Come together?

IssueDecember 2022 - January 2023
Feature by Gabriel Carlyle

Should the peace and climate movements be trying to work more together and, if so, how?

These were two of the key questions posed at the recent ‘War and the climate emergency’ dayschool in Oxford that brought climate and peace campaigners together to learn and reflect in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It’s not hard to find common ground shared by the two movements.

For example, as PN’s editor, Milan Rai, has noted, Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine has dealt a hammer blow to the possibilities for international co-operation necessary to address the climate crisis, a situation ‘made worse by the US-UK determination to keep the war going and to bleed Russia into submission – despite the dreadful cost to Ukrainians’ (see PN 2662).

And, of course, the global military and fossil fuel systems are intimately intertwined. Not only do the military use vast quantities of fossil fuels, but military power has also frequently been used to try to ensure control over these key resources.

Yet, to date, serious, sustained and active collaboration between the climate and peace movements appears to have been limited at best.

Below, I’ll briefly consider three proposals for possible joint projects that were floated at the dayschool, and give my own initial thoughts about their pluses and minuses.

1) Nuclear winter and the TPNW

The first proposal is that the peace movement try to draw climate activists and the climate movement into the struggle against nuclear weapons. Specifically, through joint campaigning to get their home states to sign and ratify the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Endorsed by 122 countries at a special UN conference in New York in 2017 (see PN 2608), the TPNW has now been ratified by 68 states including Austria, Bangladesh, Chile, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand.

The thinking behind this proposal is fairly straightforward.

Many climate change activists – and particularly those in Extinction Rebellion and its various spin-offs – have been drawn into the climate movement because of the existential risks posed by catastrophic global warming, including the potential for famine and civilisational collapse as the atmosphere heats.

Peace activists could attempt to use the heightened awareness of the threat posed by nuclear weapons generated by Putin’s recent nuclear threats (see PN 2659) to mobilise the climate movement into joining the international campaign to avert nuclear armegeddon.

Anyone attempting to do this would also have decades of research into the likely impacts of nuclear war to draw on.

For example, a recent article published in the scientific journal Nature concluded that even a ‘limited’ nuclear war between India and Pakistan would kill ‘more than 2 billion people’ around the world. The vast quantities of soot ejected into the atmosphere would cause a sharp drop in global temperatures with a devastating impact on global food supplies.

If you’re terrified enough about the effects of global warming to be part of the climate movement, the thinking goes, then you should also be part of the movement acting to avert a nuclear winter.

The pluses of this proposal also seem fairly clear: the threat is real and the TPNW already exists as a campaign focus.

On the downside: nuclear abolition has less support than climate action in some countries (in the US, two-thirds of voters said that climate change should be a priority for whoever won the 2020 election, but only 49 percent backed the TPNW). So, some climate groups might fear that broadening their concerns to include nuclear war could weaken them politically.

Averting nuclear war clearly benefits everyone. However, this proposal could still be perceived as one-sided, drawing the climate movement into being active on a ‘peace movement issue’, rather than working on a joint campaign of clear benefit to both movements.

And, at least in the nuclear weapons states, the chances of a near-term victory would appear to be slender at present.

2) Military emissions: count them, cut them

A recent analysis, co-authored by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), estimates the military’s global carbon footprint (including emissions produced by its supply chains) at 5.5 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This colossal figure is comparable with the emissions produced by civil aviation and shipping (roughly 2 percent each).

However, data on military emissions is currently severely limited – by design.

In 1997, US delegates to the negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol (then the focus of international negotiations to limit GHG emissions) successfully pushed for the military to be excluded from reporting its emissions. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement continued this approach by making military emissions reporting voluntary.

As a result, SGR note, ‘most countries – including those with large military expenditures and military personnel – do not require their militaries to provide any meaningful GHG emissions reporting’. The latest UN climate reports barely discuss the sector at all.

“The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement continued the approach of making military greenhouse gas emissions reporting voluntary.”

The second proposal then, is for the peace and climate movements to join forces to put military emissions on the global agenda and push for their full and accurate disclosure.

Again, some of the pluses are clear: both movements have a clear common interest in exposing the environmental cost of the world’s militaries, and some of the initial spadework has already been done by SGR and others.

Moreover: the goal seems winnable, there are plenty of precedents for similar sector-focused campaigns (for example, fast fashion) and pressing for transparency can often be a great first step for a campaign.

That said, the whole thing could seem too ‘wonky’ and detached from everyday life to gain traction. After all, everyone wears clothes, but not many of us have our own fighter jet ...

And there’s a big question mark over what the next step (assuming the first is achieved) would be.

I suspect that many in the peace movement would join me in recoiling from calls for the military to reduce its emissions by greater use of drones and solar panels. On the other hand, reducing emissions through reduced military expenditure is an attractive prospect.

3) A global peace dividend?

Which brings us to the third proposal: a joint campaign to redirect at least part of global military spending towards addressing humanity’s common problems.

Late last year, over 50 Nobel laureates signed an open letter proposing that ‘the governments of all UN member-states should negotiate a joint reduction of their military expenditure by 2% every year for five years’, raising as much as $1 trillion by 2030.

Under this proposal, half of the money raised would be ‘allocated to a global fund, under UN supervision, to address humanity’s grave common problems: pandemics, climate change, and extreme poverty’. The remainder would be at the disposal of individual governments.

“Many in the peace movement would recoil from calls for the military to reduce its emissions by greater use of drones and solar panels.”

‘Humankind faces risks that can only be averted through cooperation’, their letter noted. ‘Let us cooperate, instead of fighting among ourselves.’

To date this so-called ‘Global Peace Dividend Initiative’ doesn’t appear to have progressed much further than the publicity around the initial letter.

But in principle there’s no reason for it not to develop into the same sort of vibrant campaign as the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNPT) has, over the last few years. Indeed, the FFNPT now has the backing of the European parliament, the World Heath Organisation and over 70 cities and subnational governments around the world.

Also, going on the offensive and demanding cuts to military spending might actually be the best way to counter-act calls (by the UK government, the TUC and others) to further increase military spending in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It’s an attractive, easy to understand idea, which could free up huge sums of money to address pressing human needs.

The major downside is that there is clearly no easy win here.

So there you have it: three suggestions for possible joint campaigns by the peace and climate movements.

Of course, whether any of them will be put into action is up to all of us.