The Climate Defense Budget

If aliens were attacking, nations would join their military forces together to defeat the common enemy. Today, the inescapable global existential threat is posed by climate change. We should shift our defense budgets accordingly.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s “Military Expenditure Database” global government spending on defense reached nearly two trillion dollars in 2019 (the US alone accounts for over a third of that total).[1]

According to the World Bank, global economies will spend about $9 trillion/year over the next decade on infrastructure (roads, bridges, ports, utilities, etc).[2] Making those investments climate-friendly could cost an additional $600b/year over the same period, but that would be offset by saving about $1.6 trillion/year on fuel and energy (from more efficient buildings and transportation, among other co-benefits).[3]

Almost every national government is planning more stimulus to counteract the “covid recession” and many include massive infrastructure investments. But, given that these expenditures will generate equally massive deficits for future generations to pay, where would an additional $600b/year come from? The Climate Defense Budget.

Imagine if the US repurposed just 10 cents of every Defense Department dollar to defending our nation from the already visible, increasingly deadly threats of climate change. $70 billion/year added to stimulus infrastructure spending to harden coastlines; improve water quality/quantity; exterminate invasive pests and diseases; fight wildfires that have generated their own tornadoes (quite similar to nuclear blasts) and wiped entire American towns from the face of the earth; and much more.

Sounds exactly like what the Defense Department was created to do and it could be done with many of the same personnel, machinery, and civilian contractors. Imagine the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, Houston, or New York (remember Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Sandy, not to mention three named storms that devastated Louisiana in 2020 alone?), where they could use their design and rapid deployment skills to build seawalls, pumping systems, and elevate roads/bridges.

Imagine soldiers deployed to a dozen western states to help firefighters protect property and lives from the massive wildfires (fires that can actually be healthy for regeneration of wilderness areas, but are devastating when they spill over to communities). Imagine the Air Force outfitting C-130 cargo planes with flame retardant and helping beleaguered state and local firefighting resources that are out of money and energy after an almost year-round fire seasons that climate change has already made a reality.

Military bases like Ft. Bragg, NC (251 square miles), Ft. Campbell, KY (164 square miles) or Ft. Hood, TX (over 300 square miles) could use a tiny fraction of their land area for wind and solar farms, along with training programs for clean energy installers and maintenance workers of the future, many of whom could be veterans after they leave the service.[4] The military could also be the biggest buyer of battery and hydrogen electric vehicles and fueling infrastructure, instantly reducing the cost of those technologies for average Americans with the mass production such large orders would generate (even better if those orders were given to American companies).

These examples are based on the outsized spending on the military in the US, but every country spending billions on warfare could do likewise. All militaries will still need planes and supply chains, but instead of delivering bombs and guns, they could supply emergency supplies to hard-hit communities in their own countries. Refugees from climate disasters could be served by armies and navies that are already uniquely suited to support NGOs and local authorities in setting up camps and organizing permanent relocation. In fact, it’s already happening – – earlier this year, the Australian Navy rescued wildfire victims and took them to safety.[5]

For those who say the defense budget is only for conventional warfare, consider the studies that show the military will be sucked into more conflicts and disasters in the future if we don’t change course now. Studies as far back as 1990 and as recent as this year repeat the global, rapidly rising security threats from climate change, something that a modest investment now could largely prevent.[6] Isn’t that what “defense” is all about?

The Marshall Plan in Europe and the rebuilding of Japan after World War II proved we know how to rebuild after devastation – – let’s prove we know how to prepare and invest to avoid those losses in the first place. The cost of inaction has been great – – Miami Beach, for example, spent $500m to raise roads from inexorable sea level rise, money that could have better come from the defense budget than the taxpayers of Miami Beach.[7] Sure those residents are the main beneficiaries of that investment, but they alone didn’t cause the problem. Like bailing out fire or flood victims after the fact, we could instead prepare for a future that prevents those losses using existing budgets for a “defense” more meaningful than many of the imaginary ones that, for example, creating a “Space Force” was meant to address.

If you agree that we need a Climate Defense Budget and that some portion of the current defense spending could be repurposed to that end, make your voice heard in Washington DC as the next Congress and President plan the annual budget and the extraordinary stimulus packages that will highlight the next year or more. Help America, and the world, defend against real threats that are already impacting lives and livelihoods in every part of the globe.

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[6] Guy, Kate at al. “A Security reat Assessment of Global Climate Change: How Likely Warming Scenarios Indicate a Catastrophic Security Future.” Product of the National Security, Military, and Intelligence Panel on Climate Change. Edited by Femia, Francecso. and Werrell, Caitlin. e Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks. Washington, DC. February 2020.  and DoD Office of Net Assessment, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security” (2003) and Global Climate Change Implications for the United States: U.S. Navy War College (1990)