For the US Military, Fossil Fuel is the ‘Lifeblood.’ Here's What that Means for the Planet.

The B-2 Spirit, known as the ‘Stealth Bomber,’ is one of the most advanced aircrafts in the US military. It has a fuel efficiency of about 4.2 gallons per mile. (That’s not a typo; it’s less than one mile per gallon.) Burning a full tank of gas in a B-2 releases roughly 250 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s more than 50 times what the average car releases in an entire year. 

And that’s just for one trip, for one plane in the US military – the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuel. 

“The size of that consumption is kind of hard to get your head around,” says Neta Crawford on this episode of Trending Globally. 

Neta Crawford is a professor of political science at Boston University and co-founder of the Costs of War project, which is housed at the Watson Institute. The project works to uncover the financial, human, political, and environmental costs of America’s post-9/11 wars. This year Trending Globally has teamed up with the Costs of War project to explore what they’ve found.

On this episode you’ll hear from Neta Crawford on her groundbreaking work calculating the size and scope of the US military’s carbon footprint. In the process of uncovering the extent of the military’s fuel consumption and carbon emissions, she also traces the long and complex relationship between national security, fossil fuels, and climate change. 

Learn more about Neta Crawford’s work. 

Learn more about the Costs of War Project.

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts.


SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. The B-2 known as the stealth bomber, is one of the most advanced aircrafts in the US military. It has a fuel efficiency of about 4.2 gallons per mile. You heard me right, not 4.2 miles per gallon, gallons per mile. That's less than 1 mile per gallon.

Burning a full tank of gas in the B-2 releases about 250 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The average car in comparison releases about 4 and 1/2 metric tons of CO2 in an entire year, and that's just one tank of fuel in one plane in the US military.

NETA CRAWFORD: And the size of that consumption is kind of hard to get your head around.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's Neta Crawford. She's a professor of Political Science at Boston University, and co-founder of the Costs of War Project, which is housed at the Watson Institute. Its mission is to measure the true costs of America's post-9 9/11 wars. Not just financial, but also human, political, and environmental.

This year, we've been teaming up with the Costs of War Project to explore what these scholars have exposed. On this episode, Neta Crawford on the US military's carbon footprint. What she's found goes way beyond the shocking numbers, like the ones I just mentioned.

Her work traces the long and complex relationship that exists between climate change and national security. As you'll hear, we can't really address one of these issues without addressing the other. This work began fornito when she tried to answer a simple sounding question. It was Twenty-Eighteen, she was teaching a class on climate change at Boston University, and she wanted to include the size of the military's carbon footprint in one of her lectures.

NETA CRAWFORD: And I couldn't find that number.

SARAH BALDWIN: Like so many research projects that come out of the cost of war, this seemingly simple question had an answer that was anything, but turns out there was no reliable centralized reporting on the US military's fuel consumption and emissions. It was haphazard at best, and in many cases, especially having to do with overseas operations, the data was nowhere to be found. One thing was clear, though, the numbers she was looking for, they were going to be big.

NETA CRAWFORD: It's a $2.9 million percent enterprise with installations all over the world doing things which are very greenhouse gas-intensive like flying jets at altitude or having large aircraft carriers which are themselves nuclear, but are accompanied by large surface ships of other sorts. And all of that is in service of US foreign policy.

SARAH BALDWIN: Before we get into some of Neta's findings, it's worth sitting with for a second just how hooked the US military is on fossil fuels.

NETA CRAWFORD: Fuel provides mobility. It makes it possible to be somewhere far away very quickly, and that's how you maintain dominance. That's how you control territory.

SARAH BALDWIN: In some ways, fuel is as important to the military as soldiers and guns, and it's been that way for a while.

NETA CRAWFORD: This actually goes back to the 19th century. Around Eighteen-Forty/Eighteen-Fifty when the United States began to use steam-powered ships which required a lot of coal, they needed coaling stations, and those coaling stations were necessary to be at a range where you wouldn't run out of coal. So you had to have lots of them.

SARAH BALDWIN: This necessity actually came to define where many of our US bases are today. The

NETA CRAWFORD: United States began to acquire bases just for coaling. And one of the most important of those was in Pearl Harbor. They became ubiquitous, essentially, all across the Pacific and some elsewhere in South America. There's a way that the idea of securing the fuel, the coal was related to securing the location, the base. You see this through the 20th century as well.

SARAH BALDWIN: In the 20th century, especially after World War II, the military's obsession with fuel shifted more in the direction of oil.

NETA CRAWFORD: They call it the lifeblood.

SARAH BALDWIN: And with that obsession, a turn to a different part of the world, the Middle East. Securing access to oil in the Middle East has been, as you're surely aware, a huge preoccupation of the US military and foreign policy. Here's a quick tour through some of that history.

NETA CRAWFORD: After the fall of the Shah in Nineteen-Seventy-Nine in Iran, the United States became concerned that Iran was no longer a friendly ally. We couldn't count on them to supply oil. There had already been two oil embargoes in the nineteen-seventies.

And when the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan in Nineteen-Seventy-Nine, it's another concern that are they actually on their way to the Persian Gulf to control that oil? So Jimmy Carter, in Nineteen-Seventy-Nine, says we need a rapid deployment force to protect access to oil in the region and any other US interests in the Persian Gulf. And that force gradually becomes larger. It's renamed to central command. And the main mission for many years has been preserving access to oil.

SARAH BALDWIN: And boy, do they need a lot of it? Let's look back at that example I brought up in the beginning.

NETA CRAWFORD: Their operations. 70% of operational emissions are from aircraft-- helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, air refueling. And the reason is so greenhouse gas intensive is simply the fact that these really complex machines are inefficient at fuel usage.

SARAH BALDWIN: Partially that's because as you maybe can imagine--

NETA CRAWFORD: It's not like they're optimizing for fuel economy, they're optimizing for combat performance. And so aircraft just simply consume a lot of fuel to do the things that they're asked to do.

SARAH BALDWIN: Which gets us back to that example I mentioned in the intro.

NETA CRAWFORD: The most advanced bomber we have right now, the B-2 bomber, has an internal fuel capacity of about 167,000 pounds. And it has a 6,000 nautical mile range. And it gets 4.2 gallons per mile. That's my own estimate.

So then if that's the case, then it's emitting about 250 metric tons in emission of 6,000 miles without refueling. But then of course, it refuels, because 6,000 miles doesn't get you to the Persian Gulf and back. And all B-2s leave the United States.

They aren't generally based, let's say in the Persian Gulf War where they might be used because they're too delicate. They don't like it the rain. They've very special skins to avoid detection by radar. And so when they leave the US and they fly those 17,000 mile round trip, they're using a great deal of fuel.

SARAH BALDWIN: But that doesn't even capture the B-2 bomber's full carbon footprint.

NETA CRAWFORD: And then the aerial refueling tankers that supply them in the air are getting an estimated 2.9 gallons per mile. So they're carrying thousands of gallons of fuel to be put into that B-2 bomber so that it can continue its mission without landing, and then return again without landing. So it is a very fuel-intensive activity to fly aircraft. And of course, they're not just flown for missions, they're flown for training, and for teaching people how to fly them.

SARAH BALDWIN: The US has 20 of these B-2 bombers, and that's just one type of aircraft in our military, which operates on air, land, and sea. And here's something kind of ironic.

NETA CRAWFORD: We're using significant quantities of fuel to protect access to the fuel which we need to have to run the military. And so we're still spending about a quarter of all of our fuel used for the military to protect access to oil.

SARAH BALDWIN: That, my friends, is a vicious cycle. All of these factors have combined to make the US military the largest institutional emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. Neta and her team estimate that between Two-Thousand-and-One and Twenty-Seventeen, the US military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of CO2. That's more than double the amount emitted by all the cars in the United States in that period.

NETA CRAWFORD: It is as large as countries' consumptions. So for instance, think about the consumption of Portugal. The entire annual consumption of the country, Portugal, is smaller than the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the US military.

SARAH BALDWIN: The military's carbon footprint alone is playing a meaningful role in human made climate change, from heat waves to droughts, fires and floods, which brings us to a second irony about this military carbon industrial complex. A Lot of the science that first connected human activity to climate change and spelled out the implications of our addiction to fossil fuel, a lot of that science came from none other than the US military.

NETA CRAWFORD: In the post-World War II era, the United States had a very keen interest in understanding the oceans, in particular because it would have submarines that they wanted to avoid detection by the Soviets.

And a great deal of money was put into understanding the oceans. How did sound move through the ocean. And if the ocean salinity change, would that change the transmission of sound? The same with the atmosphere. The United States' military had a keen interest in understanding the atmosphere.

SARAH BALDWIN: You can see where this is going. The US began to fund research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. It was there that a group of scientists, led by a researcher named Roger Revelle, discovered that releasing CO2 into the atmosphere would likely warm the surface temperature of the planet. They called it the greenhouse effect. This was in the nineteen-fifties.

NETA CRAWFORD: So Revelle in the late nineteen-fifties is making this as part of his argument to get the US to put money into basic science for the climate. And the military does. The US Congress provides resources so that the Navy can then support this basic research.

Revelle works with, among other people, Charles Keeling, who during some of the basic science that shows that both the atmosphere is sort of regularly changing the amount of concentration of carbon dioxide, but that carbon dioxide is actually increasing. The scientists in the later nineteen-sixties go to President Johnson and say, look, what we've shown is that the atmosphere is warming and we're doing this giant experiment by putting all this carbon into the atmosphere.

SARAH BALDWIN: Fast forward a few decades, in Nineteen-Ninety, Terry P Kelly published a paper for the Naval War College titled "Global Climate Change Implications for the United States Navy". Some of the key findings in that paper, as Neta explained.

NETA CRAWFORD: One is the concern that they'll be technical issues with ice melting, and that will change the opacity of the United States to detect Soviet subs and so on. Another concern is that there'll be a hotter environment. The ports will change. We'll have to redo our mapping of the undersea area. And it's all very technical, but there's the acknowledgment there that climate change is a problem in Nineteen-Ninety.

SARAH BALDWIN: Since then, the military's understanding of the threat of climate change has only grown. As of today, according to Neta, they have three main concerns when it comes to the effects of climate change. First.

NETA CRAWFORD: You're going to send people to work in hotter, wetter, or drier environments. Operations may become more difficult. What they have found is that already, there are days when they cannot train because it's too hot or too humid.


NETA CRAWFORD: The second thing that they're concerned about strategically is that they'll be called away to do things, like rescue people or fight fires, and that will potentially use up resources that could be used to fight a war.


NETA CRAWFORD: They're concerned about the potential for climate caused migration to increase insecurity at the borders. The idea is that as people are fleeing rising seas or drought or famine, they make their way to the United States, and then that poses a challenge, potentially they argue, to US security.

SARAH BALDWIN: Now you could imagine an alternate reality, where if the most powerful military in the world saw climate change as a threat to national security, massive resources would be deployed to fight climate change, like some sort of Manhattan Project for saving our environment. But that's not what's been happening over the past few decades.

You see, in the nineteen-nineties when the Naval War College was planning for the threats brought on by climate change, the UN was establishing a treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol. It was the beginning of an international strategy to limit the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The US was a key player in writing the treaty. But as it was being put together, something funny happened.

NETA CRAWFORD: When the United States is getting ready to go to the Kyoto negotiations in Japan, the US military writes in September of Nineteen-Ninety-Seven a memo that it sends to the White House that says, look, whatever you do, do not commit the United States military to reductions, because if the military has to reduce even 10% its emissions, that means that we will have to reduce our operations, our training, and ultimately our capacity to make war, our capacity to be dominant. And if the United States wants to maintain its dominance, we cannot have military missions counted and held against the United States.

SARAH BALDWIN: And sure enough--

NETA CRAWFORD: That's the position that becomes the Kyoto Protocol, that military missions are out, they're not included, they're not to be detailed in annual submissions of the United States or any other country. That became the treaty language. And that's the language essentially in operation to today.

SARAH BALDWIN: Thanks to the US Congress, the US never ended up ratifying the treaty anyway. But even if it had, the US military made sure that its massive carbon footprint would never be up for discussion. As Neta puts it.

NETA CRAWFORD: Over the long period of time from the nineteen-fifties through to Nineteen-Ninety-Seven, the US military was aware of climate change, saw it as a technical problem, wanted to fund research, so it could understand the problem. It ends up funding the research, which becomes crucial for the entire world's understanding of climate change.

Revelle, Keeling, and the other scientists that the US Navy funded are the scientists who give us the knowledge that is really what we're standing on today, so that we can understand the problem. And then we see them anticipating national security concerns, but then yet saying what's more important is for us to maintain preeminence and not to have any treaty that could potentially lead to reductions.

SARAH BALDWIN: Now, it's not entirely fair to say that the military has done nothing to reduce its carbon footprint. In many realms over the past few decades, it actually has lowered that footprint.

NETA CRAWFORD: So one of the things the military has done quite well is increase the efficiency of its aircraft, of its tanks, of its tents.

SARAH BALDWIN: And at bases and installations--

NETA CRAWFORD: They've become much more efficient at doing two things. First of all, transitioning off of coal and replacing that with natural gas or electricity, and they've added a modest amount of renewable energy, which includes geothermal, solar, and wind power.

SARAH BALDWIN: But there's an essential caveat to any of these changes.

NETA CRAWFORD: The idea that the United States should reduce emissions from the military is not their utmost concern. Their uppermost concern is operational. How do we fight and win a war and have fewer American soldiers die doing so? So that includes having fewer American soldiers die moving fuel, so hence you decrease fuel consumption to do that. And if it is the case that emissions decline, that's fine. That isn't their primary concern.

SARAH BALDWIN: Is there any way then to shrink this massive carbon footprint beyond what the military decides to do voluntarily? For the foreseeable future, fossil fuel is still the most effective source of fuel for most of the military's operations.

And if Neta's work teaches us anything, it's that operations are what guide military decision making. And that actually brings us to what Neta thinks is the most effective starting point for lowering this carbon footprint, questioning those operations.

NETA CRAWFORD: The most important thing we could do right now when we look at the US Military is ask whether the missions that they are performing are vital to the security of the United States. So not to look at the problem of military emissions as shaving off some gallons per mile here and adding a few solar panels there, but whether or not the emissions are necessary, whether the exercises are necessary can they be reduced?

SARAH BALDWIN: And the answer, according to Neta, is a resounding yes.

NETA CRAWFORD: The idea that basically fundamentally the military is the best solution to the problems that we have, it is the way that we stand up to China, and it's the way that we show countries in Africa that we're serious. And in the Persian Gulf, it has become the first tool and sometimes the only tool in US foreign policy. SARAH BALDWIN: I believe that we can provide for security in a different way.

SARAH BALDWIN: Now usually, when talking about anything related to climate, it can feel like the more expertise someone has, the worse the news they're going to give you. But Neta, who knows the ins and outs of this issue, she doesn't think a reassessment of operations is totally unreasonable to hope for. That tendency for the military to be the first tool used in foreign policy.

NETA CRAWFORD: Does the military have an incentive to not be that? Yes, they do. I mean, for one thing, nobody wants to send people out to do things which are frankly unwise. They don't necessarily want to use military force if it will cost lives for little gain.

SARAH BALDWIN: Of course, there are interests that want to keep the military humming and keep justifying more and more military interventions. But that might be more our problem than the military's.

NETA CRAWFORD: It's us who ask the military to do these things. If we said we want 20% reductions, they're ready to do it in terms of installations. In fact, in recent reports, they've said we have an excess capacity at our bases of about 20%. So we could reduce basis if you just let us, they say, have another round of base realignment and closure.

So they're ready to do some of these things. It's the politicians which have to say, OK, another round of base realignment and closure. And the politicians don't want to do that because it might mean closing a base near them, which they think is providing votes for them. This is a political problem.

SARAH BALDWIN: Re-envisioning how we treat our climate and how we use our military, these are two of the biggest projects you can imagine, frankly. But maybe it helps that they're related. Fixing one might just help the other.

NETA CRAWFORD: So I think that the issues are political, and it's also one of imagination. Can we imagine a world where we don't use the military to be the first tool and it's the first resort rather than last resort? And can we imagine a world where we convert bases that have been in the United States since before the revolution to other activities?

On the one hand, we have a world where we're rapidly decreasing our life chances and our opportunities through runaway greenhouse gas emissions, and we've got this military that's supposed to defend that world, protect it. These are at odds. Now we're defending things like oil, which we cannot burn. So can we think about another way of being?

SARAH BALDWIN: And if we can change the politics on this.

NETA CRAWFORD: The military will do what they're told to do if they're told to do it. And that's the way it should be in a democracy.


SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. And if you haven't already, you can subscribe to Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts. We'll be back in two weeks. Thanks for listening.


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The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

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Dan Richards

Host and Senior Producer, Trending Globally