Armed forces are among the largest greenhouse gas emitters anywhere, but the world’s wealthiest countries—like the United States and the European Union—exempt their militaries from emissions regulations while continuing to increase budgets to defend against the rising international security threats those emissions help trigger.

The latest data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) show nearly US$2 trillion in military expenditures in 2020, with the U.S. accounting for more than one-third of the total at $778.2 billion, China a far second at $252.3 billion, and Russia placing fourth at $61.7 billion. The top 10 spenders accounted for nearly $1.5 trillion spent for military purposes, as opposed to climate, environmental, humanitarian, or other civilian pursuits. Germany’s military budget took seventh spot, at $52.8 billion, while Canada placed 13th, with $22.8 billion.


But all of that was before Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine almost two weeks ago, prompting a flurry of announcements and lobbying to increase NATO military spending. Germany upended decades of military, energy, debt, and diplomatic policy in 30 minutes late last month, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz announcing a “180-degree turn” prompted by a “turning of eras” that led to an immediate, €100-billion fund (equivalent to C$140 billion) to modernize and arm its military. Canada faced pressure to increase military spending beyond its current 1.39% of GDP, wrote CBC senior defence writer Murray Brewster, and yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was open to the idea in a context that “is changing rapidly around the world,” the Globe and Mail reported.

Many of these same countries have resisted loss and damage payments for nations most affected by the climate impacts wrought by their emissions. Faced with a deep contradiction that fails to effectively address the increasingly potent impacts of climate change, some experts are reimagining better ways to build security.

“A far better strategy than relying on the military to deal with the various crises resulting from climate change would be to focus on human security, strengthening the ability of communities to deal with climate impacts and the tensions resulting from them,” Dr. Sam Perlo-Freeman, research coordinator for the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade, told The Energy Mix.


“Military power would be a very blunt instrument for dealing with most of these impacts, and one likely to exacerbate problems more than solve them,” he added.

Moreover, at a media briefing yesterday organized by the United Kingdom’s E3G climate consultancy, U.S. Vice Admiral (Ret.) Dennis V. McGinn pointed to the fossil fuel emissions at the root of those climate-driven crises as the enabler for Putin’s war.

“If we were further down the path to decarbonization, this war would never have happened,” McGinn declared. Russia “has created a war chest of money and capability because of its exportation of what the world is still addicted to.” So “in order to avoid future wars fought over oil or gas or other fossil resources, we need to accelerate the transition to a new energy economy that is focused on clean, sustainable energy.”

Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier

Climate security policies see climate change as a threat multiplier that worsens pre-existing security threats. This view is so entrenched amongst military policy-makers that “the assumption that climate change leads to greater insecurity is [often] made without any qualification or explanation and taken at face value,” SIPRI writes about the EU.

However, the nature of the link between climate and conflict is both complex and unclear. “It is not as simple as ‘climate change causing conflict’—rather, the suggestion is that climate change may exacerbate the sort of conditions, tensions, and grievances that can lead to conflict,” explained Perlo-Freeman.

Research supporting the suggested link is based on cases where violence rises because of resource scarcity from floods, droughts, and other changing weather patterns linked to climate change, as well as indirect climate impacts to supply chains that can lead to further civil unrest (in response to rising prices for food and other essential items, for example), reports the Climate Security Expert Network (CSEN).

Further support for this theory comes from the correlation between countries at high risk of climate impacts and those that are vulnerable to conflict. According to the 2021 Ecological Threat Report from the Institute of Economics and Peace, 11 of the 15 countries with the worst environmental threat scores are already classified as being in conflict, and the remaining four “are classified as at high risk of substantial falls in peace.” Other social factors caused by resource degradation include rising food insecurity (which increased 44% since 2014 to affect a total 2.4 billion people) and increased migration—the 30 million people displaced by natural disasters in 2020, and the 10 million more who were displaced by conflict and violence, far exceeded the 12-year average.

But other researchers question the connection, Perlo-Freeman added.

Olaf Corry, a professor of global security challenges at the University of Leeds, told The Mix that the evidence “is quite weak still. Whether that’s the noise still crowding out the signal, or the underlying theory being bad, the statistical evidence is very mixed.”

“Nobody says climate is not going to affect conflicts or migration—it’s just much more complicated, and political conditions obviously matter hugely,” he added.

Though it may not be definitive, the presumed link has influenced security policy for nearly two decades. The EU’s first high-level reference to global warming as a security threat dates back to a 2003 strategy document cautioning [pdf] that resource competition “will be aggravated by global warming over the next decades, [and] is likely to create further turbulence and migratory movements in various regions.”

In 2020, The European External Action Service (EEAS) Climate and Defence Roadmap described global climate challenges “as significant threat multipliers and sources of instability,” and stated that “these challenges can become sources of conflict, food insecurity, population displacement, and forced migration.”

Similarly in the U.S., climate change had been mentioned in reports and military circles for years. The CNA Corporation’s National Security and the Threat of Climate Change report warned [pdf] in 2007 that “weakened and failing governments, with an already thin margin for survival, foster the conditions for internal conflicts, extremism, and movement toward increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies.”

More recently, in 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense Climate Risk Analysis stated that climate impacts are “exacerbating existing risks and creating new security challenges for U.S. interests.”

But others view climate change as a direct, immediate threat—rather than a threat multiplier. They see decarbonization as the best option, and militaries’ emissions as part of the problem.

“Climate is therefore a key battleground for different notions of ‘security’, and the military is an interesting microcosm of the bigger argument and struggle between those who say climate can be managed incrementally with the current economic and geopolitical system, and those who say that it can’t,” said Corry. This creates a contradiction, where “decarbonization is a necessity for environmental and societal security, but threatens old-style military security measures and goals,” he added.

