Framing Climate Change as a “National Security Priority” Isn’t A Clever Maneuver To Get People To Care

It’s a Centrist Co-option Strategy to Bloat the Budgets of ICE and the Pentagon.

Read the fine print before rushing to deem climate change a “national security” threat.

On November 23, President-elect Joe Biden announced that former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry will serve as special envoy on climate and have a seat on the National Security Council. Kerry immediately followed the news with a tweet that declared, “America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is.”

As laid out in Episode 122 of Citations Needed (the podcast I co-host), this “national security” approach to climate is loaded down with contradictions, PR spin, and potential dangers. You can hear about them by listening, but I’d like to take some time and ask important questions to those in the climate world cheerleading Kerry’s appointment, such as the leadership of the Sunrise Movement, Bill McKibben, and Eric Holthaus.

To be clear: groups like Sunrise and Justice Democrats have called for a “domestic” climate envoy as well, but from the get-go progressives appear to be endorsing a “national security” framing as if global cooperation can only be viewed in these martial terms. This, I will argue, is at best a red herring and at worst a trap and I would beseech these progressive groups, if they ever get a chance, to ask John Kerry and those in the orbit of World War Zero, the climate group that Kerry founded, the following urgent questions:

  • Will a “national security” response to climate change add more net monies to the Pentagon budget?
  • Will a “national security” response to climate change add more net monies to the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and Border Patrol?

These questions are particularly urgent in light of the role of World War Zero, and its partner organization American Security Project (which Kerry also helped found), in pushing for a climate response that bolsters the U.S. military and a zero-sum Fortress America framework.

Lessons from Abolitionist Movements

After decades of “police reforms” simply adding to the budgets of police with body cams and more training, prison abolitionists caught on to the scam and decided to firmly plant their feet and say “no more money” into violent institutions. Abolitionist organization Critical Resistance even made a handy chart explains the difference between reformist reform and abolitionist reform:

Climate activists must adopt a similar approach with respect to climate change. We cannot keep falling for framings that, when all is said and done, simply dump more resources into violent institutions like the Pentagon, Border Patrol, and ICE.

Further areas of discussion for those giddy about the “climate change as national security” framing:

  • Given that the U.S. military is the biggest consumer of fossil fuels in the world, will climate groups call for massive military cutbacks to help assist the reduction of carbon emissions? The Sunrise Movement, to its credit, has been clear in its demand for a curtailing of the military budget, and for that money to be diverted to green investments domestically. And, the group McKibbon founded, spoke out against war with Iran in January, its North America director declaring, “The climate movement is aligned with all efforts for peace and justice.” How do these positions jive with support for Kerry, given the former Secretary of State’s embrace of a “national security” framework?
  • Obviously “greening the military” is one option for reducing carbon emissions, but isn’t advocating large cutbacks to the Pentagon itself a far more elegant and faster solution, especially in light of the harm the U.S. military unleashes around the world regardless of its carbon footprint, from the erosion of local self-determination to the exploitation of labor to the ratcheting up of military aggression? If the military can indeed be used to curb global warming, doesn’t it make sense to start with the carbon footprint of the Pentagon itself? Are meaningful reductions of the Pentagon going to be something John Kerry calls for?
  • What exactly does it mean to view climate change as a “national security” threat? No one really seems to know outside of the Pentagon’s own definition, which is strictly about mitigation and buttressing American defense and border militarization with some greentech thrown in for budget padding. Liberals don’t appear to have actually read how the Pentagon views “climate change” — which is as a risk vector like terrorism or loose nukes to be managed.
  • The military by its own admission and by definition is a nationalist institution. It doesn’t care about justice, equity, or the other 194 countries on earth. This is not who the DOD is charged with defending or serving. As such, militarizing climate policy will necessarily center relatively wealthy Americans as the central moral constituency of climate crisis. A Pentagon-run climate response will not care about:
  1. The rights, status, or lives of climate immigrants and refugees. Indeed it will work to punish these people as they attempt to enter our country.
  2. Racial justice on a global scale. Carbon-heavy, white-majority America will be the party centered in all decisions, in a country that has left its own Black and Brown communities to die in the face of mega-storms, as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Again, this is who the military serves by its own admission.
  3. Reparations. We should be talking about the U.S. funding unconditioned aid to those currently, or soon to be, suffering from draughts, hurricanes, and extreme heat given America’s wildly disproportionate contribution to the crisis. A Pentagon response wouldn’t have anything to say about, and indeed be overtly hostile to, any notion of global racial justice.
  • For liberals endorsing the slogan of ”climate change as a national security issue,” please lay out how it doesn’t just mean further military hardware and violence at the border, in concrete terms. How does a “national security” response differ from a non-national security response? Without appealing to some clever messaging trick designed to win over Republicans, explain why a “national security” framing is a better one than a unified, civilian-led one?
  • Do liberals simply love militaristic framing because they think it makes it sound urgent and sexy, and the only way anyone cares about anything in this country is if it sounds martial? Does indulging in this framework have ANY potential downsides?
  • Republican leadership has formally denied climate science for over 10 years. They clearly don’t care. Why does everyone think they’ve cracked the Da Vinci code every time they try to win over craven Republicans by appealing to national security — ss if Republicans actually care about national security as such? Republicans have been hearing the “climate change is a national security threat” gotcha since it was first auctioned off by liberals in 2004 — why would this time be any different? Is there ANY empirical basis to think shifting climate response from the civilian arena to the national security one will change Congressional Republicans minds? At all?

