No War for Oil,  No Oil for War

Part I

Combine the strengths of the environmental and anti-war movements to defeat U.S. Middle East policy, end the Iraq War, and join the global community in the common struggle for a sustainable future.

Step It Up
Communities Uniting for Climate Action Now!
This April 14th, tens of thousands of Americans will gather all across the country at meaningful, iconic places to call for action on climate change.  We will hike, bike, climb, walk, swim, kayak, canoe, or simply sit or stand with banners of our call to action:
“Step It Up, Congress! 
Cut Carbon 80% by 2050!”

On the march against the war in Washington, D.C. on January 27th, thousands of marchers wore buttons proclaiming, “No Blood for Oil,” and some held placards demanding “The Separation of Oil and State.”  These slogans only begin to explain the link between war and environment, and especially, today, between war and warming.  It was Earth First! leader Judi Bari who framed the demand best: “No war for oil.  And no oil for war.”  Because we not only have to stop oil wars, we have to renounce the oil economy and the destructive and wasteful use of fossil fuels.  As energy conservation visionary Amory Lovins points out, the Pentagon is the world’s largest buyer of oil and the nation’s largest single user of energy — five billion gallons a year, 85 percent of all government energy use.

A few days after the march, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the first installment of its Fourth Assessment Report.  In its peculiarly measured language, the report concluded that human-caused “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level.”  Likely or more than likely developments include heat waves, heavy rainfall events, increased areas of drought, increased tropical cyclone activity, and increased incidence of extreme high sea level.  The conclusion of the summary report is that continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce larger future changes in the global climate system.  Simply to stabilize at current levels of climate disruption would require roughly a one-third decrease in CO2 emissions.  Ominously, in playing out various scenarios for future global economic development and cooperation, none of the report’s scenarios include additional climate initiatives, even at the very modest level of implementation of the major global treaties on climate, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or the emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol.

The connections have never been as visible or as urgent as they are today.  Understanding the link between America’s Middle East strategy and what Michael Klare calls the militarization of U.S. national energy policy reveals a new imperative for both the environmental and antiwar movements.  We must now be working to unite these struggles to combine moral outrage at a criminal war with our determination to transform the fossil-fueled American Way of Life.  Only this unified approach can ultimately eliminate the U.S. government’s imperative for its Middle East interventions.

What are the barriers to unifying these movements?  Even sophisticated young antiracist and antiwar activists drastically underestimate the immediacy of the global climate crisis.  While radicals/socialists/anti-imperialists share the view that capitalism threatens the sustainability of human life on earth, they are all too likely to view the threat, as two young radicals recently wrote, as only “catastrophic, climate-related disasters in the lifetime of [our] children and grandchildren.”1  Unfortunately, these and other usually savvy companion leftists have been snookered by the last ten years of the mainstream American media view, so carefully fostered by a barrage of petroleum industry studies and media manipulation.  And, even if the crisis was a generation away, wouldn’t that still be soon enough?

The fact is that the combination of unsustainable development, overexploitation of the world’s resources, and failure to immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, first and foremost by limiting carbon emissions from power plants, industry, and motor vehicles, will lead to a series of near-term catastrophes.  In fact, some of these catastrophes are already taking place . The warming the Earth is currently undergoing is fueled by carbon dioxide emissions from the Industrial Revolution up through today — an accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.  And for these, according to James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “the responsibility of the United States is 3 and one-half times that of any other country, and it will remain the largest for many decades to come.”2

The Disparate Impacts of Climate Change

As the environmental justice movement has insisted for years, these climate impacts are not affecting all the world’s populations in the same ways.  These catastrophes will impact people and nations differently.  This was most recently exposed by the devastation of the African-American and poor communities of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Despite early and frequent denials by the petroleum-based Bush administration, climate scientists now agree that increased hurricane intensity, driven by rises in sea surface temperatures, is an expected result of global warming.

