Sophia Shepherd ’24 Explores Militarism’s Role in Climate Change

By Kendra Pintor

Portrait of Scripps College student Sophia Shepherd '24

The connection between militarism and climate change has been on Sophia Shepherd ’24’s mind since her first year at Scripps, when she learned about the link between them in Associate Professor of Politics Thomas Kim’s Core II class on ecological justice. Since then, the topic has remained at the forefront of her academic and activist endeavors. 

“I’ve been a climate activist for several years now, but last year I joined the peace movement when I was an intern for CODEPINK’s War is Not Green campaign. The campaign explicitly connects militarism and war with climate change by recognizing that the US military is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and that military bases are often sites of toxic waste that adversely affect nearby communities,” says Shepherd, a dual major in environmental analysis and writing and rhetoric.

Shepherd already knew that she wanted to write her senior thesis on the subject when she discovered the Scripps College Research in Environmental Analysis Research and Pre-Thesis Fellowship, to which she promptly applied. The fellowship provides opportunities for students to pursue summer research that allows them to more fully develop senior thesis topics related to the environment.

“I was thrilled at the thought of spending my summer doing a deep dive into research about the effects of militarism, specifically in the US, on climate change,” she says.

Through her reading, Shepherd learned that the US military’s role as the top institutional consumer of fossil fuels—and therefore the highest institutional producer of greenhouse gases—makes it a major contributor to the climate crisis. “The Costs of War project at Brown University found that the US military has accounted for at least 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which is higher than the output of whole countries like Sweden, Morocco, and Switzerland,” Shepherd says.

“Greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon and methane, are responsible for the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere and are produced by burning fossil fuels,” Shepherd explains. “What this specific statistic demonstrates is just how much the US military is contributing to climate change—for its impact to be greater than several whole countries is just insane.”

Shepherd discovered the fellowship on the Scripps website when she was searching for summer opportunities that would allow her to focus on the realm of activism she cares most about. She says the grant was “such a gift” because she had spent many previous summers looking for paid, resume-building work: “Because of this grant, I had the time and energy to read everything I’ve wanted to read and explore a subject that is personally meaningful to me and my career path.”

With the support of fellowship funding, Shepherd delved deeply into the books and research papers she had been saving on militarism and climate change, as well as abolition and movement theory. “I wanted to be thinking about how activists can tackle this issue, and I thought that abolitionist theory might have something to offer,” says Shepherd. “Abolitionists have been around for a long time and have developed many strategies to push back against systems that support social and economic oppression, so I think an anti-militarist climate movement could learn a lot from them.”

Additionally, the grant afforded Shepherd the ability to participate in activist movements that are relevant to her area of study, such as campaigning for taxation of the rich and curbing the climate emissions of the ultra-wealthy. “That sort of work is personally meaningful to me, but it also gives me opportunities to forge deeper connections with activists I’d like to interview for my research and work with in the years after I graduate,” she explains.

Shepherd hopes that her senior thesis will provide the foundation for future writing and organizing around the topic of how militarism has impacted local communities and environments in Guam; Okinawa, Japan; Vietnam; Cambodia; South Korea; and the Philippines. She also wants to study how people on the frontlines of those communities are resisting that militarism. Ultimately, by studying the connection between militarism and climate change, Shepherd hopes to provide additional points of consideration in the climate change discussion.

“We must prioritize addressing militarism’s toll on human lives and acknowledge its connection to the climate crisis,” Shepherd says. “If we truly care about climate change, we should advocate for being anti-militarist and anti-imperialist.”