We Need to Wage Peace, Not War on Climate Change

Guest Blog by Phil Evans – originally published on Shouting For Deliverance

War!! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! So why would we, as renowned author and founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, recently suggested, declare war on climate change? This is not by any means a new suggestion, with pundits from climate emergency perspectives calling for mobilisations on the scale of WWII, code reds and other similar perspectives for years now. And like war metaphor siblings – war on drugs, war on poverty etc – will not a war of climate change prove to be a failure too? In some respects this is all semantics and a metaphor. However, many are proffering a radical alternative to declaring war, and that is to wage peace on climate change – literally and metaphorically – because the framing does matter and does affect how we act. Here I argue that war does not work and that a movement driven by non violence has no room for a metaphor that is its antithesis.

I firstly want to start by acknowledging the fantastic work of McKibben in mobilising and inspiring many people through the 350.org network and establish that this article is a challenge to the idea and framing of his article from August New Republic article, and to further the notion that non-violence is key to achieving climate justice outcomes.

War already contributes to climate change

It is important to enter this concept with eyes wide open. Many people may not have thought about the contribution that war is already making to climate change, however few would be surprised to hear that the contribution is quite huge.

Back in 2010 the US military tried to determine its ‘carbon bootprint’ with the findings from the audit being so bad (actual emissions counts weren’t released) that a decision to cut emissions by 34 percent reduction by 2020 was made. But of course, who watches the watchmen on this one?

The Guardian tells us that “According to Department of Defence figures, the US army emitted more than 70m tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year in 2014. But the figure omits facilities including hundreds of military bases overseas, as well as equipment and vehicles” so from that we can deduce that the overall total is significantly higher.

Another figure we have is that the US military uses $20 billion of energy a year, more than any other single U.S. consumer.

Whilst I loathe to rely on using US figures, it proves difficult to find similar numbers for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Ironically, the Ministry of Defence and the ADF have identified climate change as a “threat multiplier” and much policy work from the diverse groups like The Climate CouncilAustralian Strategic Policy Institute et al is being done to look at how a changing climate will affect operational and strategic matters for the ADF – or in the ASPI’s case be an opportunity to fundraise via offsets – there is little to no discernible talk of how to reduce our ‘carbon bootprint’.

How is that war on drugs going then?

“We’re used to war as metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer” says McKibben, but with those wars we are also used to failure. We still have poverty, drug abuse and cancer. These wars have delivered nought.

The war on drugs in particular has been a monumental failure. In 1998 the UN set a goal of making the world ‘drug free’ by 2008. In stark contrast to shiny outcomes that we were promised, we still have rampant drug abuse within societies, and this US$100 billion a year nightmare has:

  • left millions of people have been criminalised and hundreds executed for non-violent drug offences;
  • seen 30 people a day in Mexico alone are dying in the battle between drug cartels and government forces;
  • fuelled a US$320 billion a year criminal market – of course not paying tax towards safe use and rehabilitation projects;

and so on…

Even medical experts are declaring the war a failure, with Dr Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health saying:

The global ‘war on drugs’ has harmed public health, human rights and development. It’s time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions.

War is waged by Generals dictating orders, but peace is waged by communities getting along. This model of declaring war, and the rigid top down dictation of solutions from Generals removed from the battlefields is ineffective. As Beyer’s remarks back up, it is time we put community voice at the control of this problem, and the war mentality does not allow for that.

Infrastructure revolution only happens with wars

McKibben rightfully asserts that “to assess, honestly and objectively, our odds of victory in this new world war—we must look to the last one.”

This brief history of the US WWII economy shows that economic development was patchy at best and that the war “severely damaged every major economy in the world except for the United States.”  And whilst it is true that there was mass mobilisation of labour and unimaginable increases in technological know how and innovation, followers of Klein’s This Changes Everything and those committed to climate justice outcomes will not accept this winners and losers continuation of capitalist inequality.

But what about in Australia. Have we ever seen a mobilisation of labour to build renewable energy infrastructure on a massive scale? Did it require a war footing to get it down? One only need look to the Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electric Scheme for a shining peace time example that shows that political will and vision, not a war footing, is all we are missing.*

The Snowy – one of the most complex hydro schemes in the world – itself is 16 major dams, 7 power stations, a pumping station and 225 kilometres of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts. It was built buy 70% immigrant labour (take that xenophobia) with 100,000 people from over 30 countries involved and itself lead to great innovations like ‘Snowcom’ computing system and safety and inefficiencies in construction. And whilst the project is far from an environmentalists dream solution, it is demonstrative of what is possible when we put our heads to it.

And all that without needing to declare a new war.