If business as usual goes forward, the American use of oil will continue to escalate steadily through the 21st century.  China‘s fossil fuel use, and therefore its greenhouse gas emissions, will surpass those of the U.S. in the next few years: however, each individual American will still be using more than eight times the energy that each Chinese does.  The consumption of oil by the U.S. is forecast to rise from today’s rate — 20.48 million barrels a day — to 28.3 million barrels a day in 2025.  Oil imports are expected to rise from 11.5 million barrels a day to 19.7 million barrels a day.  At that rate, the warming of the earth this century will approach 3ºC.  Hansen describes the result:

It would be a different planet, with no sea ice in the Arctic, with many species of life driven to extinction, with ice-sheet disintegration and rising sea level out of our control, more intense hot dry conditions in spreading subtropical areas such as the western U.S., the Mediterranean, Middle East and parts of Africa.  The semi-arid part of the United States, stretching from West Texas through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas is likely to have more extensive droughts and be less suited for agriculture.  As isotherms3 move poleward, so too will pests and diseases normally associated with low latitudes.

According to Hanson, the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will bring the temperature up more than a degree, and that will make Earth a place with temperatures and sea levels not seen for half a million years.

We are already seeing catastrophic results of climate change, effects long predicted by climate scientists and denied by the Bush administration and its allies: increased hurricane intensity (now much more generally attributed to climate change than had previously been thought); western wildfires; tens of thousands of deaths in Europe and hundreds, if not more, here due to extreme heat waves; desertification in agricultural areas around the world; Arctic melting contributing to destruction of native cultures and sea-level rise destroying South pacific island nations.

Not only is this what we are seeing today: Jim Hansen, whom the Bush administration has been trying to silence and de-fund, estimates that we have ten years in which to drastically revise how our societies use fossil fuels, to pursue the many available alternative pathways to generate energy, or to use what we have far more efficiently.  If we do not, he states unequivocally, we will be living on a very different planet.  And the damage has not been and will not be evenly distributed: wealthier, more developed nations will fare far better: low-lying Asian and island nations will be terribly decimated, and large populations are at risk.  Katrina is not the aberration: Katrina is the model for how different populations do and will fare as global warming-induced extreme events become more and more common.

Population Density
James Hansen, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA, Presentation at Albany Law School, April 18, 2006.

Populations Underwater
James Hansen, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA, Presentation at Albany Law School, April 18, 2006.

War and Warming

To rally support for both the Bush Administration’s energy policy and the Iraq War, Dick Cheney famously stated that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.”  That is his ultimate defense of the human and economic costs of the government’s strategies.  It started early.  Environmentalists remember that Cheney’s private meeting with energy and petroleum industry CEOs (which, incidentally, took place in New Orleans) during the administration’s transition became the first test case of the Bush/Cheney policy of executive privilege.  Six years later, we still don’t know what was discussed at that meeting.  Environmentalists also recall that the first campaign promise the new president broke was his vow to do something about emissions of CO2 , the primary greenhouse gas. Such a promise, uttered during the campaign in order to undercut Al Gore’s strongest issue, was never intended to be kept.

Now we are deep into the consequences.  The United States is losing the war, our military cannot cope with the urban insurgency in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, and the adventure is taking an unbelievable toll in human suffering – (1/15/07) reports nearly 60,000 Iraqi civilians killed by direct U.S. military intervention, with another study in the British medical journal Lancet estimating a death toll at over 600,000.  The costs of the war in taxpayer dollars are also exceeding the GDP of most of the world’s nations, and will soon exceed the cost of the Vietnam War, according to Harper’s.  For the corporate military suppliers such as Halliburton, profits are rising (so are share prices — Halliburton is up about 400 percent with a split and regular dividends since Bush was elected) and everything is going fine, thank you, except that the plan to take control of the oil reserve under the western Iraqi desert — the world’s largest untapped field — is unraveling.  That possibility, as much as any other, seems to have been the reason for mobilizing the James Baker-Lee Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group.  An oil man himself, Baker has stepped in with an emergency plan that hopelessly attempts to restore order to the strategy and prevent the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld fiasco from ending in a total rout for U.S. Middle Eastern energy interests.

