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Opinion: To Save The Planet, Cut The Pentagon

For just over 10% of a single year's military spending, we could build enough green electricity for every household in the country.

Posted on September 20, 2019, at 3:21 p.m. ET

Olivier Laban-mattei / AFP / Getty Images

In any given week, climate crisis–fueled storms, floods, wildfires, or droughts are wreaking havoc around the world. But unlike in 2016, when it didn’t merit a single question in presidential debates, climate change is a central issue going into 2020. A solid majority of voters now express support for the transformative Green New Deal framework, and 2020 contenders are competing in televised town halls to compare climate platforms.

On the Democratic side, presidential contenders are promising to throw serious resources at the threat — from $2 trillion to $16.3 trillion over the next decade — and getting pointed about how to pay for it, following the lead of climate activists who have long targeted the fossil fuel industry and Wall Street as profiteers who must pay for solutions to their pollution.

But there’s another big obstacle to a truly green economy: the Pentagon. As the single largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world, the United States military has an enormous “carbon bootprint.” If it were a country, its fuel use alone would make it the 47th-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, between Peru and Portugal.

And for much of the past century, a major function of the military has been to secure access for US-based companies to fossil fuel resources in the Middle East and elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine how to “green” the US’s fossilized war machine without fundamentally questioning its purpose in a 21st century defined by the need for international cooperation against the climate crisis.

Then there’s the money.

Our military, with its corporate contractors and massive bureaucracy, routinely spends over half of the federal government’s annual discretionary budget. At $716 billion last year, the US military budget is bigger than those of 144 countries combined. The Poor People’s Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies recently calculated that the US could safely cut as much as $350 billion from the Pentagon’s current spending and still be left with a bigger military budget than China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea combined.

That’s a lot of money that could be reinvested in other priorities like a Green New Deal — enough not just to help ward off the worst climate catastrophes, but to actually improve living conditions for the many who are suffering in today’s economy.

For instance, just 11% of the Pentagon’s current annual budget — about $80 billion — could produce enough wind and solar energy to power every one of the almost 128 million households in the United States. As renewables get cheaper, that fraction gets even smaller. And with the right kind of regulatory structures, zero-carbon renewable electricity could effectively be made free after the initial investment of construction.

There are other costs associated with shifting to fossil-free electricity, of course — like developing battery storage, a resilient smart grid to transmit energy across large regions, and other sources of carbon-free energy like geothermal and tidal. But even accounting for these, one estimate calculates the total cost of shifting our electricity to 100% renewable energy over 10 years at $4.5 trillion. That’s still less than the $6 trillion that we’ve spent on almost two decades of endless wars waged since 9/11.

Then there are the jobs. The Pentagon is effectively the US’s biggest federal jobs program; many communities depend on the secure employment that’s available in various sectors of the military-industrial complex, including the armed forces themselves.

But direct public job creation in low-carbon sectors of the economy, like education, health care, and clean energy, would have much greater positive economic impacts per tax dollar than war-related jobs. The military creates about seven jobs per $1 million of spending, according to a study from the Costs of War Project, while clean energy and infrastructure each support 10 jobs, health care supports 14, and education supports 15. No wonder Green New Deal advocates support a public jobs guarantee as part of the framework.

Everything we need to transform the US to a green economy is technically and economically feasible. But our government’s enormous and unnecessary military expenditures, which are now approaching World War II–era levels, have warped our sense of what's possible. That’s tricked us for decades into believing we can't afford to make big investments in improving our lives or keeping our planet habitable.

But skimping on the survival of human civilization isn’t an option. Inaction on climate change could soon cost the gross domestic product on the scale of five Great Recessions per year — supposing that economic modeling is even equipped to calculate the costs of an uninhabitable Earth.

The good news is we know exactly where to find the funds. As campaign season carries on, more candidates — and voters — need to start connecting climate survival to demilitarization.

Ashik Siddique is a researcher for the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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