War Causes Climate Change

January 2, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Posted in Climate Change, war and violence, world water crisis | 3 Comments

The following is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the winter 2018 version of Kerux, the newsletter of the New York chapter of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement.
Over the past year, in the face of multiple “once in five-hundred year” storms, massive forest fires, droughts, and famines, many of us who were previously not that interested in environmental issues are being forced to give climate change a second thought. But what do you do if your passion is for peace?
Back in 2010, when I addressed the annual assembly of Pax Christi Metro New York, I took a shot at demonstrating the connections between climate change, especially the world water crisis, and war. I detailed, for example, the links between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declining groundwater supplies there as well as the connections between drought in the Sudan region and the 2003-2010 war in Darfur.

But the causal relationship between climate change and war doesn’t run in just one direction. Not only does climate change cause wars; wars, and the military-industrial complex that underpins wars, are a, and some would argue, the cause of climate change (which, in turn causes more wars, ad infinitum). My aim in this article is to lay out this second phase of the vicious cycle, the one I didn’t address in 2010.*
The current impact of US militarism on the climate is staggering. The US Air Force, for example, is the single largest consumer of jet fuel in the world. The B-52 Stratocruiser uses 500 gallons of jet fuel per minute; ten minutes of flight uses as much fuel as the average driver does in a year. And CO2 emissions from jet fuel are as much as triple the amount given off by diesel or oil.

Then there’s the massive “upstream emissions” of greenhouse gases generated in the manufacture of military equipment, vehicles, weapons, munitions and infrastructure in the endless wars the US fights to maintain control over oil reserves in the Middle East. And this causal link between war and climate change, especially greenhouse gas emissions, grew steadily throughout the twentieth century. In World War II, a US soldier used 1 gallon of gas a day; in Vietnam, 9 gallons; in the Second Gulf War, 15 gallons.

But the (mis)use of fuel is only one part of the story. The immediate environmental consequences of warfare are also appalling. Already in the 1820s, the Napoleonic wars destroyed so much forest cover that they contributed to the cooling of the planet, while in World War I Great Britain felled nearly half of its commercial woodland for military use, and more than 8 million acres of European topsoil were destroyed in battles, tanks, trucks, bombs, etc., –the equivalent of 40,000 years of erosion.

Equally staggering is the tactical strategic role of environmental destruction in modern warfare. Eighty-five percent of the munitions used in the Vietnam War was aimed at the environment sheltering the Vietcong, not at the Vietcong themselves. The US also sprayed 70 million liters of defoliants like Agent Orange onto Vietnamese forests contaminating 40% of arable land and 23% of its forest cover. Napalm use killed vegetation as well as people. And lest we think that we were the only ones burning people and the planet with napalm, be aware that the French used it in Algeria and the British in Kenya in the 1950s.
In addition to the harm done to the environment (and human beings) by war, there is a direct and onerous link between military inventions and technological advances and the arrival of what scientists call the Anthropocene, the new, human-induced geological epoch. Consider, for example, nylon, invented by DuPont during World War II to replace Japanese silk for parachutes and bullet-proof vests. After the war, huge nylon nets, combined with sonar technologies created to identify underwater submarines, made massive but unsustainable increases in world seafood catches possible. These led to the plummeting of seafood stocks today.

Similarly, tank factories began after the war to produce vehicles like clear-cutters and bull-dozers that were used in mining, mountain-top removal, clearing forests and fields, and the destruction of topsoil. In the Atoms for Peace program after World War II, the US conducted 70 million explosions trying to identify civilian uses of the nuclear weapons invented in World War II—building highways over mountains, for example– while the Soviet Union did 128 explosions, though in each case the projects were eventually abandoned. Think of the environmental harm done by these “experiments.”
And then there’s the radioactive waste generated by the nuclear power stations that US nuclear weapons research generated, which may well be stored in a waste facility near you and your children and grandchildren in years to come. And then there’s the incalculable environmental damage at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

So why does all this matter? It matters because there’s a trend here in the United States towards what’s called “green capitalism.” That’s when people claim that they are fighting climate change by eating organic or buying hybrid cars. Don’t get me wrong here; those are good things to do. But as long as the United States is a hyper-militaristic war machine, colluding with other such machines, climate change isn’t going away. And when you turn out in the streets to oppose US militarism, or call your representatives to oppose the bloated US military budget, or donate to Pax Christi, you aren’t just working to save people from the violence of war. You are working to save God’s creation.

*Material in this article is drawn from Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene (New York, NY: Verso Books, 2015), 122-147, and H. Patricia Hynes, “The Military Assault on Global Climate,” Truthout, Sept. 8, 2011. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/3181:the-military-assault-on-global-climate Accessed December 6, 2017.

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