The environmental costs of US militarization toward China

The Trump administration has adopted a harsh stance toward China, resulting in the deterioration of political and economic relations that may endure into the future. As the White House recently wrote, “The United States recognizes the long-term strategic competition between our two systems.” If each nation views the other more as a security threat than as a diplomatic and trading partner, it will grow its military capabilities and engage in a zero-sum security race in which one side’s gains provoke the other.

This security race would have immense costs for both countries and the world, particularly in combatting what is perhaps the foremost threat: climate change. The direct costs are significant enough; they include the financial costs of using public funds to grow the military state and the environmental costs of military mobilizations and operations around the world. Also weighty are the opportunity costs of foregone emissions reductions and job-creation in productive industries in the green economy.

Financial Costs

First, an adversarial relationship with China entails real financial costs. As China takes an increasingly assertive stance in the Indo-Pacific region, building its cyber, nuclear, and space capabilities, the United States has set out to block Chinese expansion and adopt a more assertive stance itself. In its May 2020 report, “Strategic Approach to the Peoples Republic of China,” the Trump administration writes that it has adopted a “competitive approach” based on a “clear-eyed assessment of the [Chinese Communist Party’s] intentions and actions, a reappraisal of the United States’ many strategic advantages and shortfalls, and a tolerance of greater bilateral friction.”

The United States is already devoting more and more government spending toward countering China. One recent example has developed partly in response to growing tensions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic: Congress is debating whether to fund a new “Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative,” introduced in April 2020 by Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. The initiative would provide an additional $6 billion in the fiscal year 2021 budget to “enhance U.S. deterrence of China” through missile defense, surveillance, infrastructure, and related measures. Funding has also increased for cyber security, including $2.5 billion for the new “Space Force.” Outside of the Department of Defense, funding has risen to about $15 billion annually in recent years for the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy, and the higher levels are at least partly attributable to growing hostility toward China.

Today the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum. Emissions by the U.S. military are greater than the total emissions of many small and medium-size countries.

These China-related increases come on top of a massive level of expenditure for military purposes. The United States spends more on its armed forces than do the next ten countries combined. America’s military spending is about three times as large as China’s. The Department of Defense budget stood at about $721 billion in fiscal year 2020, representing about 15 percent of all federal spending and more than half of all discretionary spending. Military-related spending is higher still—totaling approximately $1 trillion—once one includes spending for veterans as well as nuclear programs in the Department of Energy.

While U.S. military spending is growing in relation to China, warfighting and related spending continue in the greater Middle East. Since 2001, the United States has waged war across the region, starting in Afghanistan and Iraq and now including Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and a host of other countries. Current and future obligations attributable to these wars already total $6.4 trillion, and they continue to grow. Combined, the United States’ post-9/11 wars and its military build-up in the Pacific region may prove financially unsustainable. 

Increased military spending necessarily entails cuts to other federal spending programs or an increase in public debt. One recent cut came within the Department of Energy: While funding for nuclear programs increased by 8 percent and funding for cybersecurity increased by 30 percent in fiscal year 2020, funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy fell by 86 percent. When increases in military spending are not matched by a decrease elsewhere in the federal budget, the result is increased debt, which already surpasses $20 trillion. Such increases will hamstring future opportunities to spend funds on climate change as well as public health, nutrition programs, and other domestic priorities. 

Environmental Costs

Second, intense U.S.-China antagonism will bring direct and severe environmental costs. Today the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum. Emissions by the U.S. military are greater than the total emissions of many small and medium-size countries.  In fiscal year 2018, the Defense Department spent $12.6 billion to use 690,615 billion BTU of energy, more than half of which was for burning jet fuel.

If the United States increases its military presence in East Asia with the intention of maintaining dominance over China, it would further raise these high levels of energy use and emissions. U.S. Pacific Command, home to more than 200 of the military’s 800-plus foreign bases, is already responsible for 22 percent of the Pentagon’s energy use for military forces and weapons systems. The use of energy in operations and at installations, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions and financial costs, will necessarily increase as the United States pursues a more aggressive military stance toward China.

Opportunity Costs

Finally, military expenditures bring opportunity costs, including lost employment and lost chances to mitigate climate change. Although spending on the military produces jobs, it is the least efficient way to deploy taxpayer dollars. In a paper I wrote last year,  I showed that for every $1 million spent on the military, about 6.9 jobs are created. By contrast, the same amount of spending yields 9.8 jobs in clean energy and infrastructure and 14.3 jobs in healthcare. Thus, funding the military at the expense of the green economy yields a net loss in jobs. Put another way, clean energy creates 42 percent more jobs than does the military for the same level of spending. When Congress allocates $100 billion in military expenditures and creates 690,000 jobs, it could instead spend the funds on clean energy and create 980,000 jobs, producing a net gain of 290,000 employed Americans.

Spending on the military also reduces the funding available for climate security. Investments are needed to mitigate and respond to climate-related problems—shortages of food and water, damage to infrastructure, and harm to economies and ecosystems. The Trump administration has reduced funding for climate change mitigation, dismantled or reversed many Obama-era climate and clean energy programs, and fired many of the people who had been working on climate change issues in the Department of Energy and elsewhere. The administration is stoking fears of Chinese aggression and then increasing funding for threat deterrence. At a minimum, any increase in military spending to deter the threat of Chinese aggression should come with a complete withdrawal from the post-9/11 conflict areas and a shift of funds within the defense sector, rather than an increase in defense funding.

Better still, withdrawal from the Middle East combined with a more moderate approach to the Indo-Pacific would enable additional funding to be directed toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in both the United States and China, the world’s two biggest emitters. For a fraction of what the United States currently spends on the military, with results that are mixed at best, it can take effective action to curb emissions. Funding of $200 billion per year for twenty years would bring down U.S. emissions by 40 percent, according to a report I co-authored at the Political Economy Research Institute. Such action would also create hundreds of thousands of jobs in manufacturing, construction, and a variety of services.

In the decades to come, the United States needs jobs and climate mitigation. It does not need a dangerous degradation of international relations and an expansion of its already bloated military budget.