Climate watch: the world cannot afford a war

December, 2015

Depiction of mass bomber raid on Cologne, by The National Archives, UK. via Wikimedia Commons

Depiction of mass bomber raid on Cologne, by The National Archives, UK. via Wikimedia Commons

War, the most costly and damaging human activity, is outside the scope of Paris climate talks.

Like most Canadians, I think, I was pleased when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled that his government recognizes climate change as an urgent issue, and appointed Catherine McKenna as Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. Another climate decision was less obvious:  his government’s decision to step back from the Syrian bombing runs.  War is the most destructive of all human activities, environmentally as well as materially.

And that is today’s Over Easy. On one hand, compared to five years ago, it’s phenomenal that 195 nations could come together in Paris to work on a treaty to reduce climate change. Turn the discussion over gently, though, and nothing I’ve read indicates that the treaty bans war. Lately there’s a whole lot of sabre rattling going on. France joined the United States and United Kingdom in bombing Syria, in revenge for the Paris attacks.  Turkey shot down a Russian airplane.  An army of dispossessed refugees brought their desperation back to the European nations, which triggered staggering humanitarian crises that prompted calls for US or North Atlantic Treaty Organization military intervention. And US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

In Paris, national leaders have acknowledged that, much as they may agree on the objective, they are dealing with a tinderbox of political and geophysical tensions.  They’re not just asking people to give up their cars or put on another sweater. Two-thirds of carbon emissions come from industries  and the military.  For example, the US Pentagon is the single biggest user of fuel oil in the world – even more so, during a war.

“If the war was ranked as a country in terms of emissions, it would emit more CO2 each year than 139 of the world’s nations do annually, more than 60 percent of all countries,” the non-profit group Oil Change calculated in 2008, estimating the impact of the US occupation of Iraq.

I’ve been Googling “war and environment” since forever, and after years of practically no hits, these days a search delivers 522 million hits.  I also got 138 millions hits on “war and climate change” but most of those are reports on the growing category of “climate refugees,” people forced from their homes by floods, wildfires, droughts (like the Syrians) or famines caused by climate change.

You don’t need to smell the gunpowder when big bombs go off. Just watch the billowing smoke clouds to realize that modern warfare is a distinct threat to the climate.  I fretted about buying carbon offsets when I flew home to see my Mother in the U.S. Look at the US-led occupation of Iraq.  In 2003, George W Bush’s Operation Shock and Awe attack involved nearly 30,000 bombing sorties over Baghdad in the first few days, and 800 Tomahawk missiles.  Day and night for 48 hours, on TV the sky looked like someone had tossed a match into a fireworks factory. Millions of kilos of explosives pounded Baghdad, loading the atmosphere with ash and dust, as well as CO2 from burning fuel.

Then there was Fallujah, the city the US-led coalition destroyed in order to save it, with cluster bombs and incendiary white phosphorous. Some sixty percent of Fallujah’s buildings were smashed by missiles or artillery, and 40 to 60 percent of the population killed or dispersed.

The 1991 first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, had environmentally catastrophic consequences, when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein set fire to more than 600 oil wells in the Kuwaiti oil fields he coveted. The fields burned for about ten months, consuming an estimated six million barrels a day, and releasing an estimated half a billion tons of CO2 into the sky.

Where there’s smoke, there’s carbon. Carbon is a very useful element – none of us would be alive without it – but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned since 1988 about CO2 and the greenhouse effect.  Now every year is hotter than the one before, and so is every month. The World Meteorological Institute projected that 2015 will the hottest year on record and also that  2011-2015 has been the warmest five-year period ever recorded, with many extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, influenced by climate change.

Insurance companies blame climate change for extreme weather, such as polar vortexes, floods, droughts, forest fires, Superstorm Sandy, and other catastrophic events that have caused unprecedented huge compensation claims. But worse may be on the horizon. In May 2015, the Environmental Defense Fund listed six “Environmental Tipping Points” that could push the earth beyond recovery, including sections of Antarctica melting, and much longer El Ninos (such as we’re seeing this year.)

Canada’s prime minister won applause in Paris for stepping up to the cause – whole-heartedly, if only in comparison with the government of previous prime minister Stephen Harper. But talking about cars and coal-fired power plants is not enough.  Despite Christiana Figueres’ five years of hard groundwork to bring 195 nations together for an agreement on a climate protection treaty, one vital aspect remains unspoken.

Trudeau addressed the military’s role in climate change when he suspended Canadian overflights, even if that wasn’t his intent. And among US President Barack Obama’s great unsung achievements, IMO, is that he has persistently sliced away at the military grip on the federal budget, US foreign policy, and the national economy –  moving the States back to a civilian economy and away from the war-based economy described in Addicted to War.

World leaders may sign an agreement to cap, contain and reduce carbon emissions in the civilian economy. That alone is a mammoth task. But to prevent one major Shock and Awe style attack from tipping the world’s climate over an edge, they must also find a way to ban war – in the face of Vladimir Putin’s aggression. They can sign a million climate treaties and pledge their countries will reach 100% renewable energy by 2030, and I’ll be in the front row cheering. The world climate action campaigners can take a few moments to pat themselves on the back too. But all their efforts will be in vain if a escalating conflicts push the world over a tipping point into climate catastrophe. To have a peaceful climate, we must have a peaceful world.

Copyright Penney Kome 2015

Penney KomePenney Kome is co-editor of Peace: A Dream Unfolding (Sierra Club Books 1986), with a foreward by the Nobel-winning presidents of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.

Read her bio on Facts and Opinions here.

Contact:  komeca AT




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