Climate change demo, Parliament Square, London, 1.5.19. Photo: Jim Aindow Climate change demo, Parliament Square, London, 1.5.19. Photo: Jim Aindow

The climate crisis is headline news, but the role of Western military policy in it is still not well known enough, argues Maddalena Dunscombe

After two weeks of climate protests led by XR, it is a shame to see that the link between war and climate change is staying, for the most part, under the radar. Fires are raging on the West Coast of the US, the Amazon is still burning and Australia is only just coming up from under the ashes. Despite all this, there seems to be little pressure for the one of the largest polluters of the planet to answer for their carbon footprint: the US Department of Defence. With “a larger annual carbon footprint than most countries on earth” and consumption of up to 1 million barrels of oil a day, the Pentagon is according to a study from last year the “largest institutional user of petroleum” in the world.

Modern industrial warfare has always attempted to function as invisibly as possible from the public eye. A lack of accountability is commonplace for Western governments and their wars, let alone the consequences of them. Just look at the ‘refugee crisis’ or the current war on Yemen for glaring examples. This lack of accountability that military activity enjoys is also pervasive from an environmental perspective.  

In Japan in 1997, 192 parties ratified what is known as the Kyoto protocol. This established an agreement between countries to declare their yearly carbon emissions which has lasted until this day. Since the protocol was set up however, the US, UK and a few other countries, had their militaries and armed forces excluded from this agreement.

In 2001, President George Bush withdrew from the protocol completely and two years later he launched the invasion on Iraq. This war which would lead to an unprecedented spike in carbon emissions. In the first five years alone, the UK and the US’ military activity would emit 141 million tonnes of carbon dioxide according to a report by Oil-change International. This is equivalent to the yearly emissions of 139 countries combined and each year the war emitted “more than 60% of all countries.”

The same study showed that a shocking $6000 billion was allocated to the Pentagon at the start of the war and the Bush administration spent more on military activity in 2006 than the entire world spent on renewable energy. It is safe to say that without the Iraq war, the world would look very different today.

The British government follows a similar policy. In 2016, the Trident nuclear programme was pledged £205 billion for the next twenty years. As two existential crises have flared up – health and climate – our government has continued to fund nuclear weapons instead of investing in the NHS or in Green energy. This seems insane – but unfortunately it is only the tip of the iceberg where the “war vs. climate” conversation is concerned.

Whilst the MoD remains ‘highly selective’ of the emissions data that they publish, around 30% of military-related carbon emissions in the UK are credited to BAE-Systems. This UK-based arms manufacturing company has helped to produce and sell £16 billion worth of arms to regimes across the world. British weapons and arms are exported across the world, creating both emissions in shipping and in usage.

Whilst the sum itself is shocking, we must also consider that this is £16 billion worth of armaments and fighter jets. A single such aircraft, for example, might create 1900 tonnes of carbon emissions in one month alone, whilst a car releases only 4.6 tonnes of CO2 a year. Equally, the bombs that are sold, do not explode without environmental consequence. The use of depleted uranium in bombs has the potential to poison our environment. In some of the most bombed areas of Iraq for example, there have been concerningly high numbers in cases of cancer and birth defects.

With all of this in mind, it may become easier to accept the fact that both the US and the UK military have been used to secure the Middle East’s oil wells for the richest and most environmentally harmful companies of the West. The West’s addiction to oil means that the military will be used at any cost, if it means keeping the oil-economy going. Holding half of the world’s oil reserves, the MENA region’s oil reserves are exploited by the likes of Shell, BP, Total, Respol, and other major oil companies. Both Libya and Iraq, before they were invaded, had plans to sell oil in African-based currencies. This was never achieved as both their governments, cities and homes were sucked into the chaos and carnage cause by the US-led invasions.

It has taken countless years of protest and natural disasters to bring the climate crisis into the headlines, but we cannot let it take countless more to realise that our Western militaries have fuelled both the crisis and our fossil fuel addiction, becoming the greatest consumers of fossil fuel themselves.

It is no coincidence that in the last twenty years we have seen a rise in floods, fires and natural disasters, at the same time as industrialised, “endless” warfare rages on. A type of warfare which functions as a profitable industry. The fact is that there is not one aspect of the military industrial complex which does not devastate or kill – either by accident or by design – and if we do not realise this soon enough, there is no way we will be able to halt escalating climate disasters.

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So, how can we demand climate justice without demanding an end to war? Quite simply, we can’t.