Economics & Emissions: Masters Of War Edition

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Today marks 20 years since September 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists at the behest of Osama Bin Laden. It also marks the end of the conflict in Afghanistan, America’s longest war. Perhaps this is an appropriate time, then, to assess the impacts of that fateful day and the war that followed it on the United States and the world at large. 

Nothing of what follows is meant to detract from the sacrifice of those who fought in Afghanistan, those who were wounded or died there, or the countless numbers of loved ones whose lives were interrupted by America’s call to arms. We owe every one of them a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid.

Warfare is deeply embedded in the human psyche. History is defined by war — The War Of The Roses, The 100 Years War, The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, The War of Spanish Succession, The First World War, The Second World War, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The Gulf War, The Iraq War, and, of course, The Afghan War.

We celebrate war in songs and pageantry, but it’s not all fun and games. Liam Clancy warns, “Come all you young rebels and list while I sing, for the love of one’s country is a terrible thing. It banishes fear with the speed of a flame and it makes us all part of the patriot game.”

The Economics Of War

On the eve of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower gave a farewell address to the nation. It went largely unnoticed at the time, but has become one of the most important speeches ever given by an American president. In it, Eisenhower warned for the first time of the “military industrial complex,” which he described as a system in which Congress and America’s armament manufacturers cling to each other in a self-sustaining embrace. As a result, America is constantly on a war footing with defense budgets that continue to go up, up, and up.

It’s a game that is played in plain sight. The arms makers pay to get their friends elected. Once in office, those politicians vote for bigger and more expensive airplanes, warships, and guns. While hundreds of billions of dollars flow to the armaments industry, Americans are told there is no money for universal healthcare or childcare or school lunch programs. And yet, the tab for the US war effort in Afghanistan was $300 million a day!

According to Forbes, “In the 20 years since September 11, 2001, the United States has spent more than $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan. That’s $300 million dollars per day, every day, for two decades. Or $50,000 for each of Afghanistan’s 40 million people. In baser terms, Uncle Sam has spent more keeping the Taliban at bay than the net worths of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the 30 richest billionaires in America, combined.”

Economists talk of opportunity costs. Every dollar spent on A means there’s a dollar less available to spend on B. If we spend $50,000 on  a new car, we can’t spend the same $50,000 on a vacation or on college tuition. So let’s apply an opportunity cost analysis to the Afghan war. What could that $2 trillion have bought us if we didn’t spend it fighting the Taliban? How about more solar and wind farms? Or EV charging infrastructure?

Here are some thoughts from that committed socialist, Bernie Sanders, based on that now famous Eisenhower speech:

War & Emissions

The seminal document for this discussion is the paper entitled Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War by Neta C. Crawford, published in 2019 by the Watson Institute For International And Public Affairs at Brown University. The report begins with a series of questions. “If climate change is a ‘threat multiplier,’ as some national security experts and members of the military argue, how does the US military reduce climate change caused threats? Or does war and the preparation for it increase those risks?”

Crawford writes,

“The [Department of Defense] is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and correspondingly, the single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases in the world. From FY 1975 to FY 2018, total DOD greenhouse gas emissions were more than 3,685 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. While only a portion of US total emissions, US military emissions are, in any one year, larger than the emissions of many countries. In 2017, for example, the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions were greater than the greenhouse gas emissions of entire industrialized countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Portugal and also greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel.”

She suggests the military is helping create the very increases in average global temperatures that are a threat to the security of the United States.

“Reductions in military fossil fuel use would be beneficial in four ways. First, the US would reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions. This would thereby mitigate climate change and its associated threats to national security.

“Second, reducing fossil fuel consumption would have important political and security benefits, including reducing the dependence of troops in the field on oil, which the military acknowledges makes them vulnerable to enemy attacks. If the US military were to significantly decrease its dependence on oil, the US could reduce the political and fuel resources it uses to defend access to oil, particularly in the Persian Gulf, where it concentrates these efforts.

“Third, by decreasing US dependence on oil-rich states the US could then reevaluate the size of the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and reevaluate its relationship with Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region.

“Finally, by spending less money on fuel and operations to provide secure access to petroleum, the US could decrease its military spending and reorient the economy to more economically productive activities.”

Image credit: Watson Institute, Brown University

Crawford acknowledged that the US military has significantly reduced its use of fossil fuels over the past several decades, yet it is still one of the most voracious consumers of oil and natural gas on the planet. But by using as much of those fuels as it does, it is making a significant contribution to global warming, which in turn is disrupting climate patterns and leading to mass migrations by people seeking food and shelter. Those migrations are a primary cause of armed conflict.

Masters Of War

There is an assumption in America that the defense budget is sacrosanct. Anyone who dares question it is branded a traitor or worse. It continues to grow year by year, consuming precious dollars that might be better invested in making a just and equitable society for all Americans instead of only some. Just as there are opportunity costs associated with spending money, there are multiplier effects as well. Imagine for a moment that all that money wasted on punishing the Taliban had been invested in infrastructure, education, making America’s homes and commercial buildings more energy efficient, and basic research. Might not America today be the shining beacon to the world it claims to be?

Bob Dylan had a special distaste for the military industrial complex, which he distilled into “Masters of War,” one of the most powerful songs of his long and varied career. If America has any hope of taking meaningful action to lower its greenhouse gas emissions, it must break the grip of the warmongers and put people above profits. A nation in a constant state of war can never come to grip with the urgencies of climate action.

It’s time for America to stop investing in killing people and investing in  the future of civilization instead. Time is short and the need is great. Contact your elected officials today and vote as if your life depends upon it, because it does.

Note: The author wishes to thank Dan Allard for sharing his thoughts and ideas with me during the creative process that resulted in this story. 

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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