How closely the military and energy strategies are intertwined was revealed strikingly in the October 2003 Pentagon report on the threat posed to U.S. national security by catastrophic climate change effects.  Like so much written about climate in the past ten years, each analysis is overtaken by the peer review of the planet itself: the actual speed of Arctic glacial melt, desertification, and surface sea temperature increase has consistently outpaced the models and studies.

The Pentagon report was an attempt at modeling military responses to what was then considered the worst case scenario, including massive drought, flooding in the southern hemispheres, and collapse of the Gulf Stream leading to sub-zero temperatures in the north.  Predictably, the proposed response amounted to arming the U.S. for greater threats of thermonuclear war and building an impregnable wall around U.S. territory to close out a tidal wave of climate refugees.  But we can build for a response at once profoundly different and far more rational.  As Monthly Review summarized it in its perceptive report on the study, we should: “reorganize society, and . . . move away from imperatives of accumulation, exploitation, and degradation of the natural environment — the ‘after me the deluge’ philosophy — that lies at the base of most of our global problems.”

Climate scientists agree that drastic changes are necessary to reduce emissions enough to avoid truly disastrous concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.  Estimates of what is necessary average out at roughly a 25 percent reduction by 2020, increasing to a 70 percent reduction, or better, by 2050.  Some progressives argue that capitalism can never make that momentous a change: and much of today’s picture bears that out.  The U.S. refused to join the world community in the Kyoto reduction schedules, despite a goal that requires the wealthy industrial nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions only by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008–2012.  Among the signers of the protocol, reports indicate that even those modest goals are not being met.

Part II

The Political Economy of Climate Change

It is fundamental to examine the underlying causes of climate change and their political economy.  Here, the combined weaknesses of the environmental movement — non-ideological and non-radical, largely — and the antiwar/antiracist/antiimperialist movements — oblivious to or dismissive of environmental issues — have prevented effective coordination.  A start to an integrated analysis that places the roots and consequences of war and economic displacement in an environmental context is the critical first step.

The short version goes something like this: just to examine the issue of energy, we start with the view that the use and availability of cheap resources has been critical to economic development of the West, and of the United States in particularWe need to understand the energy value in every commodity and every service we use.  Some economists examined and rejected the concept of an energy theory of value because the energy embedded in commodities did not seem sufficient to be considered as fundamental — but that calculation was based on what we now understand to be a staggering underestimation of the real cost of energy, once the environmental externalities are factored in.  And the failure to factor them in — or, more accurately, the government and corporate strategy to hide those costs from view — have amounted to what Sir Nicholas Stern terms, in the Stern Review of the economic costs of climate change, “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen,” one he estimates will cost one percent of global GDP to redress today — and if we fail to act now,  as much as 25% of global GDP in twenty years.

Energy costs are externalities: that is, the full costs of fossil fuel commodities are not recovered in the commodities’ price in the market.  Therefore these costs are borne elsewhere.  This energy cost has been systematically and invisibly subsidized at least since the end of World War II, so that we experience gasoline costing over $2.00 a gallon as expensive, when the real costs — including the expense of maintaining a Middle East military presence — drives the cost of that gallon to $10.00 or more.  We need to learn to identify that value in our own lives and force our government to recognize it in our society.  Several long-time radical colleagues asked us, “Why do you say that fossil fuels are subsidized?”  For environmentalists, that is as if a lifelong antiracist activist was asked, “Why do you say that white people enjoy privilege in our society?”  The short answer is, there are both indirect, societal subsidies and direct, immediate subsidies.

Let’s start with the indirect societal subsidies: from the federal investment in the interstate highway system in the 1950s, with its link to defense uses, to the defunding of efficient electric rail travel, to the development of the auto-dependent American suburb at the cost of devastation of both the inner city and farm and wilderness lands, our social construct is built on that very slippery foundation, oil.  This public funding of the infrastructure to support the automobile — an incalculable subsidy to the development of its use — is paired with thirty years of ignoring the most expensive environmental cost of its emissions, carbon dioxide.  And most fundamental, a 60-year guarantee of protection by the U.S. government — and ultimately by its military — of its most sacred of all international rights: the right of transit of petroleum, guaranteeing the free flow of oil to the homeland.

