against ecosys­tem destruc­tion, the plun­der­ing of indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties through oil, drilling and dam projects and much more. Activists mobi­lized at the UN cli­mate talks in the Hague — blockad­ing door­ways and climb­ing rafters — all to demand stronger action against glob­al warm­ing. The call to action for the 1999 WTO protests in Seat­tle named the threat of glob­al warm­ing in its first line:

Increas­ing pover­ty and cuts in social ser­vices while the rich get rich­er; low wages, sweat­shops, mean­ing­less jobs, and more pris­ons; defor­esta­tion, grid­locked cities and glob­al warm­ing; genet­ic engi­neer­ing, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and war: Despite the appar­ent diver­si­ty of these social and eco­log­i­cal trou­bles, their roots are the same — a glob­al eco­nom­ic sys­tem based on the exploita­tion of peo­ple and the planet.

But after Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, as the Bush admin­is­tra­tion beat the drums of war and passed a series of repres­sive domes­tic laws, much of the U.S. wing of this move­ment — nec­es­sar­i­ly — shift­ed its focus to oppos­ing war. A protest against the World Bank and Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund, slat­ed for late Sep­tem­ber, 2001 — and expect­ed to be mas­sive — was called off. Instead, the action was shift­ed to an anti-war march and teach-in that Octo­ber, with crowds chant­i­ng, Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War!” The New York Times’ head­line on the protest summed up the jin­go­is­tic mood of the moment: Marchers Oppose Wag­ing War Against Ter­ror­ists.”

I think 911 was the major turn­ing point that dra­mat­i­cal­ly shift­ed the ener­gy and focus,” says Matt Leonard, an orga­niz­er with 350​.org who came of age in the glob­al jus­tice move­ment. Some of that was shift­ing into an anti-war move­ment, some of it was a social-polit­i­cal cli­mate that became much more repres­sive, shift­ed the Over­ton Win­dow of what accept­able’ activism looked like, and left many peo­ple and more main­stream groups cau­tious about being asso­ci­at­ed with more rad­i­cal social move­ment energy.”

Rami El-Amine, a long­time anti-war activist, for­mer edi­tor of Left Turn, and a for­mer orga­niz­er in the glob­al jus­tice move­ment, tells In These Times, Clear­ly the move­ment was mak­ing lots of progress in terms of expos­ing the anti-envi­ron­men­tal prac­tices of insti­tu­tions like the World Bank and Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund. It def­i­nite­ly was a big part of the work and would have had a huge impact if 911 and war had not derailed things.”

Accord­ing to El-Amine, a lot of the non-prof­its pulled out when things turned anti-war.” Mean­while, the glob­al jus­tice move­ment joined with mil­lions of oth­ers to protest the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq. Clare Bayard, an orga­niz­er with the Cat­a­lyst Project and orga­niz­er in the glob­al jus­tice move­ment, tells In These Times, A lot of the groups and infra­struc­ture that was hold­ing up the glob­al jus­tice move­ment, like the direct action net­work in places like the Bay Area, was used to build the Direct Action to Stop the War spokes coun­cil,” refer­ring to a deci­sion mak­ing process for large num­bers of peo­ple, often used to plan mass actions. The same peo­ple and infra­struc­ture and ener­gies were going into anti-war activities.” 

Protests against the Iraq War saw record num­bers of peo­ple take to the streets around the world — a vital mobi­liza­tion that was cer­tain­ly strength­ened by the infra­struc­ture and hard work of the glob­al jus­tice move­ment, both its U.S. and inter­na­tion­al wings. The glob­al jus­tice move­ment is not respon­si­ble for — and, in fact, was tar­get­ed by — America’s dra­mat­ic right­ward, repres­sive lurch. And no doubt many of the peo­ple who came up in the glob­al jus­tice move­ment are still orga­niz­ing today against cli­mate change, envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion, cap­i­tal­ism and war. But we will nev­er know what kind of glob­al cli­mate move­ment could have been built if the inva­sions of Iraq and Afghanistan hadn’t demand­ed an imme­di­ate response from U.S. orga­niz­ers — and hadn’t shift­ed the polit­i­cal cli­mate dra­mat­i­cal­ly right­ward. In ret­ro­spect, the ear­ly 2000s would have been a far bet­ter time to aggres­sive­ly tack­le a cli­mate cri­sis mov­ing for­ward at warp speed — before we reached the brink. 

