Guns versus climate: Prof. Andrew Jorgenson on his latest publication examining how militarization affects carbon emissions

UBC Sociology Professor Andrew Jorgenson

UBC Sociology Professor Andrew Jorgenson’s latest journal article, “Guns versus Climate: How Militarization Amplifies the Effect of Economic Growth on Carbon Emissions” was published in the American Sociological Review this past May.

This publication is his first as a faculty member of UBC Sociology and the first article related to the climate crisis to be published in the ASR.

We spoke to Professor Jorgenson about his findings.

Can you summarize the study and its main findings? 

We theorize and investigate with moderation analysis how and why militarization amplifies the effect of economic growth on nations’ carbon emissions. As complex social institutions, the world’s militaries exert a sizable influence on the production and consumption patterns of nations and their economies, and the environmental demands required to support their evolving infrastructure.

National militaries are increasingly capital intensive, focusing on technologies in weaponry, transportation, and communications. We use military expenditures per soldier to measure these capital-intensive features of militarization. Likewise, militaries with relatively larger forces require expansive built infrastructures and huge amounts of material goods. We use military participation rate, which quantifies a nation’s military personnel as percent of total labor force, to capture the relative size of militaries. We suggest that both the size and the capital-intensiveness of the world’s militaries enlarge the effect of economic growth on nations’ carbon emissions. And in particular, we argue that each dimension of militarization increases the extent to which the other amplifies the effect of economic growth on carbon pollution.   

Across various model specifications for different samples, robustness checks, a range of sensitivity analyses, counterfactual analysis, and for two different measures of carbon emissions (per capita emissions and total emissions), the findings consistently confirm our propositionsThe effect of GDP per capita on emissions is larger at higher levels of expenditures per solider, and this increases across the distribution of military participation rate. Likewise, the effect of GDP per capita on carbon pollution is larger at higher levels of military participation rate, and this increases across the distribution of military expenditures per solider. 

How does this study fit into or connect with the other research that you’ve done?

This study builds on different bodies of macro-comparative research I’ve done over the past 20 years, most notably empirical work on the political-economic causes of global environmental change and the climate crisis. And more specifically, I’ve conducted a lot of empirical research and theoretical work on the effects of economic growth on carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases as well as analyses of the environmental and societal impacts of militarization.

Why did you decide to focus on militarization in particular for this study? Did you consider focusing on other potential amplification effects? 

Rich bodies of sociological theory and analyses have significantly advanced scientific understanding of the human dimensions of climate change. Distinct research traditions focus on how structural and relational characteristics of societies, usually nation-states, generate different levels and rates of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. The most central question within this area of sociological inquiry concerns the relationship between nations’ carbon emissions and their economic growth. Analyses consistently show positive associations between carbon emissions and economic growth, with the magnitude of the relationship varying for nations in different structural and temporal contexts.

To advance sociological research on climate change, it is absolutely necessary to gain a greater understanding of how other societal characteristics shape the relationship between emissions and economic growth. Although largely overlooked in generalist sociology, I believe that studying the role of militaries is a vital direction to pursue, given the emergence of the war economy and the global defense industry. 

In other research I’ve investigated how environmental nongovernmental organizations might reduce the impacts of growth on carbon pollution and other environmental harms. In my lab here at UBC, the Climate and Society Lab, we are launching a major project that will investigate a wide range of factors, in addition to militarization, that might amplify, or reduce, the effect of economic growth on emissions, including income and wealth inequality, political inequality and democratization, renewable energy consumption, climate and energy polices, and global production and trade networks.

How does militarization amplify the effect of economic growth on nations’ carbon emissions? 

There are multiple pathways. In the interest of space, I will highlight just a handful of them. We have a much more detailed explanation in the published paper, which is freely available. 

Throughout history, societies with larger and more technologically advanced militaries utilize their coercive power to secure and maintain access to energy and other natural resources. In the modern era, access to fossil fuels, often from distant places, facilitates carbon-polluting development for nations as they compete in regional and global economies.  

Rich sociological analyses indicate that the needs of the world’s militaries provide opportunities for a variety of old and emerging private sector industries. National militaries facilitate scientific inquiry, technological innovation, and shape production in the private sector while simultaneously acting as downstream consumers, both domestically and internationally, given the global market for armaments and military equipment.   

Overall, the interrelated activities embedded within the military-industrial complex include contracts for research, development, manufacturing, and servicing of weapons and their delivery systems, transportation vehicles, information technology, and other infrastructural needs. Each of the nodes and links in these production systems, supply chains, and ancillary services involves the burning of fossil fuels and the consumption of other resources, all of which are amplified by both the size and capital intensiveness of nations’ militaries. In other words, these structural conditions, institutional relationships, and underlying processes all contribute to how the capital intensiveness and scale of militaries amplify the effect of economic growth on national emissions. 

Your study is the first on the climate crisis to be published in the ASR. Why do you think that is? 

While it is technically true that this is the first research article explicitly on the climate crisis to be published in ASR, other empirical work within environmental sociology, on a range of related topics, has been published there, but not nearly enough!

There is a lot of excellent sociological work being done on the environment in general and the climate crisis in particular, including research by faculty and students here at UBC, but historically such work has been marginalized within the overall discipline. Fortunately, this has changed in the past few decades, as we see growing recognition across our discipline of the necessity to incorporate climate and environment more broadly into sociological research, scholarship, and teaching. While this is partly due to the enormity of the challenges the climate crisis poses for all aspects of society, it is also due to the hard work and unwavering commitment of environmental sociologists that have been pushing the area forward for the past 40-50 years, and younger people entering our discipline that are greatly interested in such topics, and for good reason.  

I am quite optimistic that we will see more and more work on the climate crisis in ASR and our discipline’s other flagship venues. As important, we are seeing more and more sociology being integrated into interdisciplinary research on the climate crisis. We have a lot to offer to increase shared understandings of the societal causes, consequences, and solutions to the climate crisis and other grand sustainability challenges. 

Photo by Filip Andrejevic on Unsplash