COP26: The climate cost of war

November 15, 2021
The global war on terror is estimated to have caused up to 270,000 climate-related deaths alone. Image: Pixabay

The most important events at the United Nations-sponsored COP26 climate conference in Glasgow occurred not inside, but in meetings and demonstrations outside.

Some 100,000 people, mostly young, marched for climate justice in Glasgow on November 6. One of the issues raised was the huge contribution of the United States military to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“War Is Not Green” was a banner held on the march by members of the United States organisation, Code Pink.

The US military budget — valued at more than US$750 billion dollars this year — was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. It is larger than the combined military budgets of the next 11 countries, according to April figures from the Stockholm International Peace Institute. These countries are, in decreasing order: China, India, Russia, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Australia.

US war spending comprises 10% of the federal budget, and is equivalent to half the so-called “discretionary” spending by Congress, which doesn’t include fixed programs such as social security, medicare, etc.

The US has about 750 military bases in 80 countries, plus more than 400 in the US itself.

This huge military is one of the pillars of the US empire that spans much of the world. Another is the dominance of the world financial system, symbolised by the US dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.

War on Terror

Maintaining these bases, including equipment and personnel, produces vast amounts of GHG emissions, through the burning of fossil fuels in aircraft and petrol-guzzling armoured vehicles, etc.

The Costs of War project estimates that the military produced about 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon emissions between 2001‒17, with nearly a third coming from the US War on Terror. However, military carbon emissions have largely been exempted from international climate treaties, dating back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, after lobbying from the US.

Speakers at the large Fridays for Future rally in Glasgow also called out the US militarys role in the climate emergency. Ayisha Siddiqa, from the northern region of Pakistan, said: “The US Department of Defense has a larger annual carbon footprint than most countries on Earth, and it also is the single largest polluter.

“Its military presence in my region has cost the United States over $8 trillion since 1976. It has contributed to the destruction of environment in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the greater Persian Gulf and Pakistan.

“Not only have Western-induced wars led to spikes in the carbon emissions, they have led to use of depleted uranium, and they have caused poisoning of air and water and have led to birth defects, cancer and suffering of thousands of people.”

Neta Crawford, director of the Costs of War project, was in Glasgow at the climate march. Crawford told DemocracyNow! that several universities in Britain have launched an initiative to try to include military emissions more fully in countries’ emissions declarations.

“Every year … the parties to the treaty from Kyoto … have to put some of their military emissions in their national inventories, but its not a full accounting. And thats what wed like to see.

“The United States has about 750 military installations abroad, overseas, and it has about 400 in the US … For most of those installations abroad, we dont know what their emissions are … because of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol decision to exclude those emissions or have them count for the country that the bases are located in.”

Crawford also said a decision was taken at Kyoto not to include emissions from military operations during wars sanctioned by the UN or other multilateral operations. These represent a “large portion” of emissions.

“Bunker fuels”, which are the fuels used on aircraft and ships in international waters are also not accounted for. “Most of the United States Navys operations are in international waters,” said Crawford.

“In 1997, the Department of Defense sent a memo to the White House saying that if war missions were included, then the US military might have to reduce its operations,” said Crawford. “They said in their memo, a 10% reduction in emissions would lead to a lack of readiness.”

Crawford told DN! the US military has been aware of the climate crisis “since the 1950s and 1960s”, including “the effects of greenhouse gases”.

Military-industrial complex

Another large category of emissions unaccounted for, said Crawford, “is any emission coming out of the military-industrial complex”. Much of the equipment used is produced by large military-industrial corporations in the US.

“Some of those corporations acknowledge what are known as direct and somewhat indirect emissions, but we dont know the entire supply chain,” said Crawford.

“I have an estimate that the top military-industrial companies have emitted about the same amount of fossil fuel emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, as the military itself in any one year.

“So, really, when we think about the entire carbon footprint of the United States military, it has to be said that were not counting all of it.”

Ramón Mejía, anti-militarism national organiser of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance told DN!: “There cant be any genuine discussion about addressing climate change if were not including the military. The military, as we know, is the largest consumer of fossil fuels and also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases most responsible for the climate disruption.”

It is estimated that there were more than 100 coal, oil and gas company lobbyists and their associated groups at COP26.

“When you have fossil fuel industries that have a larger delegation than most of our frontline communities and the Global South, then were being silenced,” said Mejía.

“[COP26 is] a discussion for transnational corporations and industry and polluting governments to continue to try and find ways to go as business as usual without actually addressing the roots of the conversation.”

Meija told DN! the COP26 goal of net zero by 2050 “is a false solution, just the same way as greening the military is”.

“We have to address the violence that the military wages and the catastrophic effects it has on our world.”

“[At COP26] we cant say ‘US military’; we have to say ‘military’.  We cant say that our government is the one thats most responsible for pollution; we have to speak in generalities. When there is this unlevel playing field, then we know that the discussions arent genuine.

“The genuine discussions and the real change is happening in the streets, with our communities and our international movements that are here to not only discuss, but apply pressure.

“Were also here to speak on behalf of our international comrades and movements from around the world that [were not] able to come to Glasgow.”

Global ‘bootprint’

Afghanistan War veteran turned climate activist Erik Edstrom told DN! that his journey to climate activism started when he was in Afghanistan and realised the US was “solving the wrong problem the wrong way”.

“We were missing the upstream issues underpinning foreign policy around the world, which is the disruption caused by climate change, which endangers other communities.

“In Afghanistan,” said Edstrom. “Playing Taliban ‘whack-a-mole’, while ignoring the climate crisis, seemed like a terrible use of priorities”.

“So when I was done with my military service, I wanted to study what I believe is the most important issue facing this generation. And today, when reflecting upon military emissions in the overall accounting globally, its not only intellectually dishonest to exclude them, it is irresponsible and dangerous.”

Edstrom told DN!: “Not only is the military the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world, I think that that definitely drives some of the [strategic] decision-making in the military.

“The emissions attributable to the US military [are] more than civilian aviation and shipping combined.”

What isn’t discussed, said Edstrom, is “the social cost of carbon or the negative externalities associated with our global ‘bootprint’ as a military around the world”, referring to the “1.2 billion metric tons of estimated emissions from the military” during the War on Terror.

Edstrom said public health studies have calculated that “in order to harm somebody elsewhere in the world”, takes about “4,400 tonnes of emissions”.

“If you do the simple arithmetic, the global war on terror has potentially caused up to 270,000 climate-related deaths around the globe, which further heightens and exacerbates an already high cost of war.”

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