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Notes from a Small Planet: War as an Environmental Plague

December 8, 2015

by Lawrence Bush

Kuwait-invasion-oil-fire-oil-lake-0088IF GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE is to be slowed and capped at levels short of sheer disaster, the Paris conference that is now negotiating emission levels and strategies for going green should transmute into an international peace conference.

The environmental footprint of war is hugely disproportionate to the amounts of geography usually being contested. Here’s an example: According to Duncan McLaren and Ian Willmore, writing in The Guardian, Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait “destroyed more than seven hundred oil wells... spilling sixty million barrels of oil. Over ten million cubic meters of soil was still contaminated” seven years later. “A major groundwater aquifer, two fifths of Kuwait’s entire freshwater reserve, remains contaminated... Ten million barrels of oil were released in to the Gulf, affecting coastline along 1500 km.... During the nine months that the wells burned, average air temperatures fell by 10 degrees Celsius as a result of reduced light from the sun...”

Add to this the vast amounts of gasoline consumed by warplanes and ships, land vehicles and war machines. According to The Guardian’s Eco Audit:

Research from 2007 showed the military used 20.9bn liters of fuel each year. This results in similar CO2 emissions to a mid-sized European country such as Denmark.... And that’s before they go to war. The carbon footprint of a deployed modern army is typically enormous. One report suggested the US military, with its tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, used 190.8m litres of oil every month during the invasion of Iraq. An estimated two-thirds of this fuel is used delivering more fuel to the vehicles at the battlefront.

Then there’s the radioactive waste and chemical pollution that litters scenes of conflict, and the exploding munitions and the fires their explosions cause, which pollute the air with immense amounts of dust and smoke. There are the displaced populations, often without sanitation or shelter, who are forced to make heedless use of the resources that surround them — and there are the warlords and other violent types, who will exploit the environment however they can to feed their war coffers. All of this leads to the destruction of animals, forests, arable land, and water supplies.

Finally, there is the incredible, wasteful expenditure of money — more than three trillion American dollars in Iraq since George W. Bush led us into war there, according to Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes. Those three trillion dollars could have paid the cost of environmental rehabilitation the world over: Clean energy investments are currently clocking in at $300 billion per year, according to the Harvard Business Review, and the last climate accord in Copenhagen committed rich nations to contribute $100 billion per year to poor nations by 2020 to pay for the economic sacrifice of not using fossil fuels, reports The Nation. Imagine how $3 trillion in investments in green energy, water conservation and sanitation, tree-planting and soil conservation, and engineering projects of all kinds could have affected the state of our planet today?

It is one of the great tragedies of history that the terrorist attacks in Paris took place in that city at this time, provoking a state of siege and a lust for vengeful war just at the moment when the nearly two hundred nations of the world need to come together in peace and cooperation to save our planet. My fear is that the short-term public fear of terrorism will actual elevate a Republican into the White House, any one of those fools who deny the reality of human-caused climate change and would likely bring us to war in the Middle East once again.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.