Winning on Climate Requires Radical Demilitarization

USS Coronado launches a Harpoon Block 1C missile during an exercise off the Hawaiian Islands. Image: U.S. Navy

Why we can’t avert climate catastrophe without demilitarization, dismantling the world’s militarized power structures.

Andrew Metheven

Over the last few weeks and months, grassroots activism has pushed climate change into the media in the United Kingdom. In particular, the Extinction Rebellion movement has spread from the UK to countries around the world, while the youth strike actions initiated by Greta Thunberg have led to thousands of young people leaving school to demand governments take action on climate issues.

However, the goals of groups like Extinction Rebellion and the wider climate movement will be impossible to achieve without simultaneously dismantling the increasingly militarized power structures in our world, and that these require a similarly radical response as climate change.

This short article tries to set out how and why we need to understand militarism and climate change as two sides of the same coin—both intimately linked in the impact they have on our world, driven, supported and maintained by the same power structures.

What is militarism?

Militarism is a key cause of many of the problems we face today in our world. A militarized society is one that thinks of the world as a dangerous place, with lots of perceived threats, and considers violence or the threat of violence as a normal, rational, or even preferred response to threats. A society is militarized when it adopts the values and priorities of military bodies (i.e. strict hierarchy and discipline, extreme violence is normalized, strict binary gender norms) as its own.

Militarism impacts how we respond to conflict, educate children and young people, spend money, understand gender, build relationships, perceive threat, indeed, it impacts how we live our lives.

Militarism is deeply entwined in all of our different societal frameworks and structures, and we can see its impacts on every level—from the personal to the international.

Militarism is also deeply coupled with capitalism; as we will explore in more detail later, states often turn to militarized solutions when trying to sustain exploitative, extractivist projects. This is why much of War Resisters’ International’s work is focused on issues like conscription and supporting conscientious objectors, resisting youth militarization, and understanding how police forces are militarized.

Why should we be talking about militarism in relation to climate change? Surely both are complex enough to try and deal with, without bringing the two together?

If war is the tip of the iceberg we see when conflict breaks out, militarism is what exists below the surface. A similar “iceberg” model can be used to try and get our heads around climate change.

If extreme weather events are what we see above the surface, then the systemic (capitalist) and cultural drivers of climate change (and our lack of response) are hidden below the surface. Free market capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism, greed, indifference, ignorance, poverty, racism, exploitation…all of which are sustained, in different ways and by varying degrees, by militarism.

Climate change poses an existential threat and communities around the world are already feeling the impacts of more extreme, unpredictable weather. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, or XR, have demanded much more radical action to avoid the worst impacts (in the UK, XR have demand the government pushes for net zero carbon emissions by 2025, for example).

This degree of change will require a rapid societal transformation away from exploitative, carbon-intensive industry, and an essential part of this process will be challenging and transforming the militarized aspects of our lives. Quite simply, it is difficult to understand how we will be able to achieve climate justice while our states and societies remain militarized. Here are three reasons why.

Extinction rebellion action.

1. Demands for radical transformation will face militarized responses

Militarism isn’t just a key driver in climate change; we also know that activists will face increasingly militarized responses as their actions and demands escalate. When the water protectors at Standing Rock blocked the Dakota Access Pipeline in late 2016 and early 2017, the police response was very violent, including tear gas and pepper spray, automatic weapons, dogs, armored vehicles and mass arrests. Amnesty International described police as “outfitted in gear more suited for the battlefield”.

Militarized responses to protest and demands for change are witnessed all over the world—tear gas and other “less lethal” weapons are now often a preferred response by many police forces around the world. Though not directly linked to climate change, the intense oppression witnessed during the “Arab Spring” illustrates how states are willing and able to respond when facing demands for system change.

Professor Paul Rogers uses the term “liddism” to describe how states and elites attempt to try and “keep the lid on things”, preferring to use violence or other means to maintain the status quo. One illustration of this is the ever increasing use of tear gas and other “less lethal” weapons by militarized police forces around the world (for an introduction to tear gas and other weapons, check out Anna Feigenbaum’s book “Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today”).

Militarism and climate change are inextricably linked with racism and colonialism.

