Hidden costs of militarism: Climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss

The country’s military is the biggest user of fossil fuels on the planet.

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Two of the biggest news stories last week were the release of a new climate change report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the rapid, successful offensive of the Afghan Taliban that culminated last Sunday with the fall of Kabul as American and other NATO forces were withdrawing from the country. The speed of the Taliban’s advance and collapse of Afghanistan’s army and government should have come as no surprise to the American military and intelligence communities that have been on the ground in the country for almost 20 years but it clearly did, demonstrating either the careerism or incompetence of the people running these institutions.

Regardless, at first glance, the ever clearer danger posed by the climate crisis, expressed in starker terms in the new report by the normally somewhat conservative IPCC, and the end to the occupation of Afghanistan seem unrelated but, below the surface, the connection between militarism generally, climate change and environmental degradation is obvious, if often obscured.

While the focus here will be on the United States and its NATO allies, this should not be seen as excusing other countries with large militaries like Russia, India or China for their own long running contributions to the climate crisis and related issues like biodiversity loss.

Still, though it’s almost never noted in the mainstream American press that, besides the immediate damage done to the natural world by the United States Department of Defense during its interventions around the globe, its testing of various weapons systems and live fire exercises with allies simulating scenarios that we should all hope never come to pass, the country’s military is also the biggest user of fossil fuels on the planet.

A paper that showed the large role the Pentagon is playing in climate change was released by the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University in 2019. It included a simple graphic showing that since 2001, the U.S. military has emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (400 million of them directly related to wars), the equivalent 257 million cars, twice the number of cars on American roads today.  As the report’s authors also note, military transport at every level (and in every developed country) is incredibly inefficient.

Further, as explained by the group Project Censored, the U.S. Department of Defense, “…produc[es] more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. Depleted uranium, petroleum, oil, pesticides, defoliant agents such as Agent Orange, and lead, along with vast amounts of radiation from weaponry produced, tested, and used, are just some of the pollutants with which the US military is contaminating the environment.”

The wars in Iraq and Syria have offered ample evidence of the environmental tolls of modern conflict. In the former, the health impacts on humans due to the storage and use of depleted uranium munitions during the first Gulf War in 1991 are still being felt today, along with the damage caused by the destruction and burning of oil infrastructure in the country and neighboring Kuwait at that time. Imagine how much this damage has been compounded by the wars that followed, including the destruction of whole cities in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. 

Although we will not be covering them here, we must assume that similar emissions and environmental degradation have come as a result of conflicts in Yemen, Somalia and Libya to name just three. The costs incurred are not calculated in ways that can be easily understood and if the most of the press did a better job of explaining them it might motivate more people to stand up to the propagandists and weapons manufacturers who drive these conflicts.

Even close American allies like Colombia have seen vast swathes of forest and grasslands hit with chemical defoliants in a bid to win a rhetorical ‘war’ on drugs. No accounting is given of the impacts on subsistence farmers in the country, let alone the other living things wiped out by this militarized hubris.

As Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense’s (AIDA) Program Director, Anna Cederstav, explained after the release of an early study on the impacts of the use of chemical defoliants to kill the country’s coca crop in 2005 showed that these chemicals killed 50% of amphibians that came into contact with them in 96 hours, “Contrary to what is argued by the government, this study shows sufficient cause for concern to suspend the sprayings due to potential environmental impacts, especially considering that Colombia has the second highest amphibian biodiversity in the world and the most threatened amphibian species.”

Even closer to home for Americans, the mining of uranium and nuclear weapons tests have caused immense harm in rural areas, especially among the country’s long suffering indigenous populations. In an opinion piece on Al Jazeera, Ian Zabarte of the Shoshane or Shoshani people who inhabit about 40,000 square miles between Nevada and the Snake River in Idaho wrote about the experiences of his people and their territory after they were subjected to the ill effects of mining hundreds of nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s.

Zabarte wrote, “When the fallout came down, it killed the delicate flora and fauna, creating these huge vulnerabilities across thousands of square miles of Shoshone territory. The pine trees we use for food and heating were exposed, the plants we use for food and medicine were exposed, the animals we use for food were exposed. We were exposed.”

In his own family, he has seen an uncle, many cousins, and even a toddler experience health problems and even died from terrible diseases like cancer as a direct result of what the U.S. military did to develop weapons that still threaten us all.

When she was running for the Democratic nomination for president, Senator Elizabeth Warren was widely mocked for putting forward the idea of creating a ‘greener’ military. While it would be preferable for the United States Department of Defense to close most of the 800+ bases it maintains around the world, which often pollute surrounding areas, imposing restrictions on their emissions and making them responsible for the costs associated with the hazardous waste they produce would still be a good thing.

As an aside, one characteristic of the ideology that rules us is the belief in the supremacy of the individual, thus we are told that success and failure are always attributable to specific people, with other factors playing small if any role. Many people believe this myth despite the fact that when one takes the time to think about this it makes no sense. Lifestyle changes like consuming fewer (or no) animal products and avoiding air travel when possible are undeniably good things but will not be enough to end the climate crisis. It will require those most responsible, including the world’s militaries, to change their behavior and put resources towards fixing some of the damage they’ve done.

One way that activists can help make this a reality is by realizing that the struggle against militarism is deeply connected to the struggles to prevent runaway climate change and for environmental justice. By adding their voices to groups like Extinction Rebellion or the Sunrise Movement, anti-war activists can also make the fight against militarism relevant again in a way it hasn’t been for decades.

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