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Militarism and Climate Change – The Elephant in the Living Room

17 minutes to read

The belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests.

- Definition of militarism, The Oxford Dictionaries

Militarism is a complex social and cultural phenomenon rooted in the tradition of the use of violence for the ‘resolution’ of conflicts and stands for the upkeep of military forces, trained to use extreme violence and destruction. It is entrenched in cultural believes, language and notions like patriotism, identity and morality, in hidden power structures that make us accept militarism as well as in open practises like weapon toys, camouflage clothing or media and entertainment.

Militarism is accompanied by many forms of violence, like ecological violence (which refers to particular damage of ecosystems from armed conflict), predatory industries, cultural violence (which is aimed at dehumanising opponents) and structural violence (which is directed at weakening economic systems to erode adversaries’ bases of existence). All of these aspects collude to the detriment of our natural environment.

There is lots of political discussion and concern about armed conflicts’ repercussions on human society and economy, but almost nobody has made the case that climate change and warfare are siblings. This might be due to the secretiveness and concealment of military operations, bases and other facilities which are often exempt from environmental laws as well as from the accountability and transparency that are used for other governmental actors, in the name of national security.

Worldwide militarism is responsible for enormous greenhouse emissions and waste of energy. How much harm is done to our natural environment can only be estimated, but there are voices that regard militarism as the largest polluter on the planet.


Part 1 – The Military-Industrial-Media and Entertainment Complex (MIMEC)

The military-industrial complex is a physical manifestation of militarism. It includes ground forces, navies, air forces, military intelligence and the industries that supply all of these troops with weapons, ammunition, vehicles, fuel, infrastructure, accommodation, foodstuffs and all the other goods and services that armed forces need. This politico-economic entity profits from militarism and consequently has vested interests in its continuation as well as the promotion of ‘defence’ spending. It is closely linked with politics, business and industry, especially the arms and polluting industry of oil, vehicles and nuclear energy.

After the Gulf War the term military-industrial complex was merged with media and entertainment. The ‘military-industrial media and entertainment complex’ (MIMEC) takes account of militarism’s newly evolved tentacles in the media and entertainment industry: the fusion of creation, presentation and execution of violent conflict within MIMEC. In the last decades there has been a convergence of the reality and virtuality of war and it became increasingly difficult to map its consequences for human imitational inclinations and abilities. This militarisation in the mass media is conducted in secretive ways, mostly through selective presentation of information. Beginning after the Second World War, the press, radio networks and television industry became more and more integrated within MIMEC, allowing it to advertise all kinds of military activities as unavoidable or even desirable. After the Gulf War the Bush Administration openly declared that television was its “chief tool” in creating domestic and international support and that they wanted to show “something that is very black and white (…) that can be explained very quickly”.  The Gulf War coverage was 24 hours live, sponsored by Exxon and General Electric. The huge power of MIMEC over the mass media is expressed in a quote of Lawrence Grossman, the former president of PBS and NBC News:  “The job of the President is to set the agenda and the job of the press is to follow the agenda that the leadership sets.”

All of this raises the question if it is the people represented by their governments who determine military policy and spending or if it is actually MIMEC corporations that are supposedly providing defence equipment.


The great economic power that MIMEC wields becomes obvious when we look at its ties to the World Bank and IMF. These organisations have a history of paradoxically promoting military spending through austerity measures. A practical tool for these ambiguous proceedings is Article XXI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which offers a carte blanche for deals made in the ‘interest of national security’. A recent example for contradictory austerity measures was the dictate of the IMF and European financial elites for Greece to spend huge amounts of its scarce budget on armament, making it one of the world’s biggest weapons importers in the world, while undermining democratic processes.

Competition in military markets is usually low because of the technological complexity of modern weapons and the preference of most states to buy from domestic suppliers. This lack of competition and a high politicisation of the financing often make military equipment purchased by national governments exceedingly expensive and of questionable value to national security. 

Between the year 2001 and 2011 global military spending surged by more than 90% reaching a new record since the Second World War with $1.756 trillion USD between 2011 and 2012. It is striking that the 15 states with highest military spending have a share of almost 80% of global expenditures.


For comparison, at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, developed countries committed to paying 100 billion USD annually by 2020 in the Green Climate Fund. Compared to global annual military spending this is but a few per cent. Why is military spending (still) prioritised over funding initiatives for the environment, climate mitigation and adaption? Political action and funding in the last decades have been totally inadequate to reverse the negative environmental trends.

It looks like unless states significantly reduce their military spending the next big fight over the fate of the planet will be lost by all, even without actual hostilities.

