Climate change, energy security and arms trade


By Mark Akkerman

While it is increasingly clear that climate change is an irreversible processes that will hit people and the environment hard, the defence industry sees new profit opportunities. "I think climate change is a real opportunity for the aerospace and defense industry," said Lord Drayson, then British Minister of State for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform, in 2009. New markets are emerging.

Military industry benefits

The consequences of climate change and the associated changes in the armed forces are good news for the defence industry: the demand for weapons in the context of securing access to oil will increase, as will the demand for 'green' weapons, and arms companies are entering the new energy and environmental markets, mostly with technologies from the military circuit.

Greener militaries?

While the military increasingly acknowledge the seriousness of climate change, they perceive this solely as a security - not a environmental - problem. In this context all 'green' changes by the military are spurred by security considerations, and have got nothing to do with care for the environment or for people that suffer from the impact of climate change. This translates to one area of the 'greening' of the military in particular: the increasing use of alternative fuels in the oil-guzzling military apparatus.

“The armed forces recognise that their dependence on energy is a strategic and operational vulnerability that must be addressed”, wrote UK Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the UK's climate and energy security envoy, and Amanda Dory, US Deputy assistant secretary of defence for strategy, in DefenseNews in March 2010.

'Green' weapons

In 2006, BAE Systems was one of the first major arms producers to present a whole new range of “environmentally-friendly” weapons, including bullets with less lead, missiles with fewer toxins and armored vehicles with lower CO2 emissions. Other companies followed, focusing on the use of alternative energy. Boeing developed a fighter that uses biofuel - the 'Green Hornet' - and General Dynamics designed a 'green' jet. Meanwhile, Raytheon is working with Cyclone Power Technologies to produce an engine that can run on algae fuel and waste oil. EADS presented a plane flying on algae fuel. At the moment, there is a race to develop drones that run on solar power, or other alternative fuels.

Oil as a lubricant for arms trade

If no transition towards less oil dependency is going to happen, more and more conflicts will arise about acces to, and management of, increasingly scarce oil supplies. The presence of oil, but also the threat of scarcity, is an excellent lubricant for arms deals. A prime example of this are China's arms-for-oil exports, where arms are directly exchanged for oil with countries in Latin America and Africa. The example of Sudan is notorious: Sudan was receiving Chinese arms during the Darfur war, accompanied by rapidly growing Sudanese oil exports to China.

Britain's largest ever arms deal is also paid by oil. The so-called 'Al-Yamamah arms deal', ongoing since 1985, from the UK to the autocratic regime of Saudi Arabia, largely consisting of aircraft and missiles. In turn, Saudi Arabia has delivered up to 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day to the British government. The main contractor, BAE Systems, has earned tens of billions of pounds from these sales, which are surrounded by allegations of fraud.

A lot of oil-rich countries suffer from internal conflicts (Nigeria, Sudan, Yemen, Chechnya, Angola) and/or under undemocratic regimes (Saudi-Arabia, Yemen, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates). In general, it is possible to obtain weapons in these countries, even from countries with fairly strict export policies. Maintaining good relations with oil suppliers, and the fact these countries usually have large amounts of oil revenues to spend on arms, puts political and ethical objectives to the side. The combination of internal conflicts, which create profitable markets for arms trade, and large military budgets, are driving factors behind regional arms races.

Energy and the environmental market

Weapons exports to climate change conflict regions, or the development of new 'greener' weapons, might not be the most lucrative opportunities climate change has in store for the defence industry. It is the new 'environmental market' itself which the defence industry is aiming to move into, with the prospect of hitherto unseen profit areas.

It was clearly announced at the second Energy Environmental Defence and Security (E2DS) conference in 2011: “The defence market worldwide is worth a trillion dollars annually. The energy and environmental market is worth at least eight times this amount. […] Far from being excluded from this opportunity, the aerospace, defence and security sector is gearing up to address what looks set to become its most significant adjacent market since the strong emergence of the civil/homeland security business almost a decade ago.”

The conference was sponsored by large arms producing companies such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Saab, Finmeccanica, EADS, Thales and Northrop Grumman. Needless to say, they weren't making this statement because of environmental or humanitarian considerations. Climate change means business!

Perhaps the most promising new market for defence companies lies in (satellite) observations: monitoring and data collecting and analyzing. An example of this is the EU Copernicus project (formerly known as GMES). This satellite system was set up in 1998, officially to monitor the earth and provide data for preparing legislation on environmental matters. Shortly after its founding its mission was broadened to include security issues like maritime surveillance and border control. The Copernicus project is a clear example of how the uses of certain technologies, founded and financed for environmental objectives, are redefined under the guise of a broad definition of safety.

A joint venture of arms companies Finmeccanica and Thales, Thales Alenia Space, is “deeply involved in […] GMES.” GMES has provided a whole lot more companies with work in its security-related projects, including Astrium, ATOS Origin, GMV Aerospace and Defence, QinetiC, the Swedish Defense Research Agency and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO).


The arms industry uses the development of 'green' weapons and the potential civil environmental applications of military assets as part of a comprehensive greenwashing campaign. Unfortunately, some environmental and conservation organisations assist them in doing this (whether or not in return for substantial amounts of money). One example is the strong relationship between Northrop Grumman and the U.S. organisation Conservation International. Together they called upon the defence industry and conservation organisations to join forces to take action against the consequences of climate change. Together they would have the “right tools” to place in “the right hands". A good sales pitch for the "right tools", such as monitoring and data collection systems, which the defense industry has for sale.


To halt climate change, an integrated approach is needed, based on energy efficiency and a switch to alternative energy. All necessary (technical) means are available, but the current economic growth thinking does not allow for real change. As the Bolivian President Evo Morales said during the Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009: "The real cause of climate change is the capitalist system. If we are to save the world we must end that economic model."

Defence and the defence and security industry cannot solve the climate problem. Rather, they make it possible, especially for rich countries, to ignore problems for a long time, while poorer countries are already suffering the consequences.

Mark Akkerman – Dutch Campaign Against Arms Trade. This piece is based on a chapter for a forthcoming book on climate change and security by the Transnational Institute (TNI)

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