The Military Industrial Complex & The Climate Crisis

As President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961, he delivered a farewell speech. He warned, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Ironically, during his presidency Eisenhower contributed to the ramping up of the Cold War, which solidified this problem into being. The massive scope of the US military and its grasp on the economy has become exponentially worse over the last 60 years. While Eisenhower may have done too little too late to reverse this problem, there are steps we can take today to solve it. 

In 2021, the United States spent $801 billion on defense, more than the next nine countries combined. The US has 750 bases in 80 countries around the globe, and as of 2020, 173,000 American troops were deployed to 159 countries. To support America’s imperialist reach, defense industries have grown tremendously. The top five largest military service companies worldwide (Lockheed Martin Corporation, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and General Dynamics Corporation) are located in the United States. The arms sales from these five companies totaled $183.4 billion in 2020. 

Because of its size, the US military is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses. Immense amounts of energy are used to power its vehicles, which include trucks, tanks, cargo planes, fighter jets, container ships, and aircraft carriers. They also carry out hugely varied operations ranging from surveillance to bombing campaigns. However, the US Armed Forces are exempt from reporting the full scope of their emissions due to inadequate regulations. They are only required to report fuel usage emissions to the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program, but the picture remains incomplete. This lack of data makes it difficult to discern just how vast the environmental impacts really are. 

Despite the uncertainties, journalists and researchers have unearthed some figures. They found that the US Armed Forces is the largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons in the world. If it were a country, the military would be the 47th largest global emitter, situated between Bangladesh and Romania. The Costs of War Project found that US military pollution accounted for 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is equivalent to 257 million cars. According to Durham University and Lancaster University, in 2017 the US military purchased about 269,230 barrels of oil a day. By burning those fuels, the military emitted over 25,000 kilotons of CO2

US Army veteran and author Erik Edstrom served in Afghanistan before becoming an outspoken critic of the military’s irresponsible use of fossil fuels. He urges that to avoid consistently underestimating emissions totals, the Department of Defense must be required to report all of its emissions, including those related to its complex supply chain. This includes day-to-day operations, supporting US military bases, and the research, development, and manufacturing of defense equipment and technology. 

The issues concerning military emissions might seem far removed, but the military-industrial complex is alive and well in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is home to six military installations which are closely tied to the local economy: Barnes Air National Guard Base, Fort Devens, Hanscom Air Force Base, Joint Base Cape Cod, U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, and Westover Air Reserve Base. In 2021, 23,304 personnel were employed at these locations, with a total payroll of $1.2 billion. 

Defense contractors such as weapons manufacturers and military technology companies also play a major role. In 2021, Massachusetts ranked seventh among the states in defense contract spending—totalling $21.3 billion dollars. This makes up 3.2% of the state’s GDP and accounts for 3.8% of total US defense spending. The top ten defense contractors in Massachusetts in 2021 were Moderna, Inc (an anomaly due to military funding of COVID-19 vaccination efforts), Raytheon Technologies, General Electric, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Lincoln Laboratory), General Dynamics, Draper Laboratory, MITRE, Noble Sales & Logistics, L3Harris Technologies, and Brighton Marine Health Center. Other contractors which made the top ten list nationally and have facilities in Massachusetts include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Huntington Ingalls. 

Universities in Massachusetts also play a role in this problem. One way is by investing in the defense industry via their endowments. Reciprocally, the military funds research which is used to advance the military-industrial complex, despite universities often positioning themselves as forces for peace. In 2022, the Department of Defense gave out $195 million in Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative awards. Of the 28 research teams given funding, four were from MIT, two from Harvard and Tufts, and one was from Boston University, Northeastern, Boston College, UMass Dartmouth, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Universities also invite defense contractors to career fairs which funnels students into the field, particularly those who study engineering. The US military’s tendrils have a grasp on so many aspects of society, which deeply implicates Massachusetts in its catastrophic climate effects. 

Top defense officials acknowledge the dangers of climate change despite taking few steps to reduce their role in causing it. In a 2021 report, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said, “to keep the nation secure, we must tackle the existential threat of climate change.” The military sees climate change as a “threat multiplier” which will make other threats worse. This has encouraged some investment in research and adoption of renewables. But, because of the existing infrastructure the military has already invested in and its commitment to ongoing operations around the globe, they will continue to overuse fossil fuels for decades to come. 

While the solutions are not easy, it is clear that steps must be taken. Dr. Neimark of Durham University advised, “An important way to cool off the furnace of the climate emergency is to turn off vast sections of the military machine.” Congress must drastically reduce the military’s budget to scale back its operations. Funding should be redirected to meaningful efforts to prevent and mitigate climate change. There also must be a focus on protecting vulnerable environmental justice communities both in America and across the globe, especially since so many have been displaced due to US intervention and numbers of climate refugees will continue to increase. Policy-wise, a law should require the military to report on all of its emissions so that it can be held fully accountable for the damage caused. On a more local level in Massachusetts, institutions need to recognize their role in the environmental destruction caused by the military-industrial complex. The IPCC warns that humanity has ten years left to reverse climate change before it is too late. To achieve this goal, dismantling the military-industrial complex globally, nationally, and locally will be an essential step. 


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