by Lotty Clare

The environmental and climatic impacts of war and conflict have long been silent causalities. Environmental implications throughout the timelines of conflict are huge. From deforestation, mining for metals, use of chemical weapons, ‘scorched’ earth tactics, plunder of resources, and collapse of environmental management systems.  Natural resources can cause war, fuel war, and be destroyed by war. 

The destruction of human life and the destruction of the environment are perhaps the most important issues of our time, and they are profoundly linked. There can be no meaningful global environmental protection or solutions to climate change, without demilitarisation. If we are going to understand climate change we must also analyse the role that armed conflict and militarisation plays in environmental destruction and global warming. Modern wars are money-making machines and in 2017 the global arms trade was estimated to be worth at least $95 billion. By far the worst culprit for military spending is the USA Department of Defence (US DOD), which accounted for a monstrous  36 percent of global military spending last year. In fact, the US DOD and military correspondingly has a larger carbon footprint than most countries. It is by far the world’s largest institutional user of oil and this consumption rate is increasing  with the development of more fuel-guzzling planes and tanks as well as toxic munitions. 


As well as pumping out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses, warfare causes the direct destruction of environment and landscapes.


Military spending shot up after the 9/11 attacks, signalling the start of the endless war on terror with no clear political legitimacy in the Middle East or US military presence in a vast number of countries. As well as pumping out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses, warfare causes the direct destruction of environment and landscapes. In Afghanistan, deforestation, the burning of trash in ‘burn pits,’ and use of harmful pollutants by the US military has caused illness amongst the Afghan population, as well as chronic health issues in some US veterans. The destruction in Iraq included the use of toxic munitions containing depleted uranium and burn pits which has led to higher rates of cancer, as well as birth defects. Studies show that the environmental impact of U.S. military operations in Fallujah caused high rates of genetic health implications. A hideous legacy imposed by the US and allies, that innocent future generations of Iraqis must endure. These are just a few examples, but the environmentally destructive legacy of war is vast and endless.

The US is one of the world’s most significant contributors to human-induced climate change and has historically been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. This excludes the  statistics relating to their vast military project, which are not reported to any national or international body as allowed in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. There is scant information that is easily accessible about the US military’s operations, particularly when it relates to their carbon footprint. The information that can be revealed, is deeply concerning. In the Second World War, each soldier in the US military consumed one gallon of fuel daily but by the time soldiers entered Iraq and Afghanistan, fuel consumption had reached 22 gallons per soldier per day.

Of course, it is not just the US that is responsible for environmental damage due to militarisation, but they are the biggest player. The UK and US are responsible for fuelling wars in other countries through arms trade. During 2014- 2018 Saudi Arabia became the world’s largest arms importer. The US and UK are by far the largest suppliers to the Saudis and by extension are arming the devastating war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The UK has licensed nearly £6.2bn worth of arms exports to Saudi-led coalition since the start of the war in 2015 and has earned 8 times more from this arms trade to Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen than it spent on aid to help civilians, according to an Oxfam report. People should be outraged.


…the US and allies have spent 20 years polluting and scorching the earth


The climate crisis is riddled with ironies that would be laughable if we weren’t amid a mass extinction event, and if people’s land, homes and lives weren’t being devastated. One such irony is the fact that the US and allies have spent 20 years polluting and scorching the earth, under the justification of preserving western access to oil reserves in the middle east, the emissions of which have been a major driver of climate change. Despite this sickening cycle of death, as finite fossil fuel reserves diminish, fresh water sources decline, and natural disasters worsen – experts predict armed conflict will increase.

Worth noting, just for the sheer scathing irony, is that in the wake of climate change-induced, super-storms in the Atlantic Ocean with the likes of hurricane Irma and Dorian causing unrivalled destruction in the Caribbean: the notorious Guantanamo Bay base is as risk of crumbling away. Guantanamo is infamous for horrific tortures perpetrated by the US military and is currently housing dozens of forever detainees of the global war on terror – a military project that has contributed to climate change by pumping billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. The government now faces choosing between investing in the upkeep and defence of this prison or putting the detainees at risk of literally being washed away. Much of the mainstream concern relating to militarism and climate change is about climate change’s impacts on defence infrastructure. The US DOD has been preparing climate risk management strategies for decades, mostly to protect is assets from sea level rise. Yet, the military industrial complex continues to contribute to ecocide.

Global military spending amounted to an incomprehensible 1.74 trillion USD  in 2017, equivalent to 230 USD for every person on earth. Militarism is an incredibly resource intensive project. The world still has many pressing human development needs; a topic which is often raised for discussion in the climate movement. In many countries in the Global South, military spending far overshadows money spent on human development. Imagine the difference it would make if that 1.74 trillion USD went towards peacebuilding efforts, human development and pro-environmental policy decisions and initiatives. 

This planet cannot support the current dominant system of grotesque infinite growth and accumulation of wealth and resources. This planet’s socio-environmental systems cannot support continuous wars and expanding fuel-intensive, fatal militarism. If we are to have any chance of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5℃ in an attempt to avoid catastrophic changes to the earth’s systems, and loss of life, we need big transformations. If we are to be successful, and if these transformations are to be just and equitable, demilitarisation should be a non-negotiable principle. 


Featured image credit: US Department of Veteran Affairs (Website)

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