Framing climate change as a threat multiplier allows militaries to “justify themselves as even more necessary in an age of climate breakdown,” said Corry. From this vantage point, armed forces and political leaders have greater leverage to increase military spending (as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demonstrated during last year’s COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow) and to receive exemptions from regulations, such as emissions reporting requirements.

Military Emissions Regulations

Military establishments are invariably unwilling to risk any disruptions to their fuel supply and have so far successfully avoided obligations for transparency regarding their “carbon bootprint.” Following strong lobbying by the U.S., the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change did not draft requirements for militaries to report emissions, and the 2015 Paris Agreement also left reducing military emissions “to the discretion of individual nations,” says the Conflict and Environment Observatory. Military emissions were again left out of negotiations during COP 26.

But research groups that use data from the more transparent nations to calculate emissions point to militaries as significant contributors to climate change. In an assessment that includes direct emissions and those from military supply chains, the private defence sector, and other indirect sources of greenhouse gases, Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) estimates that global military emissions account for 5% of the world’s total, or as high as 6% after factoring in emissions from the impacts of war, like deforestation and health care for casualties.

The exemptions mean there is no effective regulatory pressure on military planners to decarbonize. Because their contribution is so significant, military emissions urgently need to be regulated more strictly, says SGR.

“Military carbon emissions matter because they are a potentially large loophole in the Paris targets—especially for the high military spenders like the U.S., China, the United Kingdom, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, and France,” SGR Executive Director Stuart Parkinson, told the Guardian. “With military spending rapidly rising, this loophole is set to grow at a time when other emissions are falling. The seriousness with which these nations deal with the issue will affect action in other sectors and in other nations.”

Reimagining Security

Less than two weeks ago, a devastating report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the “atlas of human suffering” on a rapidly warming planet will include increased conflict, violence, and migration, due to competition for increasingly scarce essentials like food and water.

But “militaries are still working out how to address climate change, partly because it really isn’t primarily a military problem,” Corry told The Mix.

So far, military climate plans focus on adapting to, rather than mitigating, climate impacts, through actions like militarizing borders or fortifying infrastructure to withstand extreme weather. But the adaptive measures favoured by militaries will only benefit the nations undertaking them, while the consequences of the emissions are experienced globally, writes Vox.

By addressing symptoms rather than causes, the military’s climate policies fail to prevent many of the worst-case scenarios they predict will happen. When responses to climate impacts do not rebuild stability, the affected country remains in a vulnerable state for the next impact.

“In already fragile contexts, or places that are already experiencing conflict, a climate shock can exacerbate what’s already happening,” Julia Whiting, a research associate with The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told The Mix.

“Investing in recovery from an event is absolutely crucial to building stronger communities that are better able to withstand both future shocks and also other drivers of conflict,” she added.

Security should be reimagined to emphasize helping communities recover from climate shocks, said Whiting, and could be carried out by non-military institutions that are better equipped to prevent crises and create resilient communities.

This transition seems to be gaining ground with some lawmakers. In the U.S., President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance communicates a wider-lens response to climate impacts, with plans to “provide foreign assistance to promote global stability” and “invest in climate-conscious food and water security and resilient agriculture, preventing disease, and improving public health and nutrition.” The administration is also taking steps to quantify military supply chain emissions, and a letter from 28 senators is calling for an end to the military’s emissions reporting exemptions.

Similarly, the EEAS roadmap aimed “to reduce the emissions in particular in the defence sector as part of the collective effort towards climate neutrality by 2050,” and the Council of the European Union said the EU would “scale up the mobilization of international climate finance, including sustainable finance practices, as a contribution to the transition towards climate neutrality.”

But a lack of promises and policies is not the problem; the problem is that national security protocols are reacting to climate change as something that makes militarization increasingly essential, so that the bold changes announced in forward-looking climate targets are passed over in favour of greater military power. Climate progress slows, and usually fails to spark any systemic changes.

For example, not only do militaries continue to avoid emission cuts while receiving ever-rising budgets, but they also continue allocating significant resources to protecting the fossil fuel industry’s assets. Nearly two-thirds of EU military missions “monitor and secure the production and transport of oil and gas to Europe,” and the U.S. spends “at a minimum, approximately $81 billion per year… protecting global oil supplies.”

In 2014, that reality prompted decorated U.S. military veteran Joseph Kopser to draw a direct line from the 2.9 billion gallons of fuel that American drivers were idling away in congestion each year to the U.S. service members who “were paying for that oil with their blood and lives.” Kopser came to define that human impact as the “fully burdened cost of transportation.”

The friends and colleagues assigned to protect Iraqi oil fields, refineries, depots, and pipelines “were escorting fuel conveys through some of the most hostile territory in the country, in what came to be known as one of the most dangerous assignments of the war, full of roadside IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” he wrote at the time. “Back in the States, I saw millions of dollars’ worth of fuel being wasted by inefficient generators and vehicles—the very fuel we were there to protect.”

Years later, Biden’s interim guidance sets ambitious whole-of-government goals. But his recent executive order outlining emission reduction commitments for all agencies included exemptions for agency activities and personnel working in the interest of national security, and machinery or equipment used in combat or military operations.

Furthermore, attempts to mobilize international finance are not being pursued. During the drafting of the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) attempted to allocate 1% of the proposed US$768 billion military budget to “invest in global climate assistance and help address the climate crisis around the globe.”

The proposal was not accepted.

To more effectively build global security against climate impacts, “a really important step would be allocating quite a few of those billions to non-defence government agencies,” Whiting suggested. “We can still be spending on defence, but understand that spending on defence also means helping communities make it through a major drought.”

Meanwhile, military expenditures continue rising and vulnerable countries wait to receive loss and damage funds, the annual total of which would amount to just 13% of the NDAA’s US$768.2-billion price tag.