The Soft Climate Denialism of Our Routine, Unexamined, Massive Military Budgets

As U.S. cities flooded, Congress pushed a $38 billion increase to a military that is worsening the climate crisis.

This year, Congress is moving to—yet again—pass another massive military budget. On September 1, 14 Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee broke ranks and joined with Republicans to pass a nearly $25 billion increase to the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This increase is on top of the $753 billion President Biden had already requested, which itself was a jump from the $740 billion NDAA passed under Trump last year. The amendment brings the total proposed increase to nearly $38 billion, or about three times annual inflation—a staggering sum as we enter year three of a crushing pandemic.

Such bloated military budgets are not a deviation from the norm in any sense: The NDAA is always huge, reliably accounting for more than half of all discretionary federal spending, and it always sails through with overwhelming bipartisan support (although we have seen some pointed objections).

But this is no ordinary year. The proposed hike came three days after Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, then tore a ruinous path through the Northeastern United States as a post-tropical cyclone, leaving at least 50 people dead, hundreds of thousands without power, and roads and homes submerged in rank floodwaters. This took place as the roads leaving the Lake Tahoe area in California were clogged with the cars of those attempting to flee a menacing wildfire, following a summer of infernos in drought-stricken swaths of the American West. There were also the heatwaves. And the lethal flash floods in Tennessee. All unequivocally tied to the human-made climate change that is creating a new, terrifying “normal” in the United States—and could grow far worse if carbon emissions are not dramatically curbed.

All why we ought to be extremely concerned about the impact of the NDAA, which should be viewed as a climate bill—and a very bad one at that.

First, it’s important to understand just how big of a giveaway to the national security state the proposed 2022 NDAA is. The House Armed Services Committee voted 42-17 to approve an amendment introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) that would, in his own words, “increase the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) topline by nearly $25 billion.” The sum is so much greater than what Biden had asked for that Politico depicted the move as defiance of the president, describing the hike as a “bipartisan rebuke to President Joe Biden’s military spending plan.”  

Biden’s initial ask for $753 billion was already mammoth and, to put it mildly, at odds with his claim that we have turned the page from “forever wars.” But here is where it gets especially damning: There are 31 Democrats and 28 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, so the Republicans only needed two Democrats to join them. But they got way more than two, as 14 Democrats broke ranks and joined the GOP in voting yes.

There are manifold ways this proposed budget—which would replicate and expand the violent U.S. military apparatus—undermines efforts to curb climate change. There is the fact that, if the U.S. military were a country, its fuel use would make it the globe’s 47th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. There’s the role of the U.S. military in opening new markets to capital, expanding the economic system that’s ultimately responsible for driving the climate crisis. There’s the harsh reality that U.S. militarism fuels reactionary politics—the polar opposite of the politics we need to curb the climate crisis. That the bloated U.S. military in worsening the climate crisis is well-documented (dubious pledges of “a green military” or Pentagon-funded climate research notwithstanding).

But I want to focus on one particular aspect of the proposed 2022 NDAA, because it’s so damaging yet under-examined. The need to confront China was cited as a key justification for the spending increase. “The bipartisan adoption of my amendment sends a clear signal: the President’s budget submission was wholly inadequate to keep pace with a rising China and a re-emerging Russia,” Rogers proclaimed in a statement. 

Even those who objected to the nearly $25 billion increase supported this anti-China stance. House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) opposed the amendment, but he went into that meeting calling for tremendous amounts of military spending, echoing Biden’s call for a $13 billion increase from Trump’s budget last year, and urging even more money for the anti-China Pacific Deterrence Initiative. 

The bill that advanced from the House Armed Services Committee markup is anchored in a more confrontational approach toward China, earmarking $6.2 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which is explicitly aimed at countering China. The amount is $1.1 billion more than President Biden had asked for.

This is not the first time that anti-China posturing has been used to justify tremendous military spending, or expand U.S. militarism in the Asia-Pacific region. But Lindsay Koshgarian, program director for the National Priorities Project, a watchdog organization, told me she is especially concerned about the confrontational stance this time around. “Most worrying is the potential for a replay of the foreign policy politics of the early aughts, where hawkish bipartisanship is taken to an extreme and voices of caution are few and far between,” she says. “This is how we got into Afghanistan and Iraq, and the idea that blind bipartisan hawkishness on China might shape our foreign policy for the next 20 years or more is chilling.”

Here’s the thing: It’s impossible to curb climate change unless the United States (the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter per capita) and China (the world’s top emitter overall) work together to drastically reduce their emissions. But U.S. militarism—in the form of deployments, bases, infrastructure buildup, and saber rattling—forecloses on the possibility of such cooperation. It’s hard to come together to tackle a shared existential threat when pouring billions of dollars into a new Cold War.

In July, dozens of climate and social justice organizations sent a letter to the Biden administration and members of U.S. Congress calling on them to “eschew the dominant antagonistic approach to U.S.-China relations and instead prioritize multilateralism, diplomacy, and cooperation with China to address the existential threat that is the climate crisis.” The letter underscores, “Nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new Cold War between the United States and China.”

This concern was echoed by Lorah Steichen in a July article. “Since taking office, the Biden administration has embraced a new military ramp-up aimed at countering China’s relatively modest military capabilities, backed hawkish legislation designed to hobble China and maintain U.S. global primacy, and wrapped otherwise independently popular domestic policies in the language of zero-sum competition with China,” she wrote. “This confrontational posture doesn’t just raise the risk of conflict—it also threatens to undermine global climate action just when we need it most.”

It’s important to note that the United States bears disproportionate blame for greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to its history of colonialism and economic pillaging. But it’s also inconceivable that we can meaningfully curb the climate crisis without China, especially given the dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that need to be made, according to the UN’s latest IPCC report. 

The bloated U.S. military should be opposed for its own sake—because of the harm wrought by bombings, invasions, proxy wars, meddling, and 800 military bases around the world. But the climate crisis brings fresh urgency—and outrage at the lawmakers who, with little fanfare, engage in the routine act of green-lighting massive military spending, and thereby severely harm our chances of curbing the climate disaster—all before the floodwaters have drained.