Overlay the direct subsidies, themselves massive in scale and vast in number: the giveaways of offshore oil leases and federal lands for exploration; the maintenance of a strategic reserve; the favorable tax, and, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, subsidies for oil and natural gas three to four times the incentives for renewable energy sources such as windpower or solar energy.

Start from World War II, when the United States supplied the Allies with gasoline to win the war.  Immediately afterward, America allied with the House of Saud and guaranteed military protection in exchange for the uninterrupted flow of oil.  The past 50 years of development of U.S. society has been based upon this pact: the interstate highway system, the growth of suburbs, the worship of the car, the immoral profligacy with resources in general and fossil fuel-based resources in particular — oil, natural gas, gasoline, plastics, fertilizers — and the green revolution.  Hand in hand, too, go the abandonment of the inner cities, the destruction of mass transportation, the death of the electric car, a systematic failure to invest in solar energy, and the massive hidden and open subsidies to the fossil fuel industries — oil and coal.  Looming behind all this is for the past 50 years this has been a primary element of national security.  And it is the cause of the U.S. military occupations in the Middle East to this day.

So, the oil bargain rests on the foundation of the U.S. economic structure.  Challenging that bargain raises the most fundamental questions about our society: the sources and distribution of wealth and resources.

In this context, the environmental movement takes on a much broader importance than has so far been reflected in Left thought.  Anti-imperialists have a worldview to contribute to the environmental movement, and environmentalists have the understanding of what ecosystems are and how to protect them.  We in the U.S. are less than 5 percent of the world’s population, using more than 39 percent of its energy, and emitting more than 28 percent of all greenhouse gases: the typical American uses eight times the amount of fossil fuel that the typical Chinese does.

Building the Sustainable World

The big antiwar mobilizations are instructive for the broad coalition of movements, coalitions, strategies, and issues they link.  The broader the coalition the better, but what is the strategic imperative?  Often the basis of unity is the common nature of oppression and the sense of moral outrage at what government does in our name.  We are frustrated that a corrupt and immoral policy faces almost no opposition in Congress and the corporate media.  We march to express our anger, to say, “We are here!  We were here before you started this war and we will be here when it ends!  And if you had listened to us, this wouldn’t be happening.  So bring the troops home NOW!”

Hundreds of thousands of people stood on street corners with anti-war banners, in the cold and the rain, millions marched in the heat of the day, year after year.  Many despaired that these protests make any difference.  But the 2006 mid-term election results definitively established that the great majority of Americans clearly reject business as usual in Iraq.  This withdrawal of popular support for the war, even in the face of threats of national security breaches, marks a great triumph for the antiwar movement.  Let’s claim our victory even as we get back to work.  And serious polls show that just below the surface public support is growing for policies that reduce the nation’s oil addiction and fossil-fuel dependency.

Challenging the Bush/Cheney energy junta is the other side of challenging the war, and these issues must be linked.  Moving the country away from a fossil fuel-based economy can accomplish several things:

  • Without dependence on imported oil (predicted to rise over the next 20 years to 70 percent of the nation’s total oil supply), the U.S. Middle East policy of propping up corrupt monarchies and governments will be vestigial, and the need for Israel as guarantor of U.S. hegemony in the region could be eased.  For more than 50 years, U.S. policy has worked to destroy progressive secular groups in the region, leaving behind only corrupt theocratic forces.
  • The United States must be pushed in the direction of a sustainable economy, restricted to an equitable share of the world’s resources, and stimulating economic growth through the development of home-grown renewable energy resources.
  • The environmental impacts of the energy policy of the past 50 years, which degrade the quality of our air and water, can be mitigated.  The pollution which can trigger respiratory diseases like asthma, cause acid rain, smog, and global warming, while contaminating clean drinking water essential to the health of our families, can be drastically reduced.

Some people and organizations have been working to bridge the gap between the environmental and antiwar movements.  Greenpeace and the Green Party are founded on this linkage.  Other historic alliances are being built: the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club recently announced their Blue/Green coalition.  The Apollo Alliance is another breakthrough group making rapid national gains.

