The U.S. military is the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels. Yet the carbon footprint of warfare hasn’t been a central focus of the U.S. climate movement. Even the game-changing Green New Deal resolution that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced last year—the most comprehensive climate platform to ever hit Capitol Hill—makes no mention of the Pentagon’s climate impact.
But a primary challenger running for Congress in New York’s District 16 is connecting the dots between the world’s remaining carbon budget and the U.S. military budget. Jamaal Bowman is a political newcomer and former middle school principal backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and climate justice organizations like the Sunrise Movement. He’s looking to unseat Eliot Engel, the 73-year-old Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and senior member of the Committee on Energy who’s known for his hawkish approach to foreign policy.
In his bid for Engel’s seat, Bowman is distinguishing himself by running on an unabashedly progressive agenda, including both plans to overhaul U.S. climate policy and foreign affairs. And by highlighting the connections between the two, his platform shows how the Green New Deal could spur environmental justice not only domestically, but also abroad.
“The U.S. military is the biggest polluter on the planet so decreasing our military spending will go a long way toward saving the planet,” Bowman says on his website. “I believe the climate crisis is an opportunity to finally discard our weapons and fear of each other to come together and save the planet.”
At first glance, Eliot’s climate record seems decent. He’s fairly consistently voted in favor of climate regulation, he signed onto the Green New Deal House Resolution, and he’s a longtime member of the House’s Safe Climate Caucus. He received a perfect score on the League of Conservation Voters’ latest environmental report card and has been endorsed by environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action. But his foreign policy record is another story.
As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel is the most prominent Democratic Party figure on U.S. foreign policy. He has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from warmongering right wing groups and employee PACs for weapons manufacturers, while supporting pro-war legislation in Iraq, Iran, Palestine and elsewhere.
“You cannot call yourself a progressive when you’re accountable to corporate PACs and weapons manufacturers,” Bowman said in a recent televised town hall. “When you look at who funds him and what he votes for, you see a conflict of interest.”
The Pentagon is also a source of environmental injustice. Domestically, it is directly responsible for 141 Superfund toxic waste sites, 10% of all such sites in the U.S. Hundreds of other Superfund sites or places thought to be contaminated with poisonous forever chemicals are abandoned military facilities or sites that otherwise support military needs.
War has a toxic impact abroad, too. One study found that children living near U.S. bases in Iraq, which are still full of high levels of radioactive heavy metals, have an increased risk of paralyzed limbs, congenital heart disease, spinal deformities, and some kinds of cancer. Research also shows the U.S. war in Afghanistan contributed to the massive destruction of forests and wetlands.
In recent years, Engel has taken a somewhat less hawkish line on foreign affairs, offering his support for the Iran deal in 2017 and backing a 2019 resolution to cut off U.S. support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
But Bowman isn’t just pushing to modestly curb U.S. military intervention. He’s calling to dramatically cut the nation’s military spending over the next decade, taking a “diplomacy-first approach” to foreign policy. Doing so could go a long way to foster a more just world, not only because it would directly cut war spending, but also because it would cut carbon emissions. The climate crisis is a threat-multiplier that contributes to more global outbreaks of violent conflict, so lowered emissions could result in more peace globally.
Money freed up from a decreased Pentagon budget could go toward funding the kinds of environmental justice policies, like weatherizing public housing and funding a just transition away from fossil fuels, that Bowman calls for.
“Jamaal is clear: we need to stop dumping billions into the military,” Sunrise Movement spokesperson Stephen O’Hanlon told Earther. “We’re spending billions killing people — and of course spewing massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while we do it — while people are going hungry and while the climate crisis is bearing down on us. That’s not the leadership we need.”
Bowman’s candidacy shows the need to expand the scope of what’s considered climate policy. Environmental injustice does not stop at the U.S. border—neither should the Green New Deal.