UNDERSTANDING CLIMATE CHANGE & the role of the military

Climate change has been recognised as the greatest security challenge facing humanity. We have to transform our fossil-fuel economy into sustainable green economy as well as massively reduce our carbon emissions now. Militaries and wars are the biggest unaccounted-for contributor to the climate change. This ongoing emission is sustained by the excessive military spending around the world buying ever more expensive jets, tanks and missiles that create nothing but destruction, profits and greenhouse gases.

As the people of the world face the catastrophic consequences of climate change, why is the military exempt from being central to the debate – and strategy – on how we achieve an urgent and drastic cut in the rate of carbon emissions if we are to stop global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees this century?

And has the time come for it to be a part of the climate/development debate?

 “[W]e must recognize peace and security as a critical ‘fourth dimension’ of sustainable development. We must also acknowledge that durable peace and post-conflict development depend on environmental protection and good governance of natural resources.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations
Message on the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation

Indivisible and equally destroyed: people and environment alike

Wars and conflicts – whether conducted by nations with high tech capability or fought over prolonged periods primarily with small arms – each in their own way contribute to environmental degradation. Water sources get polluted, forests cut down, soils poisoned, and the cost to some wildlife also severe. And then there is the terrible human cost of long-term threats that remain in the wider environment – landmines or depleted uranium; agent-orange or nuclear testing. All of which in turn, only serves further impact on communities that rely on those same resources for their livelihoods and day to day existence. To draw attention to this, in 2001 the UN General Assembly declared 6 November of each year as the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

Nevertheless, the wars continue to take its lasting toll on the environment and the population; for example,just in a three-week period of conflict alone in Iraq during 2003 it was estimated that nearly 2000 tons of depleted uranium (DU) munitions were used.

Particularly in Fallujah, radiological and  toxic contamination from DU (and other toxic metals) has caused birth defects at a rate more than 14 times the rate experienced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

DNA mutations caused by DU can be passed from parent to child. Furthermore, the remaining traces of DU in Iraq will remain radioactive for more than 4.5 billion years.

The UN Environmental Programme has found that over the last 60 years, at least 40 per cent of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether high-value resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce resources such as fertile land and water. Conflicts involving natural resources have also been found to be twice as likely to relapse.

Climate change as a reason for increasing militarisation  

In 2015 Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes  edited ‘The Secure and the Dispossessed  How the military and the corporations are shaping a climate-changed world’

While the world’s scientists and many of its inhabitants despair at the unfolding impacts of climate change, corporate and military leaders see nothing but challenges and opportunities.

They argue that melting ice caps mean newly accessible fossil fuels; borders to be secured from ‘climate refugees’; social conflicts to be managed, and more failed states in which to intervene. With one eye on the scientific evidence and the other on their global assets and supply chains, powerful elites are giving increasing thought as to how to maintain control in a world gradually reshaped by climactic extremes.

Dystopian preparations by the state are reflected in the corporate arena. Where we see a future climate crisis, many companies see only opportunity: oil firms looking forward to melting ice caps delivering new accessible fossil fuels; security firms touting the latest technologies to secure borders from ‘climate refugees’; or investment fund managers speculating on weather-related food prices – to name but a few. In 2012, Raytheon, one of the world’s largest defence contractors, announced “expanded business opportunities” arising from “security concerns and their possible consequences,” due to the “effects of climate change” in the form of “storms, droughts, and floods”. The rest of the defence sector has been quick to follow.

Ultimately, a security-led approach to climate change and complex emergencies not only fails to address the fundamental causes of these crises – it will often exacerbate them. Worldwide the increased focus on food security is already driving increased land grabbing. The diversion of resources into military spending and strategies is preventing much needed investment in crisis-prevention and tackling the root causes of human insecurity. Given that climate change will impact disproportionately on the poorest, a militarisation of our response merely compounds a fundamental injustice – that those least responsible for climate change will be most affected.


Climate Change: War and Climate Conventions

However, in some cases, simply the business of having an army, contributes to climate change and worse, when taken into war, can massively contribute to climate.  The largest by far is that of the US military.

During the Kyoto Accords negotiations in December 1997, the US demanded as a provision of signing that any and all of its military operations worldwide, including operations in participation with the UN and NATO, be exempted from measurement or reductions. After attaining this concession, the Bush administration then refused to sign the accords and the US Congress passed an explicit provision guaranteeing the US military exemption from any energy reduction or measurement.

This has meant, for example, that the emissions associated with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq  are unreported as they are ‘incurred’ outside the USA and are therefore not captured in the national greenhouse gas inventories that all industrialized nations, including the United States, report to under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Sara Flounders of the International Action Center, writes:

The extensive global operations of the US military (wars, interventions, and secret operations on over one thousand bases around the world and six thousand facilities in the United States) are not counted against US greenhouse gas limits. By every measure, the Pentagon is the largest institutional user of petroleum products and energy in general… Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exemption in all international climate agreements.”

