War and Climate Change: Time to Connect the Dots

by Sheila D. Collins, Truthout | Op-Ed –

jet obama

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.

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Reprinted with permission