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

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 9/11 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 9/11 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 9/11 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.”

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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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