Governments rifling their pockets for climate funding should take a hard look at their military budgets, which absorb 30 times more revenue than climate finance while contributing 5.5% of global emissions, said social justice advocates attending the United Nations climate conference in Dubai.
Emissions aside, there is an urgent need to address the nexus between military spending and gender-based violence, panelists told an official COP28 side event, held one day after the launch of the Declaration on Climate Relief, Recovery and Peace.
Despite its focus on increasing efforts to make conflicted-affected countries more climate resilient, the declaration “completely neglects” to mention that “rampant militarization” is “one of the root causes of both the climate crisis and conflict,” said moderator Michelle Benzing, an environmental consultant with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which co-hosted the panel with Tipping Point North South (TPNS) and Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Military Spending and Emissions
The global military is a driver of the climate crisis, contributing 5.5% to the world’s annual climate pollution, and that figure does not include conflict emissions, Benzing said. “Estimates put Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in its first year as comparable with the greenhouse gas emissions of a country the size of Belgium,” she added. “We are still awaiting the data on Gaza.”
And yet, reporting military emissions is voluntary under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), so most countries decline to share the data, citing strategic interests. The result is a lack of accountability and transparency, Benzing said.
TPNS co-founder Deborah Burton noted that the 5.5% of global emissions coming from militaries is more than civilian aviation and shipping combined, and there is a clear correlation between being a big military spender and being a top emitter. The world’s top seven military spenders are the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Germany—and all of them among the top 10 historical emitters.
Military Budgets Exceed Climate Financing
Global military spending hit a “record high” in 2022, at US$2.2 trillion, Burton said. By 2030, that number will be “approximately $13 trillion,” she asserted, with the G20 accounting for roughly 87% of the total. Burton asked participants to imagine what communities seeking climate finance “could do with just 10%, 20%, 30% or more of that $13 trillion.”
The world’s richest countries are “indeed, spending 30 times as much on their armed forces as they are spending on providing climate finance for the world’s most vulnerable countries,” Burton said, citing a 2022 report by TPNS and The Transnational Institute (TNI).
A follow-up analysis by TPNS and TNI showed that if NATO succeeds in its push to ensure member countries earmark 2% of their GDP for military spending, $2.57 trillion will be diverted away from climate spending by 2028. “This would be enough to pay for climate adaptation costs for all low- and middle-income countries for seven years.”
“Has the time come for civil society to up the ante on calling for cuts, not increases, to military spending on the grounds of both emissions and climate finance?” Burton asked.
And “has the time come for us all to expect a progressive transformation of foreign and defence policy through the lens of the climate emergency, one that is fit for the 21st century and generations to come?”
Climate is a Military Concern
Failing to answer “yes” to these questions amounts to a miscalculation of risk, given that “the risk of climate change is 100%, whereas the risk of war at any one time is actually low,” said panelist Neta Crawford, Montague Burton Chair in International Relations at Oxford University.
Ironically, military establishments increasing understanding climate change as a security threat, which potentially gives “carte blanche to the military to increase their role,” Crawford warned. Such an expansion bodes ill for people and the planet.
Citing the Philippines’ plans to build four new military bases under an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States in 2014 (bringing the total to nine), youth climate activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan said the installations pose severe environmental hazards. Biodiversity is lost when complex ecosystems like forests are disturbed to make way for bases, and hazardous chemicals—commonplace in the military industry—can leak and devastate local ecosystems and communities.
Climate Activists Deemed ‘Terrorists’
The fight for climate justice and environmental protection thus stands as “a direct threat to the security of the people in power, and to the profits that they’re earning,” Tan added.
And that’s why climate justice activists are “frequently designated ‘terrorists’ by the Philippines government,” she said.
That labelling gives licence to aggressive action against activists, making the Philippines the most dangerous country in Asia to be an environmental defender or climate justice activist, the third most dangerous in the world.
Licenced suppression of environmental activism is also ongoing in Vietnam, said Kristy Kelly, program director of global and international education at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Kelly did not mention overt physical violence, but said activists are “being silenced, one by one,” citing her own experience living and working in the country since the early 1990s.
“At least five internationally recognized climate activists have been jailed on tax evasion charges in recent years,” Kelly said, and “they’re all women.”
Climate Concerns Mount Amid Conflict
There is much to protest about in terms of environmental—and societal—devastation in Vietnam, including public health harms that persist from the use of Agent Orange and napalm by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, “alarming” levels of PM2.5 air pollution, and the country’s status as a global epicentre for marine plastic pollution.
Panelist Rula Asad of the Syrian Female Journalist Network also highlighted the links between war, ecosystem collapse, and public health harms in the 12-year civil war that continues to devastate her home country. Some 75% of Syria’s precious woodlands have been destroyed since the conflict began, and those losses have accelerated desertification, she said.
And then there is the climate crisis: Alongside the brutal conflict, Syrians must also cope with a searing drought that has been going on since 1998, unseasonably cold springs that put crops at further risk, and forest fires.
Vietnam has been ranked as “one of the world’s five most vulnerable countries to climate change,” said Kelly, citing its vulnerability to typhoons, flooding, and landslides.
Speaking to the core theme of climate, gender justice, and peace, Nesmah Mansour of the Peace Track Initiative pointed to Yemen’s ongoing struggle with landmines. More than two million mines remain scattered across a country where 70% of the population depends on agriculture for survival, with women supplying 80% of the labour.
Unable to work because of the mines, these women have lost their primary source of income, Mansour said. This situation illustrates the imperative for an “intersectional approach” to ending conflict and the climate crisis.
“We cannot talk about demilitarizing without addressing gender-based violence,” she said.
Climate Concerns Could Tip The Balance
Asked whether “the big militaries can green themselves”—a claim the American military made in 2022 with the release of its first ever climate strategy—Burton offered a strong negative, citing the troubled F35 fighter jet. “Just off the production line,” the F35 took 20 years and $2 trillion in the making and will be in operation for the next 40 years.
The F35 “drinks 505,800 litres of jet fuel per flight,” Burton said, and “they’re selling like hotcakes.”
Looking ahead, Burton said researchers are pushing for a UN special report on the role of the global military in climate change, possibly including conflict emissions. “We’re also calling for a special submission to the UNFCCC, to the special scientific body, for them to reappraise what’s going on.”
“We are pushing hard, and the topic of military emissions is rising up the agenda, primarily because we’re seeing more conflicts,” Burton added.
Describing climate change as “a terrible opportunity,” she said there are hopes amongst campaigners working to rein in military spending that climate concerns may finally tip the balance. “It’s the big military spenders that are enabling the emissions, and we are going in the wrong direction.”