The intersection between militarism and the climate crisis - why we need to demilitarise education
Eleanor Meehan reveals the links between education and the arms industry, and argues that demilitarising education can help confront the climate crisis.
In recent months, there has been a wave of activism from students across British universities including Oxford, Sheffield, Lancaster and Nottingham. Their demands? A ‘demilitarisation’ of higher education, which includes cutting all ties with arms companies and companies complicit in the arms trade. Students have argued that some universities are currently supporting and partnering with the global arms trade, an industry that causes both humanitarian and environmental devastation. The intersection between the arms trade and the fossil fuel industry cannot be ignored if universities are truly committed to the sustainable future of education.
The UK is a world leader in the arms trade and home to firms such as BAE systems, Rolls Royce, Airbus and McLaren. Selling weapons is a lucrative business - it generates significant income - but it also acts as a benchmark of the strength of the relationship between different countries. It creates an interdependence that Vincenzo Bove, an academic at Warwick University, describes as giving “current and future recipient government incentives to cooperate with the arms trade”.
BAE is a key business partner in the UKs strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. The UK provides arms and military support to Saudi Arabia to ensure their continuing supply of oil and gas from the Saudis but also as a means of controlling the access that more dependent countries have on fossil fuels. In the last 5 years, BAE Systems has sold £15 billion worth of weapons and services to Saudi Arabia, but what is not openly disclosed is that these weapons have been used by Saudi Arabia in their attacks in the war in Yemen, leaving thousands killed and many more displaced. Liam Doherty, the Media Officer for Demilitarise Education, has stated that “These sales are technically legal, as Israel and Saudi Arabia are not under UK sanctions, but both countries use BAE weaponry to wage brutal, criminal wars against the Palestinians and against people in Yemen, respectively.” The actions of Israel and Saudi Arabia have been widely regarded as war crimes and the UN has described the war in Yemen as “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world”.
Critically, universities are at the heart of this trade. Many universities have paid partnerships with BAE systems and allow such companies to take part in careers fairs and talks. For example, Nottingham University has Masters and PhD students who are specifically funded by Rolls Royce to do research for them. In other words, when they finish their undergraduate degree, students are pipelined straight into work that is funded by a company that is allegedly complicit in the arms trade and consequently, war crimes.
dED (Demilitarise Education), which describes itself as a “community and guide for modern day peacemakers” has been working tirelessly to encourage universities to cut their investment in the arms trade by investigating the financial links that universities have to these companies. They have calculated so far that over £730 million worth of partnerships and investment exist between universities and the arms industry. Some of the most substantial investments include the University of Manchester (£15,518,410 has so far been disclosed, with 7 direct links to arms companies) and the University of Sheffield (£44,090,769 has been disclosed so far, with 9 direct links with arms companies). In short, deD argues that our higher education institutions are enabling the purchasing of weapons used to kill innocent civilians in illegal bombing campaigns including schools, weddings and hospitals when what students want is for educational spaces to be used as such and not for military purposes.
“The only way to fully demilitarise our education is to create a comprehensive ban: no arms trade involvement in research, careers, investments, or any other aspect of the student experience” (Liam Doherty, 2023).
How does this relate to the climate crisis?
It has been argued that the defence industry is intricately linked to the climate crisis, because war causes climate change and climate change causes war, but this is an overlooked intersection. Foreign policy, defence policy and the arms trade are all deeply interconnected and create a multi-faceted pillar of the climate crisis.
Notably, global military greenhouse gas emissions may be as much as 6% of total global emissions. This is in part due to the significant amount of fossil fuels needed to move personnel and equipment. This equipment is lacking in sustainable fuel efficiency - for example, the F-35 fighter jets that are used in conflict zones emit 28 tonnes of Co2e per use. Furthermore, the customers of these arms companies are national governments; these are the same governments that are stalling any real progress in tackling the climate crisis. The Climate Change Committee has estimated that annual UK government spending on climate change will need to increase to £9-12bn, and the government has given a budget of £12bn for the next four years, of which an estimated £2.8bn is expected to actually be spent. But UK defence spending is set to rise by around £6bn per year over the same four years. It is therefore highly hypocritical and not logistically possible for the government to strive for a sustainable future and net zero emissions by 2050 whilst still investing billions of pounds in a fundamentally unsustainable industry.
Universities can wield great power, shaping society through financial investment and research. And although universities often have ‘ethical investment policies’, these policies do nothing to create a demilitarised education system. Instead they exclude certain companies on the basis of how much their revenue comes from arms companies or who their customers are. This means that any ethical issues and research into tackling the climate crisis are being ignored in favour of research that leads to profitable new military technology.
“We urgently need to bring about a revolution in universities so that they put problems of living at the heart of the academic enterprise and take, as their basic task, to help humanity learn how to make progress towards as good a world as possible” (Dr Nicholas Maxwell, 2021).
Student activist groups are calling for all arms companies or companies with links to the arms trade to be excluded, this is the only way that universities can ensure that ethical partnerships are being formed.
About the author: Eleanor Meehan is a final year Criminology student at Lancaster University. She has a keen interest in the relationship between climate justice and social justice which has led to her involvement in engaging young people in the climate emergency such as working with local schools near her university and campaigning with Oxfam.