In her critique of Extinction Rebellion, Minnie Rahman explains how arms companies see climate change as an opportunity rather than a threat, as borders become more intensely militarized, and that people from indigenous communities are routinely threatened and killed because of their activism, as states, corporations, and paramilitary groups look to sustain the status quo.

A key driver in all of these militarized responses is how the military-industrial complex is itself understanding climate change. In military circles, climate change is perceived as a security threat that many involved in military planning are now factoring into their analysis of conflict drivers in the future—as far back as 2003, the US military described climate change as a “threat multiplier”, which means that they believe climate change will increase the impact of other perceived threats.

Understanding climate change through the lens of the military isn’t helpful—just because climate change is recognized as a problem doesn’t mean that solutions will be equitable or just. As described by Nick Buxton in the Guardian, “framing climate change as a security matter … has significant consequences in shaping how we respond to a warming planet.”

One illustration of this is how borders are being militarized—rich countries around the world are looking for ways to limit migration driven—in part—by climate change, and arms companies are quick to ensure they reap the profits from this militarization.

If we allow militarized solutions to exacerbate, communities most impacted by climate change will continue to be treated as threats to be countered, rather than people living in an oppressive system, from which they are trying to protect themselves and their loved ones.

As pressures like food insecurity, mass migration, competition over resources, lost employment opportunities, and other factors increase, militarized responses will limit the potential for climate justice, and so we need to undermine the militarized narrative that drives militarized responses.

injured water protector
Water protector at Standing Rock displays chemical burns from police pepper spray. Image Credit: Greg Harman

2. Militarism poses a similar existential threat as climate change

Another reason militarism and climate change are linked is by their potential impact on humanity and the planet—both are potential existential threats to humanity. The doomsday clock—a project of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—charts how close humanity is to midnight (or “how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making”), and considers both climate change and nuclear weapons in its analysis.

Nuclear weapons pose an increasing risk to humanity.

Tensions are escalating, and many nuclear armed states are upgrading their weapons systems—for example, the United States has started production of a low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapon that could make nuclear weapons more “usable,” and risking rapid escalation to larger nuclear weapons.

The United States and Russia have recently pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with ranges of 500–1,000 kilometers and led to the removal of U.S. land-launched nuclear weapons in Europe.

If we’re serious about avoiding extinction, then militarism poses a similar, existential threat to humanity and the natural world as climate change does.

US soldiers in Iraq finding their way through the dust stirred up by a UH-60 Black Hawk. Image: Wikimedia Commons

3. The climate impact of the military

Perhaps the most obvious reason why we need to think about climate change in relation to climate change is the simple fact that the military is a huge contributor to carbon emissions. The U.S. military is the world’s single biggest user of petrol, but since the 1997 Kyoto talks, the military has been exempted from required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – since then, none of the world’s militaries have been factored into negotiations on reducing carbon emissions, they are given a free pass to continue to emit as many greenhouse gases as they want.

As well as causing huge volumes of greenhouse gas emissions, militaries also consume huge amounts of financial and human resources that could be being used to respond to issues like climate change. In 2017, global military expenditure was $1.7 trillion.

In 2015, the UK government allocated £25 billion to the Ministry of Defense, but only £1.5 billion to the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Many of the nuclear armed states are modernizing their nuclear weapons systems, locking in vast amounts of money in future weapons spending. The logic is simple—wouldn’t this money, as well as all the skills and expertise of all the engineers, programmers, designers, technicians, and other skilled workers be better applied to combating climate change?

Communities around the world, but especially in the majority world, are already facing and responding to the direct impacts of a climate-destabilized world, and states are turning to increasingly militarized solutions as they try to find an answer to the climate crisis.

If we want a world radically transformed, with the values of climate justice at the heart of that transformation, then this will also require a similarly radical demilitarization, and it is impossible to imagine a demilitarized world when the threats of climate change continues to destabilize communities, economies. Both are intimately linked, and an end to either is reliant on effective responses to both.

We know that genuine solutions to climate change need to be rooted in justice, and this will be impossible while the structures and systems that drive climate change are supported and sustained by militarism.


Andrew Metheven is the Nonviolence Programme Worker at War Resisters’ International. He is active in the Stop the Arms Fair coalition, and has taken nonviolent direct action against the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system.

This essay was previously published by Waging Nonviolence.

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