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Is It Imperialist to “Green” the Military?

As progressives scrutinize Elizabeth Warren's bona fides, her "Green New Military" plan raises hackles of climate activists on the left.

Elizabeth Warren greets Gen. Robert B. Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, in 2019. (Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

It was a bold twist on an old progressive saw. “In short, climate change is real, it is worsening by the day,” the announcement stated; then came the reveal: “and it is undermining our military readiness.” So began Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s push last spring for a “Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act to harden the U.S. military against the threat posed by climate change, and to leverage its huge energy footprint as part of our climate solution.”  

To her admirers, greening America by starting with the military is the sort of clever solution seeking that’s key to Warren’s reformist brand. The idea doesn’t come out of nowhere: Long concerned by rising sea levels and the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels, the military has gone to bat against congressional conservatives in years past for biofuels and environmental analyses. Nor can any plan to combat climate change ignore the U.S. military, whose carbon footprint—spread over 800 bases across 70 countries—is larger than that of most nations on earth. Warren’s plan would require the Pentagon to “achieve net zero carbon emissions for all its non-combat bases and infrastructure by 2030,” and would commit “billions of dollars” to new Pentagon efficient-energy research. “The Pentagon itself recognizes the threat,” Warren’s announcement stated. “But captured by Big Oil and its money, Washington continues to deny the threat and stand in the way of meaningful action to address it.”

But in recent weeks, Warren has come in for withering criticism among some left progressives that she “is not one of us,” and many of those critics have focused on her green-military agenda as an imperialist prescription for a global problem. What the military is effective at, they argue, is blundering into disastrous wars of choice that destabilize the world and engender atrocities; they want the next president to focus on drawing down the military-industrial complex, not puffing it up more. “.@ewarren is running a great campaign, but when it comes to climate breakdown, this is *not* a plan for that,” Naomi Klein, author of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, tweeted in May. “The most powerful war machine on the planet is never going to be ‘green.’”

Natasha Fernández-Silber, of the Detroit Democratic Socialists of America, was even more to the point in her criticisms last spring. “Imagine referencing the U.S. military’s obscene carbon footprint, as Warren does, without calling for an end to perpetual war, foreign invasions, and for the Pentagon’s budget to be slashed in half,” she wrote in a Medium rejoinder to the campaign plan. “Warren’s latest proposal may be the best evidence to date that yes, Warren was a Republican until 1996, and still harbors some good-old fashioned conservatism in her cornfed soul.” (Consistent with the DSA’s 2020 presidential endorsement, Fernández-Silber later added: “Bernie Sanders is the superior choice.”)

Beneath the raucous presidential politicking, such critics make a deeper ideological point: Framing climate change as a national security threat has become a common argument, but one that’s culturally fraught. “I think that a ‘national security threat’ reads as a politicized/racialized signifier to the people on both sides of that power dynamic,” Sean Estelle, a DSA national political committee member who was speaking for themselves and not the organization, told me in an email. “It signals danger to Muslims deemed terrorists by the national security apparatus, brutality to Black people facing the violence of militarized police forces, and saber-rattling to leftists and political radicals at home and abroad that have faced jail time and worse when deemed a ‘national security threat.’” In that spirit, the Sunrise Movement, a self-described “army of young people” pushing for climate change to be taken seriously, is calling for a contraction of the military’s global reach and using the peace dividend for green investments at home.

The general defense of Warren’s green-military plan is that it is practical, and, by implication, leftist critical alternatives are not. “Elizabeth Warren believes climate change is an existential threat to the United States, and a threat multiplier that exacerbates other national security challenges,” a Warren spokesperson told me in an email. “Under her energy and climate resiliency plan, Americans don’t have to choose between a green military and an effective one. A Warren Administration will do both.” Even some skeptics suggest the senator’s approach is the realistic, politically savvy one: “[A]s soon as spending moves from domestic accounts onto the Pentagon’s tab, Republicans cease to oppose said spending,” writes New York magazine’s Eric Levitz. “Thus, if we want to get 60 Senate votes on a massive investment in green technology within the next couple of years, Warren’s ‘let’s buy ourselves a cleaner, greener war machine’ may be the best shot we’ve got.”

But it’s precisely that approach that some of her further-left critics say is impractical—at least, if climate justice is really your priority. “What liberals like Elizabeth Warren and her base fail to realize when they buy in to the ‘national security threat’ rhetoric of climate change,” Estelle told me, “is that the administrative and industrial bloat of the armed forces are part of what got us into this problem, and only by taking political power away from those forces will we be able to truly ‘green’ them.”

More to the point, the left is coming up with political and cultural alternatives. Estelle pointed me to the DSA Ecosocialist Working Group’s guiding principles for a Green New Deal—in particular, principle No. 6: “Demilitarize, decolonize, and strive for a future of international solidarity and cooperation.” The idea, Estelle said, is to see this as a common ground with other peoples, rather than a competitive issue of “national security.”

Like Warren, Bernie Sanders has long called climate change “the greatest threat to national security,” but, in a certain sense, he’s on the same page as Warren’s leftist critics on the role that the military plays. Climate change “necessitates global engagement,” Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign policy adviser, told me over the phone. “It necessitates America working with everyone.” He pointed to Russia. “We have areas of deep disagreement with Russia,” he said, but the U.S. needs to try to find ways to work with it to combat climate change. “Will it work? Maybe not. But we need to try. The same is true with China.” Working to combat climate change, he said, will require a “reconceptualization of American national security.”

It’s this version of climate change and national security—one that challenges the very notion of what we mean by national security and national interest—that may prove to be the future of progressive platforms. Consider, for example, Suraj Patel, who is once again challenging Democratic incumbent Carolyn Maloney to represent New York’s 12th district in Congress (he managed to get 40 percent of the vote in 2018’s primary). Patel told me over the phone that, traditionally, national security meant the U.S. and its allies against a shared antagonist. “This,” he said, “is not that. We’re very excited about rolling out two or three very specific plans to combat climate change internationally, on a global scale.” 

The crux of the idea is that the climate crisis will require “leaps” in innovation, technology, and research, and that whoever is the leader in that (“it should be led by the United States”) shouldn’t “hoard” the innovations, but share them with the rest of the world.

Still, some experts caution against cutting out Pentagon leaders from the climate change conversation. “They are in a leadership position to recognize the impacts of climate change,” said John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security, who previously oversaw energy, installations, and environmental policy throughout the Department of Defense. “The military messengers on this issue can be more convincing sometimes than even the scientists” to voters and politicians who are still, despite the wealth of data, skeptical of climate change. The national security establishment, he said, is still “a very important messenger to have on your side.”

That’s certainly the establishment consensus view. But as many critics of Warren’s Green New Military plan point out, it hasn’t worked terribly well, and they think the time is right for a different kind of coalition. “Rather than spending billions on the latest fighter jet,” Sunrise Movement co-founder Stephen O’Hanlon, 23, told me, “we could be creating good jobs transforming our economy, reducing energy prices, and tackling climate change, so that young people have a shot at a safe and prosperous future.”