Australia sends the troops to solve social issues

We must mention here that in the Australian context that we still haven’t even acknowledged the frontier wars that occurred upon colonisation. The Snowy was of course built on sovereign lands never ceded, after wars where treaties have never been signed. And the military incursions onto those lands have not stopped, nor has the thirst for fossil fuel resources.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response or ‘The Intervention’ as it is more commonly known began in 2007 when the Australian government sent the ADF into communities without local consultation to “protect Aboriginal children” from sexual abuse.

Yolngu man and Arnhem land leader Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu said of the army lead incursion onto lands that, “we hope there is not going to be anything like the intervention ever again. It is discriminatory, it’s a form of apartheid. It has never been any good to us.”

Many have seen the intervention as a land grab, and subsequent policies directed at indigenous community closures as the government freeing up land for resource development. Has war already picked a side?

Despite wide-spread protests and opposition the intervention has been extended until 2022. With this in mind, is it really time to declare war on another social issue?

Climate justice through non-violent means

Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
-Martin Luther King Jr

McKibben’s assertion that war is necessary undermines the the most inspiring things to come from this global existential threat: a mass movement committed to non-violence for climate justice.

Many thought leaders – notably coalesced into the recent Naomi Klein book This Changes Everything – see climate change as not just an environmental, but a social justice issue – and thus an idea of climate justice (a fusion of social and ecological justice values) is required to create a solution. These climate justice solutions move objectives and goals further towards a non-violent principled approach as they

Grassroots movements have risen united by a shared value for non-violence and climate justice ideals in what Klein describes as ‘blockadia’ – a series of camps and action groups resisting the spread of fossil fuels around the globe. They don’t have Generals, they don’t take orders, but rather work collaboratively and creatively with each other to create pathways from the current fossil fuel age, and beyond into a transformed future – each of which is different for different groups.

They are forming from the calls of front line voices – indigenous land protectors, farmers fearing for their livelihoods and nations who are disappearing below the waves. And whilst these affected communities would be justified in getting violently angry at the destruction of their homes, many are embracing non-violence and we are seeing successes and demonstrations of power – such as the movement to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and the Suva Declaration on Climate Change

It is from here that real power emanates, and it is from here that we will find the strength required to implement changes required to tackle climate change. Government policy may one day deliver us 100% renewable energy, but the structural issues of racism, dispossession and wealth inequality will still remain. It may be part of a package of solutions, but it certainly should not be our end goal as a movement. Communities binding together and taking back power (electricity and politically) should be the goal – and McKibben’s latest vision fails to articulate that.

Why peace? Because non-violence.

Let us not become the evil that we deplore.
-Barbara Jean Lee

War is a loss, a negative, peace is a gain, a positive for society. Researchers like Alexa Spence are using a evidence based approach to the problem of communicating climate and have found:

gain frames were superior to loss frames in increasing positive attitudes towards climate change mitigation, and also increased the perceived severity of climate change impacts.

Peace and non-violence work together. War and non-violence do not. So whilst renowned non-violence thinker, Gene Sharp says that “nonviolent action is a means of combat” in regards to the active, not passive nature of non-violence, Wally Nelson, a US human rights activist said:

Nonviolence is the constant awareness of the dignity and the humanity of oneself and others; it seeks truth and justice; it renounces violence both in method and in attitude; it is a courageous acceptance of active love and goodwill as the instrument with which to overcome evil and transform both oneself and to others. It is the willingness to undergo suffering rather than inflict it. It excludes retaliation and flight.

War is not dignified – as exampled best by the war on drugs. War does not renounce violence – quite the opposite. War does not seek truth and justice – as we know from the many war crimes and tribunals that continually fail to deliver results.

To renounce violence truthfully as a movement, the climate movement must adopt an attitude that aligns with the tactics it has chosen – to be principled in its non-violence rather than pragmatic – and this transformation is being held back by McKibbens latest contribution to the discourse.

In Conclusion

War ain’t all it is held up to be. Nobody wants it, it doesn’t deliver results and it is not the only motivating factor in actually getting innovation driving mass infrastructural projects built. It is a frame the the academics are telling us to avoid, and it runs counter to the strategies that we are already using to combat climate change. So why is McKibben even going there?

The climate movement is well and truly on non-violence bandwagon, but have been slow at moving towards a more principled approach. Further training and discussion about what non-violence means in terms of strategic deployment, rather than what it looks like tactically deployed is needed, and to learn that we may need help from other movements too. What is not going to help is old white men beating the drums of war, and certainly not the stale non-creative repetition of yesterday’s mistakes.

Edit. Unfortunately the Snowy-Hydro scheme seems to have fallen over

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