With the social discourse on climate change in the United States largely shaped around our two-party political system, there emerges a fallacy of dividing the entire ideological struggle into two corresponding categories: the denialists, who don’t accept the basic facts of climate change occurring and why, and the faithful, those who believe in the science of climate change on account of their presumably well-placed trust in the institutions associated. But if denialism is simply the failure to understand the causes of climate change and what must be done about it, then we must continually be made aware of the denialism within ourselves – past the surface of whether it’s happening and whether it’s human-made to an ever sobering understanding of the underlying forces responsible for maintaining the death march that is our present. Directly in the path towards stopping the destruction, injustice, and loss of life from the climate crisis is a confrontation with the widespread lie that the United States has an interest in stopping destruction, injustice, and loss of life at all. To meet the moment of our present climate crisis, it cannot be with a denialism in understanding the United States as an imperial power.
An illustration of how the United States will handle the worst of the climate crisis can be found in how it has conducted itself during the coronavirus pandemic. The United States took hardly any proactive steps or preparations despite having months of knowing what was coming,1 seized vital shipments of protective equipment from other countries,2 used the occasion to persecute its political enemies,3 and has continually chosen immediate gains in the market over long term resilience and human lives.4 We don’t need to ask whether the United States will spring into action as it sees the crisis snowball into a mass of casualties, it has already shown with the private healthcare system and coronavirus austerity that it is ready to accept a steady attrition of preventable death even among its own people.5 And when a solution is at hand, as is now becoming the case with the vaccine, it raced with other nations so the cure could be locked into a patent and pushed the global south to the back of the line.6
While placing blame for the cause of a global and fairly naturally occurring pandemic due to inaction would be unfair even to the most capable of countries, an examination of the human made occurrence of climate change shows the culpability of imperial powers like the United States clearly. The US is first in fossil fuel consumption per capita and in annual CO2 emissions per capita.7 These most basic indicators immediately establish the United States as a dominant world leader in trailblazing a new frontier in total systemic ecological collapse. But to judge the United States by only this snapshot of the present would be to miss a whole history of context to how we got here in the first place.
It was Rockafeller’s Standard Oil of New Jersey (later known as ExxonMobil) who conspired with Shell and British Petroleum along with others to oligopolize the world petroleum market for much of the 20th’s century, at one time reaching one third of total U.S. private profits.8 It was ExxonMobil again who noticed fossil fuels’ effect on climate as far back as the 1950s and started a misinformation campaign to obscure the truth in the 1990s.9 Along the Bolivia / Paraguay border, it was ExxonMobil and Shell’s predecessors who fought a proxy war in the 1930s over oil interests.8 In Saudia Arabia, a US-Saudi partnership found oil and became ARAMCO in the 1930s, creating oil interests which the US protected in the 1970s by funding and arming religious militants against the Soviets, in the 1990s by waging the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, and in the 2010s with billion-dollar arms for Saudia Arabia to fight a proxy war with Iran in Yemen (to say nothing of the ongoing and decades-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).10 From the facts of history it’s not difficult to determine that the United States is not invested in fossil fuels on account of a series of global conflicts, a series of global conflicts are on account of the United States’ investment in fossil fuels.
And it’s with this political, economic, and military influence, that US imperial hegemony has so much more bearing on present day carbon emissions than just its own already significant contribution. To place burdens on a country like India, for example, for housing the economy with the third most carbon emissions without the international and historical context to that economy would be a complete mischaracterization of the issues at hand. The United States has more political influence than any other country and the most powerful military on the planet. It could start whipping votes on a coordinated end to fossil fuel use but doesn’t because it wants it this way. What it seems to want specifically, is the resource and energy driven wealth that fossil fuel production (both foreign and domestically extracted) affords its corporate interests. This wealth is not just directly from fossil fuels, not just directly from domestic production, but also industry worldwide. With $3.3tn flowing from (so-called) developing countries to developed countries as compared to $1.3tn flowing back, including $4.2tn from interest payments on debt over the last four decades, when we see carbon emissions and fossil fuel emissions from developing countries, it becomes clear who it is all that production has been made to serve, and who, ultimately, should be held responsible.11 Even within the borders of its own country the United States looks to push the problem down onto the working class, as the countless think pieces on the regressive carbon tax has demonstrated.12
Is all of this, one might ask, on account of an administration who ‘does not believe in Climate Change’? Only if by saying so we admit that in the United States we still do not have one. For due to the statue of the United States on the global stage, due to the necessity averting the worst of climate change would mean, the necessity of what preventing the harms from climate change would mean, the United States action on climate change would have to adopt an international, transformational, and reparational quality that it has so far refused to relent to.