Part 2 - Militarism’s Impact on the Environment

It is obvious that during active combat fighter jets, destroyers, tanks and whole arsenals of other weapon systems are extremely carbon-intensive and often discharge other highly toxic emissions, not to mention the emissions that are released by oil fires. Even though this causes catastrophic devastation throughout the biosphere the active hostilities are only responsible for a fraction of the actual damage to the environment.

What has mostly destroyed our natural environment and is still active in its destruction is the spread of industrial and military methods and mentalities especially in production, hindering natural processes, upsetting local ecological balances and increasing human exploitation all over the world. Today the borders of war and peace are blurred. The Industrial Revolution and the World Wars, among others, changed human society and drastically increased industrial production. This new behaviour is essentially different in regards to consumerism and energy consumption with connections to fossil fuels, deforestation, toxic waste and general pollution.

The International Peace Bureau lists a number of direct ways in which military activity affects our physical environment:

  • Pollution of the air, land and water in peacetime
  • Immediate and long-term effects of armed conflict (explosions, landmines, unexploded remnants, chemical weapons, burning oil wells and oil spills, etc.)
  • Land use (vast areas of land and water occupied by military bases, target ranges, weapon stores, training grounds; pollution and degradation from storage, deforestation, scorched earth tactics, etc.)
  • Weapons development and production (design, development, manufacturing, tests, storage, transport, disposal, etc.)
  • Militarisation of outer space (rocket launches, missile systems and satellites, space littering)

Additionally, indirect effects through the diversion of resources have to be taken into account.

In fact, the environmental (and human) sufferings created by militarism are so extensive that a complete examination would produce countless volumes.


Special attention has to be paid to the huge and permanent costs of maintaining military equipment and personnel, who require housing, infrastructure, heating, air conditioning, transport, nourishment and many other goods and services. The production of military equipment consumes enormous amounts of materials, like metal, rubber, plastics and rare earths. Also there is massive energy usage involved, mostly from unsustainable resources. Nuclear weapons are particular heavyweights in production and maintenance, not to speak of their dismantling.

When there is no actual combat, 70% of soldiers’ activities are military exercises and training, consuming vast amounts of ammunition and fuel and disrupting local ecosystems. Also, military material and technology is by no means faultless and accidents occur regularly.


When all the facts above are taken into account it seems quite possible that militarism is the biggest contributor to climate change with its massive GHG emissions, destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, massive waste of energy supplies, huge impacts on social, cultural and economic behaviour, destabilisation of international politics and obstruction of climate policies. Consequently, there can be no successful overcoming the climate crisis without peace and dismantling MIMEC.


Part 3 - The US Military’s Addiction to Oil

Within MIMEC the US Department of Defense (DoD) is the largest polluter and waster. Although data is generally hard to come by, it reportedly burns at least a startling 365,000 barrels of oil daily (other estimations amount to 500,000 barrels). Per year this is a usage of unimaginable 20 billion litres (5.46 billion gallons). To make matters worse, this number might include neither fuel consumed by contractors or in leased and privatised facilities nor the excessive energy and resources used to produce and maintain weapons and equipment. It has been calculated that about one third of the total US military spending just accounts for securing energy supplies worldwide. Bearing in mind that the data from the pentagon are possibly even undervalued, it is clear that the USA is a hopeless oil addict, making the US military the largest institutional source of greenhouse gases.

The DoD is alone responsible for about 35% of global military expenditures. Including the costs of bygone wars, the USA is spending 40% (almost 1 trillion USD) of its annual budget on militarisation. This imbalanced spending has dire consequences for programs addressing climate change, education, healthcare, culture, preventing war or reducing income inequality. It is troubling that the US Government Accountability Office has not been able to audit the DoD for the last 20 years and deems it to be of high risk for waste, fraud and abuse.


US Federal Government Expenditures 2014

View image: US military spendings

Friends Committee on National Legislation calculations based on estimated Fiscal Year 2015 expenditures reported by the White House Office of Management and Budget in Fiscal Year 2016 budget documents, released February 2, 2015.[1]Friends Committee on National Legislation Website, Where do our 2014 income tax dollars go?, available at http://fcnl.org/assets/flyer/FCNL_Taxes13_final.pdf (consulted 28.05.2015)Friends Committee on National Legislation Website, Where do our 2014 income tax dollars go?, available at http://fcnl.org/assets/flyer/FCNL_Taxes13_final.pdf (consulted 28.05.2015)


This serious diversion from better use is obvious and weighs even heavier when one compares the annual subsidies to fossil fuel industries (37,5 billion USD) to (only non-binding) pledges for long-term climate finance (1,5 billion USD).

