Ending the Fossil Fuel Economy: is the US National Security Council the Answer?

John Kerry was announced as climate envoy a few days ago, and shortly after President elect Biden announced that Kerry would be sitting on the National Security Council (NSC) also as envoy. In some sectors of the climate movement I heard a lot of enthusiasm because Kerry would now be on the NSC. To be frank, it took my breath away. From my point of view, this was not a good thing, as I weighed the pros and cons. I immediately thought about our commitment to climate justice and whether this move could actually support our dream of building a more equitable society through a just and peaceful transition.

What’s the Purpose of The National Security Council?

It seems like the climate movement’s enthusiasm for the elevation of Kerry’s new position to the NSC is about finally having a sense that this issue will be taken seriously and that it is being escalated to the highest levels of government.

If the NSC was actually about people’s safety and not just a place to coordinate a military level strategy, I would feel some hopefulness about it. But I feel a significant and certain danger in this positioning particularly since the function of the Council — as stated in the National Security Act of 1947 — is to “advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security.”

The sole focus of the council is to advise on military policy and to have other departments cooperate in the building of that policy and nothing else.

So What Is the Pentagon’s Strategy?

According to Michael Clare, author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change, climate change is a threat in the military’s eyes because it’s going to degrade their ability to deal with conventional military problems. According to the military it is going to create chaos, violence, mass migrations, pandemics, and state collapse around the world, particularly in vulnerable areas like Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, the military’s own bases are very vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of rising seas, forest fires, storms, and floods. This strategy began during the Obama years.

Climate change, then, represents a threat to the U.S. armed forces because it’s going to interfere with their ability to carry out their job. A job that is based on utilizing armed conflict as a strategy to “protect” the U.S., which includes protecting extraction of resources like oil, and therefore, to the military it is a threat to national security. So the military’s focus on climate change isn’t about mitigation of climate change. Nor, is it about condemning fossil fuel companies. The military is not an environmental organization.

Every four years, the Department of Defense publishes what they call a Quadrennial Defense Review, which is a summary of the major threats as they see them and what they have to do to face them. The report calls for the military to take proactive measures to reduce that threat of climate change in two ways. First, to better bolster defenses of their own facilities at home. Second it called on the US military to cooperate with foreign forces to increase their abilities to cope with the effects of climate change.

This is disconcerting because none of these strategies actually respond to climate change in ways that put us on the path toward a just recovery. And let’s face it, the U.S. government has a track record of “cooperating” with some of the worst human rights violators around the world. We don’t have to go far to find an example of this if we look closely at the war on drugs bolstering U.S. bases abroad.Partnering with atrocious governments and militaries around the world did nothing to advance a just solution to drug dependency or consumption in this country.

Lessons from The War on Drugs as a National Security Issue

Having worked on trying to stop U.S. policies created through the war on drugs I’ve seen first hand how the elevation of a social justice issue to the National Security arena can have incredible negative effects both at home and abroad because it immediately leads to investment in military strategies as a solution to social, economic and political issues.

President Reagan officially added drug trafficking to the list of threats to national security with his secret directive number 221, signed in April of 1986. This directive authorized the US military to intervene abroad in order to fight against drug production.

The war against drugs continues to be characterized as an issue requiring progressive militarization even though it’s been proven that health policies focused on harm reduction and policies to decriminalize drugs would do more to mitigate harms and reduce incarceration of Black and brown people across the U.S.

Because of the racialization of the issue, the impacts of this strategy targeted Black and brown communities for incarceration in the U.S. and abroad. It also led to various interventions, military agreements on no fly zones, strong investments in armed forces, especially in South America. An example is the Colombian military and government, both have had particularly atrocious records including human rights violations and ties to the very drug networks the U.S. was supposedly trying to fight.

The similarities with Climate Change are uncanny. The increased militarization of U.S. climate policy and strategy will impact, by and large, Black and brown communities in the U.S. and abroad. However, there are many lessons we as a climate movement could learn from the history of the drug war.

First and foremost we need to partner with other movements to ensure that our demand for action on climate doesn’t strengthen the militarization of climate policy. The demand for solutions that advance a just recovery through social and economic policy and oppose military policy should be a central piece of our work to advance a just and peaceful transition. Currently in the U.S. climate movement we are not doing enough to address this issue and to position ourselves as a movement founded on the pursuit of peace and non-violence.

We seem to forget that climate change is not an inherently progressive issue, and how we think and talk about climate change may prop up military strategies, war mongering, and racist right-wing positions. The far right does not need more influence in how climate policy is advanced.

We’ve seen the results of this influence in immigration policy at the border, where many migrants are being driven from their homes by U.S. economic, climate, and military policy (particularly those from Central America).

We are also starting to see more eco-fascist talking points that talk about population control and eugenics as solutions to climate catastrophe. So in this time of so much change and polarization we need to be more strategic about our arguments and what we propose in order to safeguard the human rights and human dignity of all, center racial justice at home and abroad, and a peaceful transition to a just recovery.

Militarizing the Response to Climate Change

Certainly, there is power in the Department of Defense’s acknowledgement of climate change as a reality we must contend with. But their understanding is tied to utilizing the issue as a way to militarize and weaponize the response to increasing climate disasters, migration and control of natural resources. If we as a justice movement are giving their assertion credibility because we think it might sway this administration’s climate denying ways we should understand that we will be giving credence to an agency that is seen around the world as a purveyor of war, displacement, violence and death. We need to begin to think more broadly and carefully about how these issues intersect and how they affect us here and abroad.

If military spending or strategy alone could defeat climate change or solve any other social or economic issue, then a U.S. military budget that is the largest in the world ($700 billion in total) should have already solved these problems.

Climate change and climate disasters have and will continue to exacerbate existing inequalities within countries, including in the United States, and between countries. Addressing inequalities requires that we steer clear of military solutions. For example, walls will not prevent millions of climate refugees from fleeing disasters, just as the Mediterranean sea has not stopped thousands from searching for safety.

We, as a movement, need to continue to advocate for national and international mechanisms that mitigate the impacts of climate change and climate disasters, including those that would enable the mass movement of people to take place peacefully. Mitigating the impacts of climate change requires cooperation and moving forward with solutions to keep fossil fuels in the ground, shift our economy to one that relies on renewable energy, and provide highly skilled jobs to those most impacted and least protected from climate change.

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“War on Drugs and War on Terror: Case of Afghanistan,” Peace and Conflict Review (San Jose, Costa Rica: University for Peace, 2009) Volume 3, Issue 2, p. 3., Corti, Daniela and Swain, Ashok.

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Natalia is originally from Guatemala. She's a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist. Currently she's the Associate Director for Justice & Equity at 350.org