“But the national security angle is just a convenient framing device. It gives it currency in a culture where things must be militarized to be important,” one might say. “Don’t worry about it, Kerry will simply interface with the UN to work on reentering us back into the Paris Climate Accords.”

This is possible (and I hope is the case), but it raises the question: Why lead with the martial framework at all? Why center the military in this “response”?

I want to argue this framework isn’t marketing for fence-sitting Republicans, but is, in fact, an ideology and approach in and of itself that’s entirely divorced from the principles progressives are — or at least should be — using. As I argue in Episode 122, progressive climate activists and CIA, State Department, and Pentagon empire managers are speaking in the same terms, but addressing two completely different topics: The former discusses the moral imperative of climate chaos and the need to urgently curb or stop it, the latter gestures towards this in a preformative way but is primarily concerned with shoring up American military and capital interests, using varying degrees of soft and hard U.S. power. These two approaches, despite lofty and vague appeals for “left unity,” contain many contradictions that need addressing sooner than later.

World War Zero and American Security Project

To better understand how fraught this approach is, let’s look at the launchpad for John Kerry’s recent campaign, World War Zero, mentioned in several of the announcements of Kerry’s new position.

Begun in December 2019, Kerry’s World War Zero effort is a spin off of the “bipartisan” American Security Project or is, at the very least, closely affiliated with it. The groups call it a “partnership” but it’s basically the same people, language, and approach. Their super generic mission statement reads, “we’re uniting scientists and entrepreneurs, four-star generals and youth activists, popular artists and global leaders, Democrats and Republicans, and millions of people to not only build back — but to build forward into a clear-skied future.” But the statement gives no indication that perhaps “youth activists” and “four-star generals” may have divergent interests and priorities. Indeed, much of World War Zero reeks of a centrist counter to the relatively progressive Sunrise Movement. The group has engaged Sunrise in talks and co-opted many of its language and imagery.

But the two organizations’ end games, at least in theory, are radically different.

As a December 2019 American Security Project press release notes, “ASP board members that are currently enlisted as members of World War Zero include: ASP Chairperson Christine Whitman, ASP President Brigadier, General Stephen Cheney, ASP Founding Member Secretary Chuck Hagel, ASP Founding Member John Kerry, ASP Board Member Vice Admiral Lee Gunn.”

To get a sense of the World War Zero approach, and thus Kerry’s approach, we should turn to ASP’s years of writing on the climate crisis as a “national security” issue.

Much of its focus has been on the inevitable mass immigration crisis that will result from climate change and how this ought to include further militarization of the border.

In one May 2019 post, ASP is clearly lobbying for more resources for ICE and Border Patrol. After some perfectly reasonable liberal gestures toward “addressing the drivers of migration” that include poverty in the Global South, ASP’s Laura Sigelmann (now at USAID) argues for “increasing personnel numbers and training” for immigration authorities (see: ICE and Border Patrol). The article goes on:

Acting [DHS] Secretary McAleenan [appointed by Trump] suggested continuing to invest in “…additional agents and officers, additional technology at and between ports of entry, and air and marine support,” as well as a whole-of-government approach to address the unique needs of families and children. Up to 40 percent of Customs and Border Patrol personnel have been redirected towards transporting and processing families and children.

Given that climate change will force more families to migrate, funding for border security should include improving facilities for holding and transporting migrants and specialized training for handling the medical and psychological needs of families and children.

“Funding for border security should include improving facilities for holding and transporting migrants” is think tank-speak for building nicer internment camps for immigrants. The post — and ASP for a while now — has been arguing for a new legal status for climate refugees. As has former CIA director Leon Panetta in Brookings. This sounds perfectly decent and nice, but it’s not clear how much good this status will do climate refugees if they’re met with a better armed, funded, and techno-enhanced border patrol at their arrival to Fortress America.

This isn’t an isolated recommendation. Almost all of ASP’s output on the subject of climate change, once one reads past the liberal humanitarian box-checking and “we must believe the science” posturing, is just lobbying for more money for the Pentagon, ICE, Border Patrol, and surveillance companies. One 2015 appeal from ASP opposing “blind” defense budget cuts tells us “we must also fully invest in completing the highly advanced F-35 to replace our combat-worn and aging fleet of fighters; further develop UAV and drone technology; and improve new missile defense technologies.” For each flight hour, the F-35 burns 5,600 liters for fuel compared to 3,500 liters for the F-16, making the $1.4 trillion F-35 program one of the most fossil fuel intensive programs in the U.S. military. But these big ticket items are mysteriously immune from the climate concerns of ASP.

