Climate Change, the Pentagon, and the Costs of War: Reflection on a February 2020 MAPA Event

MAPA Update March 2020

Climate Change and War
Climate Change and War

by Paula Gutlove and Gordon Thompson


MAPA has a Peace and Climate Working Group that focuses on connections between peace-building and climate protection. Members of the group see climate and peace issues as inseparable and interrelated. Climate change contributes significantly to unrest and the risk of war. At the same time, war and militarism contribute to environmental destruction and climate chaos.  Hence, the climate crisis and militarism must be addressed together. To that end, the P&C working group seeks to engage peace and climate activists in collaborative efforts to promote climate protection, social justice, and peace-building.  

The February 2020 Event

The P&C Working Group hosted a public event on Feb 11th, 2020, at the Cambridge Public Library, Central Square. Its purpose was to bring together climate and peace activists to examine the relationship between climate change and the US military. The event featured a presentation by Neta Crawford, professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Boston University, and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University. The title of Crawford’s talk was: Climate Change, the Pentagon, and the Costs of War

Professor Crawford’s talk was followed by dialogue with participants. Then, comments were provided by representatives of local climate-action groups: Caitlin Scarpelli (Sunrise Boston); Eleanor Elektra (Extinction Rebellion); and Ken Kronenberg (350 Mass.). These comments were followed by further general dialogue. Rosalie Anders, MAPA board member and co-chair of the P&C Working Group, was the moderator. 

The event was attended by a standing-room-only crowd of about 100 people. It was co-sponsored by a wide range of peace and climate groups including: Sunrise Boston; 350 Mass.; Biodiversity for a Livable Climate; Elders Climate Action; Mothers Out Front; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility; Dorchester People for Peace; and Jewish Climate Action Network. Bringing together this broad coalition acknowledged the crucial synergies between peace and climate activism, and showcased the cooperation needed to gain traction in these important areas.

Professor Crawford’s Presentation

Neta Crawford
Neta Crawford

The basis for professor Crawford’s talk was her June 2019 paper (updated in November 2019) titled: “Climate Change, Pentagon Fuel Use, and the Costs of War“.  In an essay based on the paper, Crawford says: “Scientists and security analysts have warned for more than a decade that global warming is a potential national security concern. They project that the consequences of global warming – rising seas, powerful storms, famine and diminished access to fresh water – may make regions of the world politically unstable and prompt mass migration and refugee crises. Some worry that wars may follow. Yet, with few exceptions, the U.S. military’s significant contribution to climate change has received little attention.  Although the Defense Department has significantly reduced its fossil fuel consumption since the early 2000s, it remains the world’s single largest consumer of oil – and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters…the Department of Defense is the U.S. government’s largest fossil fuel consumer, accounting for between 77% and 80% of all federal government energy consumption since 2001.”

Crawford discusses climate change in the context of “real and present dangers”.  In the above-mentioned essay, Crawford says: “The Pentagon’s core mission is to prepare for potential attacks by human adversaries.  Analysts argue about the likelihood of war and the level of military preparation necessary to prevent it, but in my view, none of the United States’ adversaries – Russia, Iran, China and North Korea – are certain to attack the United States.  Nor is a large standing military the only way to reduce the threats these adversaries pose.  Arms control and diplomacy can often de-escalate tensions and reduce threats.  Economic sanctions can diminish the capacity of states and non-state actors to threaten the security interests of the U.S. and its allies.  In contrast, climate change is not a potential risk.  It has begun, with real consequences to the United States.  Failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will make the nightmare scenarios strategists warn against – perhaps even “climate wars” – more likely.”

Despite this bleak picture, Crawford sees reasons for optimism.  In her talk she described a visit to Totnes, a “Transition Town” in the UK.  In Totnes, a community-led and run local initiative seeks to strengthen the local economy, reduce its environmental impact, and build resilience for a future with more expensive energy and a changing climate.  Totnes is a part of a Transition Network that includes Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Crawford also drew attention to the Global Ecovillage Network, which aims to empower citizens and communities to design and implement pathways to a regenerative future.  These local initiatives make Crawford optimistic because she sees activism happening on a local level all over the globe.  “The revolution is local” she advised, saying that local action is key, and is occurring everywhere.  Action is empowering youth, women, and diverse communities.  Professor Crawford concluded her remarks by saying we are at “a moment that we have been preparing for” for the last 60 years. 

Comments by Climate Activists

Following professor Crawford’s presentation, Rosalie Anders introduced three climate-action speakers: Caitlin Scarpelli of Sunrise Boston; Eleanor Elektra of Extinction Rebellion; and Ken Kronenberg of 350 Mass.  Each person spoke briefly about their organization’s mission and activities, and engaged with other participants in discussion about climate action and peace action more broadly.  

Caitlin Scarpelli spoke of her personal connections to peace and climate before discussing the work of Sunrise. She has family members in the US military, has seen climate refugees in Greece, and has researched environmental mediation in post-conflict contexts in Vietnam and elsewhere. Sunrise points to such connections in its efforts to make addressing climate change an urgent priority, while creating good jobs in the process. 

Eleanor Elektra explained that Extinction Rebellion (XR) engages with climate crisis through civil disobedience. She highlighted their three demands: tell the truth; act now; and include a citizen’s assembly in the agenda for addressing the climate crisis. 

Ken Kronenberg of 350 Mass. focused his remarks on connections between local environmental efforts and the geopolitics of energy.  Noting his involvement with local groups to stop construction of a gas compressor station in Weymouth, MA, he outlined his research on how international conflict related to natural gas pipelines could promote war.  Kronenberg noted that 350 Mass. is a statewide volunteer network dedicated to advancing a fair and speedy transition beyond fossil fuels toward a 100% clean, renewable, and just energy future. 

The audience discussion that followed these comments was lively and insightful.  Connections were made between the carbon footprint of the US military and US foreign policy, which tasks the military with securing access to fossil fuels.  Also discussed were the connections between climate change – and the associated competition for resources and growing inequality – with political instability, violent conflict, and war.  For more on the connections between climate change and peace, audience members were referred to a recently published essay by MAPA P&C Working Group co-chair, Nick Rabb, titled “Climate Change – The Missing Peace“.

When asked how to turn fear and despair into hope, the climate activists echoed Crawford’s words on optimism, noting that taking action is empowering.  Scarpelli and Elektra articulated the value of productive community engagement, noting that the best way to redirect despair is through productive actions.  They emphasized the need to seek knowledge, not only about our challenges, but also about resources that we can use to address these challenges together.  They noted that one of the biggest and most valuable resources activists have is an ability to create community through action.  Scarpelli concluded: “We are stronger together.  When we come together in collective action to make change, that’s when we feel our best, and that is also when we have the greatest impact.”

The enthusiasm and applause at the close of the event underscored the audience’s agreement and commitment to go forward, as climate activists and peace activists, together. 

—Paula Gutlove and Gordon Thompson are members of MAPA’s Peace and Climate Working Group.  They work at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies.