by Michael C. Davies
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unambiguous in saying that by 2030, without momentous efforts to decarbonise, the catastrophic effects of climate change cannot be avoided. Put simply, we have ten years to save human civilisation. Beyond the usual wranglings about climate change denial, debates over costs versus benefits, and government versus private sector innovation and largesse, the carbon cost of global military operations has only started to be understood as a key driver of carbon emissions. As a recent report from Brown University’s Costs of War project noted, “The [U.S. Department of Defense] is the single largest consumer of energy in the US, and in fact, the world’s single largest institutional consumer of petroleum.” Other similarly-sized armed forces, while not as polluting, still produce mammoth amounts of carbon daily. The problem at hand, therefore, suggests that among the best ways to initiate a global reduction in carbon is a general disarmament, even if temporary. However, in the event disarmament does occur, without appropriate forethought, there exists the possibility for states to bargain away the freedom and existence of other states and peoples as the price for disarmament—creating an original sin for the decarbonised era.
Original sin comes to us from Judeo-Christian theology by way of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, and in doing so transmitting their sins and guilt to their descendants. Its more common, secular usage, however, refers to the foundational wrong that helped to enact a new political order. The birth of many countries, as well as the present international system, holds multiple examples of original sins. For the Americas, slavery and the genocide of indigenous people stand among the most obvious. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the Holocaust or Israel’s very existence and the subsequent Nakbah are described as such. The Soviet’s brutal domination over Poland and other Eastern European states after the Second World War were described similarly, particularly as they were intended, and agreed upon, to be re-birthed as independent states. The mutual genocide between India and Pakistan at Partition, the genocide of the Armenians and others in the creation of modern Turkey, the Congolese genocide by Belgium, and the genocide and reprisals in Rwanda in the mid-90s, just to name a few, all count as original sins of new orders. Each of these stains the honor, dignity, and history of each country involved, and in turn affect the culture, political distribution of power, and national narratives. It is also why denial and forgetting are encouraged by those who made it happen. Such is the power of the original sin.
The current international system, enshrined in the United Nations Charter, and made real via the UN organization and numerous international agreements, is an outgrowth of, and legitimising feature of, overwhelming US power—political, military, economic, and cultural. If disarmament is a key to decarbonisation, two basic options emerge. First, a global agreement is signed to set new and/or maintain existing state boundaries, to forbid the engagement in any form of dehumanising actions within said boundaries, and mutual aid is provided to mitigate the effects of climate change for a set period of time. Such an agreed understanding will lock in the existing international order for the time being and keep everyone tethered to the technological breakthroughs within, and economic power of, the Great Powers as the price of disarmament. Second, that Great and Medium Powers alike will utilise the need to decarbonise by disarmament as leverage to achieve their long-held aims—the very thing the military capabilities exist to achieve in the first place—in order to declare themselves secure enough to disarm. This will, if accepted as such, lock in an altered international system, and in all likelihood, present us with the choice of having to allow the destruction and/or domination of entire groupings to save the planet—an original sin of a new era.
What do I mean by this? Obviously, just by sheer carbon numbers, the Great Powers—the US, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Russia must decarbonise the most. As they are the biggest polluters, with the biggest militaries, decarbonisation must start there. But what would happen if, for example, China demands Taiwan be returned to it in order for it to disarm? Or Vietnam be turned into a vassal state? Even as we now know the depth of China’s actions against the Uighurs, should someone be sacrificed to get China on board? What if Russia demands the Baltics and all of Ukraine be placed under its ‘stewardship’ or absorbed into Russian territorial control? Would North Korea disarm and/or denuclearise for the greater good, or would they demand South Korea be absorbed into the North, inflicting another famine and state-terror on its new citizens? Would India require the removal of 200 million Muslims from its territory—as it seems to desire—as the price of disarming? Should we accept, as we have with Syria, the imposition of a dictator willing to burn the country down to keep control in a variety of places?
Disarmament, by itself, rarely equals peace. In fact, it usually leads to annihilation. It is inherent in the character of a new order to shift people, power, and resources so as to strengthen victorious allies and weaken defeated enemies. Any agreement to fight climate change must come with an agreement to disarm. But with that goes the military power that provides the security function that enforces the existing international system, both the good and the bad of it. Security is in the eye of the beholder and as we see so clearly right now, not even a global pandemic can tamper down global conflicts. It is therefore not a hard image to conjure up of world leaders allowing the destruction, absorption, and/or terror of an entire populous to save the planet, or at least, their own skins. And at that moment, we will have found our new original sin.
Michael C. Davies is a Ph.D. candidate in Defence Studies at King’s College London, focusing on the theory and practice of victory. He previously conducted lessons learned research at the U.S. National Defense University where he co-authored three books on the Wars of 9/11 and is one of the progenitors of the Human Domain doctrinal concept. He is also the Coordinating Editor with Strife.