Apollo is named to recall John F. Kennedy’s vision of manned space flight to the moon.  It will take that kind of investment and determination to achieve sustainable energy use in time to affect both climate change and Middle Eastern policy.  The Apollo Alliance has called for a national investment of $300 billion over the next 10 years to completely redirect national energy policy.  A coalition of business, labor, environment and community and social justice leaders and organizations, Apollo believes this investment can create three million good new jobs and an additional $1.4 trillion in the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).  Apollo Alliance President Jerome Ringo, a former chemical worker from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the first African American to head a major national environmental group (the National Wildlife Federation), calls this the “win, win, win” scenario.

In December 2006, Ringo joined with several Democratic governors, including New Mexico’s Bill Richardson, to announce a new program of comprehensive initiatives to guide state action for a sustainable energy policy in the absence of any leadership in that direction from the Bush administration.  Apollo has a legislative agenda to reduce oil imports, increase the use of renewable sources of electric generation, retrofit schools, government buildings, hospitals, and the rest of the public infrastructure for energy efficiency and, at best, carbon neutrality (New York City is already on the way.  Last year, the City Council voted to spend $13 billion over the next 10 years on building green schools).  Apollo wants funding for inner-city revitalization, public transportation, and energy-efficient cities; many other environmental organizations, and some legislators, are putting similar measures on the table for the new Congress.  The test for these proposals will be: even if passed, can they get us to the emission reductions necessary to prevent climate catastrophe?

The Apollo Alliance is attracting interest because it links labor, business, and the environment in a common strategy.  Environmental justice leaders, who represent the poor communities of color that traditionally bear the brunt of urban and rural environmental hazards — power plants, sewage treatment facilities, diesel bus depots, brownfields, and other contaminated lands — are also leaders in the alliance.  That commits it to a suite of policies starting with the equitable distribution of necessary environmental hazards and advocacy for local job creation.  We need a national solar initiative that encourages the building and placing of photovoltaic solar panels on urban rooftops.  And we need green building-construction, contaminated-site remediation, and mass-transit policies that redirect development to the urban centers.  That helps with smart growth-planning by getting people out of their cars, reducing vehicle-miles traveled, and protecting outlying greenfields from sprawling fossil-fuel-enabled development.  The Bush administration’s Iraq War was an outgrowth of a neo-conservative ideological premise that in the era after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States, as the world’s only Superpower, had the ability to unilaterally force the globe to act in accordance with our interests.  Impelled by the September 11th attacks and the collapse of internal mainstream political opposition, the Bush administration’s rush to war was camouflaged as an extension of democracy.  The real agenda is the continued protection of American interests in oil, so fundamental to Cheney’s “American way of life.”  The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart said it best, when he asked God, “If you like us so much, why did you put our oil under countries who hate us?”

The defeat of the U.S. military strategy in Iraq offers an opportunity to embark on a different path.  The question is, what is the alternative?  What kind of new global alliance can be built to undo all the damage that is being done by the current administration and its allies?

Environmentalists and antiwar activists have the answer.  Building a strong alliance of environmental, peace, antiwar, and progressive movements around the world for a sustainable future is fast becoming the global strategic imperative.  Climate change, polar ice melt, rising seas, catastrophic storms, deadly heat waves, desertification, intensified hurricanes, uncontrollable forest fires, and the collapse of sustainable life for vast regions of the planet are happening now and must be addressed.

This will have to change if life as we know it is to survive.  The only possible way to succeed — and there is only the possibility for success — is for global grassroots movements for peace and for the environment to force governments to come together and take action.


1  Dan Berger and Andy Cornell, “Ten Questions for Movement Building,” MRZine 24 July 2006.

2  James Hansen, American Geophysical Union, San Francisco, 14 December 2006, at

3  An isotherm is a line drawn on a map or chart joining points with the same temperature over a given time period, commonly used in meteorology to show the distribution of temperature at the Earth’s surface.

Jeff Jones is the New York State Coordinator for the Apollo Alliance.  Eleanor Stein teaches energy and environmental policy at Albany Law School.

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