While official accounts put US military usage at 320,000 barrels of oil a day, that does not include fuel consumed by contractors, in leased or private facilities, or in the production of weapons. The US military is a major contributor of carbon dioxide.

Steve Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International, reports:

“The Iraq war was responsible for at least 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) from March 2003 through December 2007. . . . That war emits more than 60 percent that of all countries. . . This information is not readily available . . . because military emissions abroad are exempt from national reporting requirements under US law and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

The US Air Force

The United States Department of Defense is one of the largest single consumers of energy in the world, responsible for 93% of all US government fuel consumption in 2007. In 2006, it used almost 30,000 gigawatt hours (GWH) of electricity, at a cost of almost $2.2 billion. The DoD’s electricity use would supply enough electricity to power more than 2.6 million average American homes. In electricity consumption, if it were a country, the DoD would rank 58th in the world, using slightly less than Denmark and slightly more than Syria (CIA World Factbook, 2006). The Department of Defense uses 4,600,000,000 US gallons (1.7×1010 L) of fuel annually, an average of 12,600,000 US gallons (48,000,000 L) of fuel per day. A large Army division may use about 6,000 US gallons (23,000 L) per day. According to the 2005 CIA World Factbook, if it were a country, the DoD would rank 34th in the world in average daily oil use, coming in just behind Iraq and just ahead of Sweden.The Air Force is the largest user of fuel energy in the federal government. The Air Force uses 10% of the nation’s aviation fuel.


The USAF is the single largest consumer of jet fuel in the world:

  • The F-4 Phantom Fighter burns more than 1,600 gallons of jet fuel per hour (just three hours of flight uses as much fuel as the average driver does in one year of driving) and peaks at 14,400 gallons per hour at supersonic speeds.
  • The B-52 Stratocruiser, with eight jet engines, guzzles 500 gallons per minute; (ten minutes of flight uses as much fuel as the average driver does in one year of driving).
  • In 2006  the USAF used one quarter of all jet fuel, equivalent to all that  consumed by US planes did during the Second World War – an astounding 2.6 billion gallons.

PwC’s annual Low Carbon Economy Index report concludes in 2012 that global carbon emissions have to be cut by a rate of over 5% per year from now to 2050 in order to limit the rise the average global temperature to be less than 2 degrees.

The global military carbon footprint

The elephant in the kitchen when it comes to Climate Change is clearly the world’s military. The world spends something like 2 trillion US dollars a year on its military. At least half of that vast sum goes on military production with a massive CO2 output. The military are both a major cause of climate change and hence, of the conflicts which result from the movement of peoples as deserts spread.

Bruce Kent, President of MAW, Vice President of CND

“The environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict. From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating,” said Ban in a statement for the UN’s International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict on Thursday. …

The US Department of Defence is the country’s largest consumer of fossil fuels. Research from 2007 showed the military used 20.9bn litres 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.


The U.S. military is the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world. Every year, our armed forces consume more than 100 million barrels of oil to power ships, vehicles, aircraft, and ground operations—enough for over 4 million trips around the Earth, assuming 25 mpg.

Using that much oil makes the military vulnerable to price spikes. In fact, a $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil costs the military billions of dollars. That’s money we can’t use on protecting and training our troops.

Union of Concerned Scientists

No matter what we’re led to believe, the world’s worst polluter is not your cousin who refuses to recycle or that co-worker who drives a gas guzzler or the guy down the block who simply will not try CFL bulbs. “The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined,” explains Lucinda Marshall, founder of the Feminist Peace Network. Pesticides, defoliants like Agent Orange, solvents, petroleum, lead, mercury, and depleted uranium are among the many deadly substances used by the military.


The US military is responsible for the most egregious and widespread pollution of the planet, yet this information and accompanying documentation goes almost entirely unreported. In spite of the evidence, the environmental impact of the US military goes largely unaddressed by environmental organizations and was not the focus of any discussions or proposed restrictions at the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. This impact includes uninhibited use of fossil fuels, massive creation of greenhouse gases, and extensive release of radioactive and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and soil.

“US Department of Defense is the Worst Polluter on the Planet,” Project Censored

The other piece of this is that we call for cutting our bloated and dangerous military budget. And this is something that is made possible by moving to 100% clean renewable energy, where we cannot justify wars for oil, and where we cannot justify having some 700, 800 bases gathered around the world in something like 100 countries in significant measure protecting either access to fossil fuels or protecting routes of transportation.

Jill Stein Green Party USA

“Climate change is a threat multiplier because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we already confront.”

Chuck Hagel, former US defence secretary


“Every time the IPCC comes around, we have a crisper more worrisome set of messages about the trends in emissions and impacts of climate change, and then you don’t see much connection between that story and what governments actually do,” Victor said. “Thats because it’s not really a scientific problem anymore. Essentially, everything that needs to be done to move the needle is political.”