War and climate change are intimately linked, argues Brian Larkin. He explains why he and fellow activists from XR Peace blockaded BAE Systems’ London headquarters in 2019 over its links to the bombing of Yemeni civilians and the UK nuclear weapons programme.

In 2019 a small group of people from Trident Ploughshares set up XR Peace to bring peace movement groups together to raise awareness of the overlooked intersection between militarism and the climate crisis. Our message: War causes climate change. Climate change causes war.  In October that year, during the second Extinction Rebellion in London, demanding that government recognise the seriousness of the threat to global security posed by the climate, six of us blocked the entrance to the head office of BAE Systems, the UK and Europe’s largest military industrial company. We were arrested and charged with obstructing lawful activity. We were due in court on 22 April, Earth Day. The case was discontinued at the last minute..

With government approval, BAE is supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia that have been used in killing thousands of civilians in Yemen as well as building the submarines for the Trident nuclear weapons system. My defence would be that, since there is a clear record of violations of international humanitarian law – of civilians killed, schools, weddings, hospitals bombed – the UK is acting unlawfully in continuing to provide jet fighters and support for Saudi bombing sorties over Yemen. It’s a breach of UK obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty and should not be permitted under the UK’s own arms export regulations.

But what do the military sector and nuclear weapons have to do with the climate emergency? Why target BAE Systems? Aren’t fossil fuel companies the problem? 

The intersection between the military and climate change

Foreign policy, defence policy and the arms trade constitute a deeply intertwined and multi-faceted pillar of the global system that is driving the climate crisis. This triumvirate is responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that governments have only begun to consider mitigating. Their activities, largely to ensure access to oil and other resources vital to over-consumptive industrial societies, drive insecurity and generate conflict.

Part of the problem is that the military sector consumes large amounts of oil. It has been estimated that global military GHG emissions may be as much as 6% of total global emissions. The US Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and the single largest producer of GHGs in the world. If the US military were a country it would be the world’s 55th largest CO² emitter. Its fuel usage alone would rank above 142 countries including Sweden.

The biggest factors in this vast consumption of fossil fuels is moving troops and equipment around the world and conducting big military exercises. Military equipment has poor fuel efficiency. For example, the F-35 fighter-bomber gets just 0.6 mpg emitting 28 tonnes CO2e per mission. Humvees get just six miles per gallon of diesel fuel. The US maintains more than 800 bases around the world. The UK too aims to project force dramatically around the world with troops stationed in 145 locations across 42 countries.

In the government’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Boris Johnson’s promises to project power will push the budget up and consume vast quantities of fuel. “[T]he aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the two largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, will lead … the UK’s most ambitious global deployment for two decades, visiting the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.”

Johnson’s vision of a “Global Britain” is rooted in a desire to return the UK to its 19th century role as a global power, when what is needed are forward looking solutions to the greatest threat to security in the 21st century, climate change.  Increasing military spending by £24Billion above previous commitments over the next four years to an average of about £47Billion  or nearly 10% of the total spending, leaving less for addressing climate change.

The Climate Change Committee – an independent statutory body tasked with advising UK government – has estimated that annual government spending on climate change needs to increase to £9-12bn. The government has budgeted an additional £12bn over the next four years, of which about £2.8bn per year is expected to be actually spent. In contrast, ‘defence’ spending is set to rise by about £6bn per year over the same period from an already much higher base.

But this is not only a matter of resource allocation and fuel consumption. There is no foreseeable way to power HMS Queen Elizabeth or jet fighters that won’t spew massive amounts of GHGs. Instead, government must re-evaluate the underpinnings of its security strategy.

As Nick Buxton wrote: “The military is not just a prolific user of oil, it is one of the central pillars of the global fossil-fuel economy. Today whether it is in the Middle East, the Gulf, or the Pacific, … military deployment is about controlling oil-rich regions and defending the key shipping supply routes that carry half the world’s oil and sustain our consumer economy.”

The role of BAE Systems

I took action at BAE because they are the key business partner in the UK’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Thus, the UK provides arms and military support to ensure our continuing access to oil and gas – and control of access for other countries more dependent on fossil fuel imports – via those critical energy transit lines. This ensures the continuing consumption of the oil that’s driving climate change that will lead to the future deaths of millions of people.

In July 2019 I met the families of Yemenis who have been affected by Saudi bombing and was shown video footage of a bombing near their home. They were experiencing the grim terror of what is now more than six years of war.

I took action at BAE because it is supplying the Tornado and Typhoon jet fighters that are being used to drop bombs on Yemen, making them complicit in the killing of more than 230,000 people, including tens of thousands of civilians, with 3,153 children killed during 2015-2020 alone.

I also took action at BAE because it builds the submarines armed with Trident missiles with which the UK is prepared to unleash a nuclear winter that could end life on earth as we know it. What else could I do?

Who pays the price?

We purchase what we are told is our security at the cost of human lives. This version of national security is coming back to haunt us in the already imminent climate emergency. As extreme weather impacts the global south; in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Central America there is an increase in conflict. In large part the migration of people from these regions is fuelled by food insecurity due to climate change, by crop failures due to drought, and by conflicts that are exacerbated by those same conditions.

For the hungry millions of Yemenis, for the children who are being killed by Saudi bombing and on this Earth Day for the children of future generations, we must re-evaluate our definitions of security and create it, not with warships, but by addressing inequality and ensuring we prevent a climate disaster.

Brian Larkin has campaigned for peace and disarmament since 1980. He was one of the organisers of Faslane 365, the year-long blockade of the UK’s nuclear weapons base. He has been arrested about twenty times, and was once jailed indefinitely for three months. He is Coordinator of Peace & Justice (Scotland).

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: An RAF F-35B jet refuels mid-air during a 2018 training exercise. RAF, Crown Copyright.