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How the US military fuels climate change

A photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows an F/A-18E Super Hornet landing on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan, as USS Nimitz steams alongside in the South China Sea, on July 6, 2020.SPECIALIST 2ND CLASS SAMANTHA JETZER/NYT

Senate Democrats are scrambling to find a path forward for the biggest climate spending package in US history after Senator Manchin pulled his support last weekend.

But last week, the Senate passed another piece of legislation that could quietly have massive implications for the climate: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which funds and sets the budget for the military.

The measure, which was approved by the House earlier this month, authorizes $768.2 billion in defense spending, which is $25 billion more than requested by President Biden in his fiscal 2022 budget. It will now go to Biden’s desk for final approval, where it is expected to pass, increasing the defense budget by 5% from last year.


The US Department of Defense is the largest institutional greenhouse gas polluter in the world. Thanks to its bases and vast fleets of aircraft carriers, jets, drones, and trucks, it is also the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the federal government, using more oil and gas than the entire countries of Sweden and Denmark, according to a landmark 2019 study.

Though the exact climate implications of the new bill aren’t known, research shows that increased spending is likely to increase emissions.

“Roughly speaking, military emissions are likely to grow as military budgets grow,” Symon Hill, campaigns manager with the non-governmental organization Peace Pledge Union, said.

The legislation does include some climate provisions, including the requirement that the Defense Department issue a report on its total greenhouse gas emissions for each of the last 10 years. But some climate advocates say these steps aren’t enough. They’re calling to cut the military budget and redirect funds to climate action instead.

Last month, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would redirect $7.6 billion of the Department of Defense’s “bloated budget” — or 1% — to invest in global climate aid.


“Driven by the climate crisis, water, food, and resource scarcity will lead millions to flood across borders as stateless climate refugees,” he said in an emailed statement. “Increasing the amount authorized for global climate accounts will help developing countries become more resilient to climate change, save lives, reduce emissions, and deploy clean energy technologies to reduce a key national security risk to the United States.”

Markey’s provision did not make it into the final text, but another amendment Markey sponsored — requiring the Pentagon to submit annual briefings on its emissions reduction plans — is now law.

In an emailed statement, the defense department noted that it already provides reports on its greenhouse gas emissions to Congress, stating that “arguably the Department is one of the more transparent militaries in the world.” It also said it leads federal agencies in its portfolio of sustainable and efficient buildings, and presides over an array of clean energy projects.

But despite its massive impact, the military has been excepted from decarbonization policies. Earlier this month, President Biden passed an executive order that requires all government agencies to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050, yet exemptions are allowed for military operations. A similar Obama-era order included a similar exemption.

The US is also not required to include military-related emissions in international climate agreements. Patrick Bigger, a senior climate fellow at the think tank Climate and Community Project who co-authored the 2019 study, said this accountability problem dates back to 1997′s international climate talks in Kyoto, Japan.


“One of the major impacts of those negotiations was that … there was an explicit carve-out for militaries to not have to report their carbon emissions to the UN, let alone reduce them,” he said. The US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but the provision was largely the result of US lobbying.

When world leaders met in 2015 to negotiate the Paris Climate Accord, they technically removed the exemption. But rather than requiring countries to report military emissions, they made it voluntary. Only a handful of countries have opted in.

At COP26, activists held protests and town hall meetings to pressure leaders to remove the exemption, but their calls were ignored. The Glasgow Pact leaves it intact.

“No serious response to the climate crisis [can fail] to hold accountable the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels,” said Ramon Mejía, Iraq war veteran and organizer with Grassroots Global Justice Alliance who attended the protests at COP26. “We must divest from a war-fueling, extractive economy and invest in a life-sustaining, regenerative one.”

For its part, the Department of Defense has taken some steps to reduce its climate impact. In 2020, the agency announced that it had cut its carbon emissions by 23% relative to 2008 levels. But Lindsay Koshgarian, Program Director of the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies noted that 2008 was the “height of the war on terror,” which has since wound down significantly, so a big drop in emissions since then isn’t surprising.


As the LA Times noted this year, those figures also didn’t include ships, aircrafts, or combat vehicles, all of which are major greenhouse gas sources. They also don’t include the many corporations that produce supplies for the military, though in an email, the Department of Defense noted that it this year began a process to “work with major suppliers” to address supply chain emissions.

In October, the agency released a new climate adaptation plan. The department is also developing a new “sustainability plan” and “pushing toward net zero emissions by 2050,” deputy secretary of defense Kathleen Hicks said earlier this month. Yet the Pentagon has placed far more emphasis on preparing for climate change as a national security threat than on helping to prevent it. A recent report found that the US already spends more on border security than on climate aid.

Consequences of global warming, including scarce natural resources and more extreme weather, could increase the risk of violent conflict and generally provoke global unrest. Bigger said the Defense Department’s emissions are perpetuating those risks.

“Just because emissions come from the tailpipe of a F-15 fighter jet doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to the laws of physics,” said Bigger.


At COP26, a group of UK-based scientists launched a project dedicated to consolidating estimates of governments’ military emissions. They are calling on all governments to begin tracking and reporting these emissions to the UN by next year while committing to reduce armed forces’ emissions to keep pace with the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement.

Bigger says there are ample ways for the Pentagon to shrink its carbon footprint, starting with reducing excesses. “You don’t need that many A-10 warthog flights, for instance,” he said. “The volume of waste that the US military produces every year, is just astonishing.”

Koshgarian said that some aspects of the military’s massive carbon footprint simply can’t be greened.

“One of the biggest sources of the military’s emissions if not the biggest is its use of jet fuel. There’s no green alternative to jet fuel that we have today,” she said. “The idea is we should reduce its overall footprint ... and cut the budget.”

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.