Peace Train: ​COP26’s impediment was its reluctance to address militarism as a climate hazard

The United Nations global climate summit held in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26 (Conference of the Parties, No. 26) with almost 200 countries participating was not a total loss. Some good things were accomplished.

It was unanimously acknowledged that all countries must immediately do much more to prevent a global warming catastrophe. Top priority was given to limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. (They have already increased 1.1 degrees Celsius above these levels.)  Specific paths were outlined to cut methane emissions by 30% and carbon dioxide emissions by 50% no later than 2030.

Wealthy nations were urged to double their funding promptly to protect vulnerable nations (e.g. island nations) from a warmer climate. One hundred countries — including Brazil, China, Russia and the United States — agreed to stop deforestation by 2030.

China and the United States — countries not currently on friendly terms — announced a joint agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during the current decade. China agreed to phase down (but not phase out) the burning of coal starting in 2026.

Nevertheless, COP26 was a bitter pill for anyone seriously committed to preventing planetary climate disaster. The climate summit advanced necessary environmental actions by perhaps 1 yard when it was imperative to leap forward by several miles. This summit was, as previous climate summits have been, very long on vague promises and very short on concrete enforceable commitments.

The environmental timetable used grossly exceeded that specified by scientific forecasts. One might say that the agreements reached at COP26 were “LLL”: too little, too late and too leisurely. To describe this climate summit as disappointing would not be quite accurate, because the outcome was more or less what activists expected.

Many factors explain the dithering ineffectiveness of U.N. climate summits, but one major impediment is reluctance to address militarism. Militarism and the wars that it generates are enormous greenhouse gas emitters and enormous contributors to global warming.

The United States military establishment, for example, is thought to be the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum. Its carbon footprint is larger than that of most countries. The latest U.S. fighter jet, the F-35, burns as much fuel as 1,900 automobiles.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq was the emissions equivalent of putting 25 million cars on the road. Moreover, the total emissions of Western military establishments appear to be growing. Indeed, U.S. military expenditures are currently set to increase for at least two decades (see Jonathan Cook’s Nov. 8 opinion piece in the Middle East Eye, “Military Pollution Is the Skeleton in the West’s Climate Closet”). Reducing military institutions and the consequent warfare would go a long way towards containing global warming.

But political elites in the United States are unwilling to curtail their imperialist aspirations for the sake of climate change. This motivates continuous expansion of military spending. It also motivates shielding military spending from the dictums of U.N. climate summits, like COP26. Thus, the United States obtained an exemption from reporting its military emissions at the Kyoto summit 24 years ago. After the Paris summit of 2015, military emissions have been partially reported, but always in highly camouflaged forms. Overseas operations account for about 70% of U.S. military emissions, but these are entirely excluded from Washington’s climate reports.

There is a deep connection between the failure to control global warming and the continuing struggle for global political, economic and ideological hegemony. As long as hegemonic ambitions are preeminent in the aspirations of contending ruling classes, fostering these ambitions will override all environmental concerns. The pathetic inadequacy of COP26 is painful evidence for the continuing reality of hegemonic struggle.

If the USA sought to be an ecological example to the world rather than its ruler, we would be acting entirely differently. We would embark on a rapid path to zero net emissions by dismantling the fossil fuel industry, drastically curtailing our military and constraining environmentally destructive consumption (e.g. airplane travel). We would do this irrespective of how other countries behaved hoping that environmental profligates might soon follow suit. If our country was to proceed on this exceedingly difficult, but extremely necessary path, then the existence of future human generations would be guaranteed, and we would earn their profound gratitude.