The harms per­pe­trat­ed by U.S. mil­i­tarism must be mea­sured not only by its direct vio­lence, but by its fore­clo­sure on oth­er pos­si­ble futures. There’s the U.S. military’s role in open­ing glob­al mar­kets to cap­i­tal, paving the way for resource extrac­tion, and the exploita­tion of peo­ple and the Earth — when it could have been oth­er­wise. There’s the role U.S. mil­i­tarism plays in spread­ing the neolib­er­al ide­ol­o­gy under­gird­ing the cli­mate cri­sis — that cor­po­ra­tions should be able to run roughshod over human well-being. And there’s the role U.S. mil­i­tarism has played in enabling the repres­sion of left move­ments beyond U.S. bor­ders, from Hon­duras to Pales­tine.

The econ­o­my that is extract­ing nat­ur­al resources and destroy­ing this plan­et is the same U.S.-led racial cap­i­tal­ism and impe­ri­al­ism that dri­ves wars on oil-rich lands,” Cindy Wies­ner, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of Grass­roots Glob­al Jus­tice Alliance, tells In These Times. U.S. mil­i­tarism is one of the great­est threats to the cli­mate cri­sis and life sys­tems globally.” 

The upside is, as Bayard puts it, that any ener­gy that goes into fight­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary is going to con­tribute to cli­mate jus­tice.” And Lara Kiswani, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Arab Resource and Orga­niz­ing Cen­ter, tells In These Times, At this moment of time, there isn’t a dis­con­nect between the cli­mate cri­sis and mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex. Tack­ling mil­i­tarism is in favor of a dif­fer­ent world order — one that advances envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and cli­mate jus­tice.” Try­ing to stop a war doesn’t have to dis­tract from fight­ing cli­mate change — espe­cial­ly if move­ments are able to build from broad­er left momen­tum, and look long and hard at the challenges.

U.S.-run glob­al cap­i­tal­ism and mil­i­tarism is not, of course, the only respon­si­ble par­ty for the cli­mate cri­sis –  – but it plays a key role in dri­ving it. We must not only tie togeth­er U.S. impe­ri­al­ism and cli­mate, but use both as an entry point to com­bat the oth­er. The jin­go­ism and fer­vor of war has always been used by those in pow­er to attack oth­er ele­ments of the Left: World War I was used as a blunt instru­ment against rad­i­cal union­ism, the red scare was used to dis­cred­it the civ­il rights move­ment, post 911 ter­ror laws were used to go after envi­ron­men­tal activists, and Trump’s fran­tic mil­i­tarism will no doubt make com­bat­ing the most urgent issue of our time — pend­ing cli­mate dis­as­ter — that much more difficult. 

It’s no acci­dent the same fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies that stand to lose the most in the event of a mass move­ment to stop cli­mate change — Shell, Chevron, Exxon­Mo­bil — back right-wing, pro-war politi­cians and fund think tanks push­ing greater U.S. mil­i­tarism. They know very well the con­nec­tion between U.S. empire and their own bot­tom line — the Left should as well. Indeed, for orga­niz­ers like Wies­ner, the best hope lies in doing what the pol­luters are already doing: con­nect­ing these dots. Peo­ple may think that we need to choose between mobi­liz­ing to stop the war or stop­ping cli­mate change,” she says, but that is a false dichoto­my. We are in a fight for the liveli­hood of peo­ple and the planet.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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