What is the Ukraine conflict about? It’s about climate change!

“What is the Ukraine conflict about? It’s about climate change!”


Emanuel Pastreich
August 3, 2014


Many theories have been advanced concerning the growing conflict between the United States and Russia over the future status of Ukraine. The American media is hyping up the confrontation between the West and Russia as fast as it can. Many of those articles use the classic term “the West” in a most disingenuous manner. The media suggests that somehow the entirety of the enlightened world, all those who grew up in the tradition of Plato and Voltaire, are fed up with Russia and its undemocratic and expansionist moves. But there is plenty of evidence that the actual populations of European nations, regardless of what the bigwigs at NATO say, have little sympathy for this dangerous project of confrontation.

But among the many articles on the situation in Russia, or in Gaza, oddly the impact of climate change on policy related to Russia is completely overlooked. Although we cannot produce a “smoking gun,” there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that suggests that pushing Russia to the edge of war is inseparable from the life and death struggle within the security apparatus itself to avoid taking climate change seriously. The project of avoiding a serious engagement with climate change within the military, which is the mother of all conspiracy theories, works like this: by creating an clear and present danger in the form of Russia that can only be responded to in terms of missiles, missile defense, planes and tanks, you can force through a new set of military budgets focused on so-called “traditional threats”that assure high profits for manufacturers and also assure that any serious revision in light of the threat of climate change will be put off for another fifteen years (as the budgets for planes and missiles that will be rammed through congress will  be spread out over  more than a decade).

There is a growing consensus in the military on the threat of climate change that demands some sort of crisis to turn back the clock and get back to the familiar security paradigm. On March 8, 2013, the Commander of the U.S. Forces Pacific Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III met privately with security and foreign policy specialists at Harvard and Tufts to discuss the threat of climate change and them made a public statement declaring that climate change is the greatest security threat of our age and that it “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.’’

Those were not empty words. There have been many serious efforts to revise priorities in the military in light of this challenge. And among those who are experts, as opposed to those who make policy,  Admiral Locklear’s words rang true.

But in May, 2014, the House of Representatives, along party lines, passed an amendment to a defense budget that prevented the Department of Defense from using funding to address “the national security impacts of climate change.” This move was the worst in climate change denial, but it was also one powerful blow in the battle to try to keep the security focused on the good old threats of missilesand fighter planes and away from climate change. The fact that Republicans proposed the amendment should not blind us to the broad range of moneyed interests who want to keep things as they are.

That was just the beginning. In July 2014, Republicans in the House of Representatives put forth funding legislation that reverses new rules to limit coal pollution. The efforts to make climate change go away as a national priority are widespread. The work of crushing every green sprout in Washington is turning out to be hard work.

And then the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine dropped down like manna from heaven. Suddenly, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted at the Aspen Security Forum on July 24, 2014, that the US Department of Defense has been looking inside of our own readiness models to look at things we haven’t had to look at for 20 years.That means going back to big-budget spending on defense systems for a fantastic war with a peer competitor. He went on to suggest that this new military confrontation took the military back to the golden years of the Cold War.

It has been shocking how quickly people all over Washington are running around declaring a new Cold War. This term started showing up in headlines immediately after the disagreement over Ukraine and has caught on as a broad policy statement before any serious analysis has emerged as to what exactly that term might mean.

After all, what better way to keep us locked into cold war budget priorities and mindsets, keep us committed to massive funding for missiles, missile defense and fighter planes than a seemingly modern and conventional military confrontation with Russia? Suddenly circumstances make it all but impossible to consider shifting priorities to climate change.

In fact, you do not actually have to articulate such an agenda of using a “Cold War” with Russia to turn attention away from climate change in your speech—although I am sure that many in the Pentagon have said exactly that in their private conversations. All you have to do is cling to your budgets. After all, in an age without any deep beliefs or ideologies, without anything of value that cannot be bought or sold, budgets trump truth in every case.


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