The climate cost of war
A declared war with Iran would almost certainly doom the effort to prevent climate catastrophe.
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What would war mean for the planet?
It probably doesn’t seem like the most sensitive thing to ask. Not now, at least—not as the terrifying likelihood of war with Iran escalates in real time.
It’s been mere days since the United States’ targeted killing of Iran’s top military leader; mere hours since Iran announced its full withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal; and even less time since Trump threatened—again—to bomb Iranian cultural sites. Now seems like the time for immediate questions, like how violence and hatred and trauma caused by war is already disproportionately affecting Iranians and Iraqis at home and abroad. Now seems like the time for visceral terror.
Perhaps that’s the reason why there haven’t yet been any news stories published about how another major U.S.-led war in the Middle East might affect the planet as a whole. Perhaps journalists and politician are trying to be sensitive; to save less immediate questions for another time.
There is a possibility, however, that no one is talking about the climate implications of war because no one realizes how serious and immediate they truly are. And this, to me, would make more sense—because a declared war with Iran would almost certainly doom the effort to prevent climate catastrophe, thereby ensuring an endless feedback loop of suffering unlike any war the world has seen.
The carbon-intensity of war: it’s a lot!
The scientific literature on climate change is clear. We need the world’s biggest carbon emitters to drastically reduce their emissions—and we need them to do the bulk of the work within the next 10 years. Otherwise, we’ll lose the best chance we have of preserving our current climate, and greatly increase the risk of irreversible problems.
The U.S. military already falls into the category of big emitters. It is, in fact, the single biggest polluter on the planet, and the single largest consumer of energy in the United States. If the Department of Defense were a country, it would have been the 55th largest greenhouse gas emitter in 2017—more than Portugal, Denmark or Sweden. Since 2001, it’s emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon, or as much as 257 million cars per year.
And that’s only the emissions we know about. As Common Dreams rightly notes, “We haven’t counted the massive carbon footprint of America’s endless wars because military emissions abroad have a blanket exemption from both national reporting requirements and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.”
But even without knowing the exact carbon footprint of the military, we know that war makes the military emit far more, especially when that war is airstrike-intensive. Neta Crawford, co-director of The Costs of War Project at Brown University, published research to that effect earlier this year. It reads:
The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world and a key contributor to climate change.
Between 2001 and 2017, the years for which data is available since the beginning of the war on terrorism with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. More than 400 million metric tons of greenhouse gases are directly due to fuel consumption. The largest portion of Pentagon fuel consumption is for military jets. …
When the U.S. is engaged in war, as one would expect, consumption of jet and diesel fuels increase. Their ratio will depend on the types of operations the military is performing—whether the war of particular phase of the war is land or air intensive. …
During each air mission, aircraft puts hundreds of tons of CO2 in the air, not to mention the support activities of naval and ground based assets for these air missions. The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began with days of massive airstrikes. Moreover, in each case, material was flown to the war zones and bases were set up to prosecute the wars and occupations. Similarly, the U.S. war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which began in August 2014, has entailed tens of thousands of aircraft sorties for various missions—from reconnaissance, to airlift, refueling, and weapons strikes.
There is every indication that war with Iran would be similarly airstrike-intensive and thus similarly carbon-intensive. “The U.S. strategy would almost certainly involve using overwhelming air and naval power to beat Iran into submission early on,” Vox reported last week. Trump has also said he would not use ground troops in a war with Iran.
This isn’t the only way war with Iran would increase emissions. As Crawford’s study notes, 15 percent of all U.S. industry is already associated with production of weapons and other equipment for the military. That would clearly increase during war. Bombings of oil reserves and refineries—which often cause petroleum to burn for months—would also increase emissions. Experts fear Iran’s retaliation strategy surrounds bombing oil reserves.
It’s not just the literal atmosphere—it’s the political one, too
War’s carbon-intensity is staggering and concerning. But the carbon footprint of one war is probably not going to outright doom the planet.
What will outright doom the planet is inaction by the United States, the largest historical carbon emitter on the planet. If we don’t start spending billions, if not trillions of dollars decarbonizing the economy—quickly—other industrialized nations won’t follow suit; we won’t have the ability to give our technology to developing nations, and the world will blow past safe levels of warming by about 2050 at the latest.
It’s been hard enough to get Congress to address this reality without the threat of a new, massive war. But I can’t imagine a more potent distraction, both for politicians and the public.
The division and hostility that war with Iran will sow will also foster climate destruction. That’s not just me saying that; that’s science.
Climate scientists have modeled out how global temperatures might shift in different geopolitical scenarios. And the scenario that always ends up with the planet in fiery climate chaos is the so-called “regional rivalry” scenario—to put it simply, the one where everyone is fighting, borders are closed, and rich white-led countries like the U.S. are super racist toward less-wealthy countries filled with brown people.
It makes sense why a nationalistic, conflict-ridden political environment would be a planetary death-knell. The solution to global warming has to be global. Countries have to work together toward the shared goal of a livable climate for all. They have to share technologies and solutions. This does not happen when we’re spending trillions of dollars blowing each other up. It certainly does not happen in the 10 year time frame it needs to happen in.
But this is the exact political environment that war with Iran will foster, taking away our time, our money, and our good will toward others.
Journalist Jonathan M. Katz got at this point a different way in this week’s edition of his newsletter, The Long Version. He was talking about how, during disaster scenarios, most humans inherently want to band together and save each other. The exception is the ultra-rich, who are more likely to try to save themselves and shut out everyone else, believing the “others” will hinder their own ability to survive. He calls it the “armed lifeboat”—holding a gun to those trying to get in.
But, as Katz writes, “Disasters teach us, again and again, that the only way to survive any cataclysm is if people work together. (Researcher Mika McKinnon had a good thread this week.) This is especially true when it comes to a planetary crisis. Think again about the sinking ship—a ship alone at sea, with no one coming to save it. Once they’ve shot their way through the crowds, where are the armed lifeboats going to go?”
The answer is nowhere; they’ll survive, but not for long, eventually succumbing to the same fate of everyone they were in conflict with.
But there is another option: Don’t let the lifeboats get armed in the first place. “We can take this moment of growing awareness and address this emergency head on, making sure that everyone knows the priorities: to stop wasting time, resources, and money on division and war, and address the causes of the rising flames.”
“It’s our choice,” Katz writes. “But we’ve got to make it soon.”
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