It would look like the largest restructuring of economies in world history, with the United States, along with allies and adversaries alike, providing tens of trillions in funding and debt cancelation for fairly paid green energy, jobs, agriculture, transportation. and infrastructure, with freedom of mobility for migrants and restitution for those affected by droughts and flooding other natural disasters, and criminal liability for the individuals and entities specifically involved in perpetuation of the crisis, in what some have called climate reparations or a Global Green New Deal.13
Because the United States won’t agree to any of this, what it agrees to instead is a misdirection of the truth, in says innovation when it means industry, it says investment when it means exploitation, it says market incentives when it means superficial reform, but no greater misdirection as when it says climate change is a national security issue. The claim appears to be intended to suggest an acceptance of the science of climate change, and by extension an acceptance of the duty to prevent the death and destruction resulting, a promise to take the challenge seriously in the form of prioritization, investment, and decision making towards stopping it. And it is true at least that the military understands that if you let climate change get bad enough to affect homes and villages and islands then eventually you’ll have to do something about it affecting military bases as well. But the military is not the firefighters in this scenario, the military is the fire. The military is the single largest institutional user of petroleum, and by no means on account of insufficient funding. And the military does see the opportunity presented by climate change, not the opportunity to bring the nations of the world together to solve a common problem, nor the opportunity to redirect resources towards a new project of protecting families from present day natural disasters instead of a hypothetical aggressor — but the opportunity to secure more funding for itself to respond to what it euphemizes as instability. It’s plans for instability, as think-pieces and press releases indicate, include intervening in disputes over water shortages, securing our own borders against immigration, and running military drills to prepare for the scenario of an influx of refugees.14 A plan, in other words, to seize and secure the last remaining usable land and supplies as we watch the ecosystem collapse.
So let us, at least, be sincere in our intention not to be denialists. Let’s accept both the science of climate change and our history in creating it. Let’s accept both the human made causes and their capitalist imperialist sources. Let’s fight the military industrial complex with the same zeal as the fossil fuel it upholds. Let’s treat the phrase “green military” the same way we treat the phrase “clean coal.” The challenge of dismantling imperialism is as behemoth as the atmosphere around us, but if we mean to accept the truth of climate change then we can never choose the lethal delusion of exceptionalism over the necessary horror of seeing this brink ahead of us in enough time for us to turn. So let’s turn away from easy answers and green painted excuses. The United Stage needs a world-historic intervention. And the ones to do it will be us.
1 “Timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic and U.S. Response” Just Security
2 “US hijacking mask shipments in rush for coronavirus protection” The Guardian
3 “Sanctions Make the Coronavirus More Deadly” Foreign Affairs
4 “President Trump Wants To Reopen Economy Despite CDC Warnings” NPR
5 “U.S. Ranks Last in Preventing Deaths from Treatable Conditions” The Commonwealth Fund
6 “Covid-19: Many poor countries will see almost no vaccine next year, aid groups warn” BMJ
7 “All our charts on Fossil Fuels” Our World in Data
8 “Open Veins of Latin America” Eduardo Galeano
9 “Exxon’s Climate Denial History: A Timeline” Greenpeace
10 “The origins of the US-Saudi alliance: oil and the Cold War” Vox, “Obama administration arms sales offers to Saudi top $115 billion: report” Reuters
11 “Aid in reverse: how poor countries develop rich countries” The Guardian
12 “Putting a Price on Pollution” Finance & Development
13 See “The Solution to the Coronavirus Recession Is a Global Green New Deal” Jacobin and “The case for climate reparations” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
14 “No Warming, No War” Institute for Policy Studies, “The ICE, Pentagon-Bloating Vagueness of the “Climate Change is a National Security Issue” Mantra” Citations Needed Podcast