smoke clouds The US military is the world's biggest polluter. Photo: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

War isn’t just a waste of resources that could be used to tackle climate change, but is itself a significant cause of environmental harm, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

War is not often mentioned in mainstream discussions about the causes of climate change. The 1992 Kyoto Protocol indeed explicitly excluded greenhouse gas emissions from military action from its emissions targets. This automatic exclusion was removed in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but it is still not mandatory for signatory countries to track and reduce their military carbon emissions.

The enormous cost of the military machine in both the US and the UK gives the lie to claims that dealing with climate change would be unaffordable for Western governments. When proposers of a Green New Deal in US are told that ‘there’s no money to pay for it’, it’s natural to look to the $716bn of US military spending as a potential source of those elusive funds. Similarly, in the UK, we should not forget that a government which apparently can’t find money for the NHS, public services or green infrastructure can find £205bn for renewing Trident.  

The connections between war and climate change however go further than simple competition for government funding. War isn’t just a waste of resources that could be used to tackle climate change, but is itself a significant cause of environmental harm. The armed forces have considerable carbon footprints. This is most true of the US military, but the UK armed forces will have similar practices, albeit on a smaller scale.

The US military admits to getting through 395,000 barrels of oil every day, including jet fuel consumption which makes it the single largest consumer in the world. This is an astonishing figure which is nevertheless likely to be a considerable underestimate. Once all the oil use from military contractors, weapons manufacturing and all those secret bases and operations that get missed out of the official figures are factored in, the real daily usage is likely to be closer to a million barrels. As even supporters of the military admit, ‘vast swathes of our military are big carbon emitters – tanks, jeeps, Humvees, jet planes’, as Steven Groves from the Heritage Foundation put it in 2015. To put the figures into perspective, US military personnel on active service make up around 0.0002% of the world’s population, but are part of a military system which generates around 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of these emissions are from the military infrastructure that the US maintains around the world. The environmental cost of war itself is considerably higher. It has been estimated that the Iraq war between 2003 and 2007 accounted for 141 million metric tonnes of CO2, more than 60% of all the countries in the world.

The environmental damage caused by war is not limited, of course, to climate change. The effects of nuclear bombing and nuclear testing, the use of Agent Orange, depleted uranium and other toxic chemicals, as well as land mines and unexploded ordinance lingering in conflict zones long after the war has moved on, have earned the US military a deserved reputation as ‘the greatest single assault on the environment.’ It has been estimated that 20% of all environmental degradation around the world is due to military and related activities, much of which of course has involved the US and the UK.

The US military is particularly secretive about its energy requirements. Journalists have commented that it is easier to get casualty figures out of the Department of Defense than it is to get statistics on military oil use. US military behaviour tells us however that there is an absolute commitment to continue to get through oil at the current, astonishing rate, even when there might be good, military reasons for reducing it. When the US Defense Science Board reported in 2001 that the military would need either to develop more oil efficient weapons or better support systems to be able to keep themselves supplied, ‘the generals seem to have chosen a third option: capturing access to more oil’ (Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene, (Monthly Review Press 2016), p.161). This indicates the fundamental truth about the military and climate change: that the modern way of war emerged from and is only possible with profligate use of fossil fuel.

The rapid rise in greenhouse gas emissions that created the current climate crisis began in around 1950; in other words, in the period immediately following the Second World War. This is not a coincidence. Oil had been important in the First World War, but controlling access to oil supplies was crucial in the Second. The Allies would not have won had they not been able to cut off German access to oil and to maintain it for themselves. The lesson for the US in particular after the war was that continuing access to and monopolisation of the world’s oil was essential if it was to be the world’s superpower. This made oil a central military priority, and also cemented the dominant position of the petroleum/automotive sector in the US. These were preconditions for a system dependent on greenhouse gas emitting technologies for military and domestic production; the source of the climate change we are facing now.  

The last seventy years have been seventy years of imperialist wars and seventy years of climate change. These are not unrelated unfortunate facts, but a demonstration of how greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction are inescapably part of modern warfare.

We can have wars for oil, or we can have a moderate climate and an inhabitable planet. It is increasingly clear that we cannot have both.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.