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War and Climate Change: Time to Connect the Dots

There has been a general failure of everyone concerned about war and climate change to connect the dots between them. That must change.

Left: A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft flies over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, September 23, 2014. Right: President Obama at the UN Climate Summit, September 23, 2014. (Photo: Senior Airman Matthew Bruch / U.S. Air Force, John Gillespie / United Nations)

There was something surreal about the president announcing that he had just launched a heavy airstrike against militants in Syria – in effect, plunging the United States further into an unending quagmire in the Middle East – on the same day that he went to the UN to claim that he was serious about tackling climate change. It is as if climate change and war were distinct ontological categories when in fact climate change is both a catalyst of conflict and a result of it. Competition over resources – land, water, energy – has always been the ground of conflicts within and between nations despite the fact that they may be clothed in the trappings of ethnic, religious or national rivalries.

In the decade between 2001 and 2011, global military spending increased by an estimated 92 percent, according to Stockholm International Peace Research, although it fell by 1.9 percent in real terms in 2013 to $1,747 billion. At the same time, according to the draft of a new study from the International Peace Bureau (1), almost 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent has been released into the atmosphere. According to the Global Carbon Project, 2014 emissions are set to reach a record high. Could there be some connection between rising military expenditures and rising carbon emissions?

The United States and its allies have spent trillions financing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but while the terrible social, cultural and economic costs are publicly discussed, little is said about the environmental costs. Not only is the Pentagon the single largest industrial consumer of fossil fuels, but fighter jets, destroyers, tanks and other weapons systems emit highly toxic, carbon-intensive emissions, not to mention the greenhouse gases (GHG) that are released from the detonation of bombs. How quickly the world forgot the toxic legacy of Saddam Hussein’s oil fires!

And now we have the spectacle of the US bombing oil refineries in Syria in an attempt to cripple the oil revenue stream to ISIS. There has been one study done on the estimated impact of US military GHG emissions from both direct fuel consumption and upstream emissions related to the manufacture of materials and equipment procured for military activities. Tellingly, this impact has been ignored by our media and politicians, leaving the public in ignorance. There ought, in addition, to be a study of the amount of GHG emitted for each ton of explosives that are detonated, but the military sector – with the exception of the military’s domestic fuel use – is excluded from UN inventories of national greenhouse gas emissions thanks to intensive lobbying by the United States at the Kyoto Protocol negotiations. The exclusion of the military sector from national greenhouse gas inventories makes a mockery of the entire UN climate process.

Thomas Friedman is one of the few journalists to have pointed out that the Syrian conflict stemmed from a prolonged drought – very probably a result of climate change – that hit the agricultural areas of the country especially hard, displacing millions of farmers who were subsequently recruited into the Assad opposition. As early as 2008, according to a cable obtained by WikiLeaks, the Assad regime had sought help from the international community, but apparently, none was forthcoming. This summer, the UN reported that since the start of the Syrian war, the supply of safe water has dropped by two-thirds and that droughtalso threatens to put new pressures on Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, exacerbating conflict and refugee flows in an area that is already roiling with them.

The president is pushing a policy that will only quicken climate change and that, in its turn, will exacerbate more conflict. If he is serious about climate change, he should be pushing Congress and other governments to put much more money than has been pledged so far into a global fund to help the poorer nations adapt to climate change and leapfrog into green economies as a way of ensuring international security. In 2009, at the global climate summit in Copenhagen, developed countries made a commitment to raise $100 billion annually by 2020 for the Green Climate Fund to finance adaptation in developing countries. This is less than 1 percent of global annual military expenditures. It isn’t as if Obama doesn’t know about the link between military expenditures and climate change. He has surely read or heard of a 2003 Pentagon study that raised the possibility that global warming could be a greater threat to world stability than terrorism, as well as the last three Pentagon Quadrennial Defense Reviews that characterize it as a “threat multiplier.” In an interview with Thomas Friedman for the film series The Years of Living Dangerously, Obama admitted that he was worried that “climate change could end up having profound national security implications in poorer countries.”

So why has Obama plunged us into war after bragging about getting us out? Perhaps he became convinced that there is no other way to deal with a monster that US policy helped to create. No doubt he is unwilling to offend the two key American allies – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – who are most responsible for fostering radical jihadism. No doubt Obama is being pushed by both the national security establishment and the hawks in Congress to act tough. Characterized by the right as feckless and ineffectual, he needed to brandish some machismo in order to dispel that opinion. Tragically, however, his actions play into the hands of the terrorist groups, who have us right where they want us. There is also, of course, the billions in defense contracts that are expected to be made through prolonged war, not to mention the fear mongering of the mass media which was able, on the basis of two American beheadings, to turn a war-weary public once more into a terrified populace willing to support aerial bombings if not yet troops on the ground. Conveniently, the announcement of war diverted the public’s attention from the mass peoples’ climate mobilizations in New York and around the world that occurred just two days before.

But there is also another reason for the swift capitulation to military action. There is no counter narrative, no groundswell of public opinion to suggest another way forward. Working for a sustainable world brings people together, builds hope and community, as the massive, joyful marches on September 21demonstrated; working for war separates us, creating fear, tension despair and enmity. Though concerned about climate change, the American public doesn’t connect the dots, rating that concern below concern about the economy, education and immigration. For the most part, the environmental movement has not made the case that climate change and war are Siamese twins. Nor has a less visible peace movement linked war with climate change, although that may be beginning to change. Thus, few people, with exceptions like Michael Klare and Christian Parenti, who have written on resource conflicts, and H. Patricia Hynes, who has written on the military’s impact on climate change, as well as the International Peace Bureau, which most Americans have never heard of, are making the case that there can be no climate change mitigation without peace and no peace without moving swiftly to provide the poorer parts of the world with the resources needed to adapt to climate change and build resilient economies. The trillions that are spent on weapons rob national treasuries of the resources needed to provide funds for climate mitigation and adaptation.

In 1990, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres, argued in a speech to the Congress of Deputies of Spain:

What will be better? To continue to support a traditional global military budget that has risen 50 percent in real terms from 2000 to 2009 and continues to increase? Or to increase a preventive military budget investing into adaptation and low-carbon growth and avoid climate chaos that would demand a defence response that makes even today’s spending burden look light?

Today, that question remains to be answered. It is time to connect the dots.


1. Tamara Lorincz, Demilitarization for Deep Decarbonization: Reducing Militarism and Military Expenditures to Invest in the UN Green Climate Fund and to Create Low-Carbon Economies and Resilient Communities, Draft Working Paper, International Peace Bureau, September 2014.

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