In its prideful announcement today of “founding board member” John Kerry’s new post, ASP laid out its top three most urgent priorities for the new Climate Envoy.

Number one? Was it climate justice for the poor in the Global South? Was it reparations for those already harmed? Was it aggressive regulation of fossil fuel corporations? No, his №1 priority was “Military Base Resilience” — e.g. more funds for U.S. military bases — followed by more military aid to countries in the Pacific region to fend off Chinese influence. The third priority offered was “preparing American Security for an Open Arctic,” which makes the case for why the U.S. should further militarize the North Atlantic. ASP’s COO Andrew Holland then argues Kerry should “publicize U.S. military deployments to the region, with particular focus on the Russian border — perhaps by returning the U.S. Marine deployment to Norway.” This martial statement is punctuated with a chest beating call for Kerry to make clear “the U.S. means business in the Arctic.”

So this is the first action Kerry’s organization thinks Kerry should take once in office: more money for the Pentagon and an expansion of U.S. militarism of the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean?

For those championing Kerry’s role by insisting it shows “Biden takes climate seriously,” what do they think about the use of climate chaos to push for military expansion and budget padding? Will these Pentagon and DHS climate funds be siloed off from the death dealing and internment camp properties of these institutions? Will it go in a special “progressive fund” to only be spent making sure the water coolers at Camp Lemonnier are carbon neutral? No. It’ll just add more bloat, more money, more resources directed to the only institution in America that never sees cuts of any kind: our military and carceral state.

One is curious what type of corporate responsibility will be asked by the ASP/World War Zero crowd. Will it be radical and urgent as scientists suggest it must be? Former Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who’s a co-founder of ASP and a “member” of World War Zero, is featured in World War Zero’s website arguing why the climate crisis is a “national security” issue. But Hagel is also a former board member of Exxon Mobil, casting doubt on whether these transformative steps are in the cards for Kerry & Co

As climate writer Kate Aronoff notes at The New Republic, while John Kerry negotiated the watered down Paris Climate accords, he advocated for years against ending fossil fuel extraction, endorsing his then-boss President Obama’s “all of the above” approach. Kerry told reporters in 2015, “I don’t see oil changing significantly, and I don’t think most of the market folks I talk to anywhere in the near term. And who knows if even ever, depending on what happens with these other market signals and choices that people make. Now, we’re going to be using oil for years and years to come in one fashion or another.”

This isn’t about criticizing moderation for being insufficient, it’s about the pretense of bipartisanship as a method by the security state to divert attention and resources into the institutions charged with protecting and defending the U.S.-led capitalist order largely responsible for the crisis itself.

Again, climate activists would do well to learn from abolitionists by asking the basic question: Does the “national security” frame take money from extractivist and violent institutions and redirect them to institutions of care and wellbeing? As International Policy Studies wonderfully laid out in their 2020 criticism of the militarization of climate response, we have to ask: Are we taking money from fuel intensive, mechanized violence that spans the globe with 800 military bases and putting these resources into healthcare, housing, education, and redistributive measures for those affected by climate change at home and aboard? Or are we simply dumping more money into weapons makers, surveillance companies, and private border prisons? There is a rich tradition of climate organizations forcefully pressing such questions, with groups like the Climate Justice Alliance long embracing the demand of “No War, No Warming.”

Global warming is, by definition, not primarily a national security issue — it’s a global security issue. It is a science problem and a political problem that will require the Pentagon to be meaningfully downsized, not centered and rebranded as a force of progress and social welfare. The Pentagon is charged with defending Americans, not promoting global cooperation and racial and economic equity. It is a force of violence and the threat of violence and, no matter how clever liberals think they may be, or how much they think they can piggy back off these institutions to pitch “climate action” to Republicans, they won’t be playing anyone. They’ll be getting played, and when the Kerry climate “national security” action is all said and done, what will be left is zero real corporate accountability, zero racial and economic justice. Like all things that run through the American political meat grinder, it will simply entail more power, legitimacy, and money for the Pentagon, surveillance tech industry, and prison system.

Even if one views these predictions as too grumpy or cynical, the initial questions remains, but can be rephrased as an appeal for clarity among climate progressives:

  • Will the Sunrise Movement, Bill McKibben, and Eric Holthaus reject any policy that provides more net money and resources to ICE and Border patrol?
  • Will the Sunrise Movement, Bill McKibben and Eric Holthaus reject any policy that provides more net monies to the Pentagon?

I’d love to get an answer to these two questions — sincerely. The militarization of our climate response compels clarity on these issues before it’s too late.

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