Interestingly, already in 1992 the UN Secretariat estimated the annual costs for effectively preserving the environment (and securing development) to be 1000 billion USD, back then the almost exact amount the world spent per year for military defence. Today the ratios surely have changed (and probably for the worse, since delayed climate investments have to be far bigger), but it is unthinkable to curb climate change without a fundamental redirection of the financial and material resources that are being wasted on the illusion of military security. An illusion because modern weapons are a main threat to all life forms and life-supporting systems.

Comparing the graphs of rising GHG emissions and the US military expenditures, one can find similarities. The rise of GHG emissions and military spending reflects a connection between growing militarisation and global warming.

Greenhouse Gas Concentrations                                      


View image: GHG emissions table 1 1



Atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2, green), methane (CH4, orange) and nitrous oxide (N2O, red) determined from ice core data (dots) and from direct measurements (lines)[2]IPCC Synthesis Report, Climate Change 2014, p. 3.IPCC Synthesis Report, Climate Change 2014, p. 3..


 US Military Expenditures 1900 – 2007 

View image: US military spending new

Expenditures are measured in constant 1990 international Geary-Khamis dollars and come from the Correlates of War data set (see http://www.correlatesofwar.org/)[3]Jorgenson et al, The Environmental Impacts of Militarization in Comparative Perspective: An Overlooked Relationship, in Nature and Culture, pp.314-337, Vol.7, No.3, Winter 2012. p.321.Jorgenson et al, The Environmental Impacts of Militarization in Comparative Perspective: An Overlooked Relationship, in Nature and Culture, pp.314-337, Vol.7, No.3, Winter 2012. p.321..


The USA was so bold to demand the inclusion of a provision exempting its military activities from measurement and reductions worldwide before signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. But even after seizing this concession the Bush Administration refused to sign the protocol. Furthermore, the US Congress adopted a provision guaranteeing the US military forces immunity from any measurement or energy consumption limits. The executive order from President Obama for federal agencies to reduce their GHG emissions (only by 2020) does not apply to the US military and leaves it free from any climate responsibility.

The US military has often been criticised on the basis of the treadmill of destruction theory. The treadmill of destruction is closely intertwined with the treadmill of production (which is concerned with the capitalistic growth imperative that creates a perpetual conflict between human societies and the environment) but generates distinct tendencies of growth, requiring extreme amounts of capital, energy and raw materials, thus creating a path dependency.

In recent times, militarism’s aspect of defence has been increasingly invoked in relation to neo-colonialism and acquiring natural resources like oil. It is a fact that nations with larger and advanced militaries regularly use their coercive power to obtain disproportionate access to natural resources, predominantly in the global South. Geopolitical competition between states often drives arms races, which in turn boost technological developments, which in consequence enhance the damaging capabilities of military forces. Since the Second World War the military was promoted into the political and economic elites, rooting the treadmill of destruction in national and international politics. This is particularly true for the situation of the USA where military production averted economic stagnation and supported the entire economic structure. Military spending is perfectly suited for the capitalist growth system, pumping capital into private production, distributing income upward and always finding a market, if not producing its own. Militarism influences the willingness and timing of states to ratify environmental treaties, as was obvious from the USA’s behaviour in the Kyoto negotiations.

Access to oil has become a fundamental motive for wars (and not only for the USA), in which massive amounts of oil are burned, aggravating climate change. The huge reliance of militaries on fossil fuels and their enormous contributions to burn it quickly conclude “a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.”


To sum up, it seems neither equitable, nor just or fair for the world’s militaries to consume fuel and energy without scrutiny, to discharge tremendous amounts of greenhouse and highly toxic emissions without regulation, to divert financial resources needed for climate mitigation as well as adaption and to continue unchecked on a path toward catastrophic climate change.


Militarism is an aberration and a system of dysfunction. Militarism should be outdated and disappear - like hanging and flogging.

- Maguire, Mairead, ‘Militarism Should be Suppressed Like Hanging and Flogging’, in Inter Press Service, 18.08.2014.


  1. ^ Friends Committee on National Legislation Website, Where do our 2014 income tax dollars go?, available at http://fcnl.org/assets/flyer/FCNL_Taxes13_final.pdf (consulted 28.05.2015)
  2. ^ IPCC Synthesis Report, Climate Change 2014, p. 3.
  3. ^ Jorgenson et al, The Environmental Impacts of Militarization in Comparative Perspective: An Overlooked Relationship, in Nature and Culture, pp.314-337, Vol.7, No.3, Winter 2012. p.321.