While governments and industry focus on the economic costs of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they act as though there are no economic costs associated with hurricanes and tornadoes, massive flooding, or entire populations rendered unproductive by heat waves that leave them gasping to survive.
Global scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have repeatedly warned of looming disaster if we don’t change our ways, yet there is a general failure by governments and industry to acknowledge the obvious – that we are already in the midst a grave global emergency.
Since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, we have repeatedly glimpsed the future of climate change with its tremendous human and economic costs. What we’ve seen so far is likely just a mild version of what we’ll face in the very near future if we don’t take emergency measures to stabilize our planet.
Acknowledging the truth about our current emergency would necessitate dramatic changes to “business as usual.”
It would, for example, force them to recognize that the world can no longer afford to spend upwards of $1 trillion per year on weapons and warfare because we need all our global resources devoted to the preservation rather than the destruction of life on our planet.
It is impossible to maintain that this monstrous annual military spending has no bearing on governments’ insistence that they cannot afford to help industry find solutions to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, or on their inability to reach 0.7% GDP in foreign aid to reduce global poverty.
Militarism almost always trumps other human priorities. If the environment could be viewed as a military problem that could be bombed into compliance, we can be assured that there would be no shortage of money or equipment available.
Consider that, according to UN figures, an estimated 11 million children die unnecessarily every year as a consequence of extreme poverty. In 2000, the UN Development Report estimated that an additional $80 billion dollars a year was required to provide the basics – food, medicine, clean water and education – to the poorest of the world’s poor. A daunting figure? Not really when you consider that it represents just less than 8% of what we spend globally on weapons and warfare. Yet, to-date, the money has not been found.
Beyond the lost opportunities resulting from the diversion of over US $1 trillion to the war chest each year, there are substantial environmental costs arising from the activities this money funds. There is, to begin with, the obvious damage: the destruction of forested and agriculture land, air and land pollution from warplanes and bombs, landmines and cluster bombs that kill and maim both humans and wildlife and effectively remove land from our global commons, and poisoned rivers and waterways.
When factories along the shores of the Danube were bombed during the Yugoslav War, toxic chemicals poured into the river, poisoning this vital European waterway with environmental consequences far beyond Yugoslavia.
The environmental costs of warfare are compounded by additional costs at each stage of the military production cycle. From the mining and diversion of finite resources including the production of dangerous by-products like radioactive uranium mine tailings, to the serious contamination around weapons production facilities like Hanford, the impact on the environment is significant.
Even peacetime military exercises come with an environmental price that includes torn-up terrain, disrupted wildlife and military waste and pollution.
The military is also a major consumer of global oil resources. The U.S. Defence Energy Support Center estimates that in 2006, the US military alone consumed more than $10 billion (130 million barrels) of oil.
Beyond the natural environment, war causes significant damage to the human environment, including massive poverty and displacement.
Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq had a thriving middle-income economy and, according to the World Health Organization, obesity was the biggest health problem in the country. By the fall of 2005, UNICEF reported that the rate of acute malnutrition amongst Iraqi children had reached 7.7%, and chronic malnutrition was widespread. A story in the New York Times on July 30th, 2007 reported that 43% of Iraqis now live in abject poverty on less than $1 per day.
The creation of this poverty is not only unconscionable, but it also has serious environmental consequences. While it is we in the developed world who have the oversized environmental footprints, not our partners in the south, we cannot realistically expect them to save the rainforests, or protect endangered species from poaching, when they live in desperate poverty.
Looking beyond today is a luxury that is only available to those who can afford it.
And, like the quintessential Catch-22, poverty is both a cause and an effect of conflict in regions like Africa. With the help of a well-oiled global military machine and a glut of weaponry on the global arms market, poverty-driven conflicts often become full-scale wars.
To add to the complexity of all these relationships, we have now entered an era in which the “environment” itself is becoming the source of conflict and war as nations compete for control of what remains of finite global resources like oil.
And, thus, the vicious spiral of war, poverty and environmental destruction closes in on itself.
The way to break this cycle is to remove war from the equation.
For decades we have been told that if we want peace, we must prepare for war. The last century, the most destructive in human history, provides overwhelming evidence of the real truth that when you prepare for war, you get war.
The truth is that we have no time left for war. We must end global warring if we want to stop global warming and the great meltdown before it’s too late.
The quickest way to unite enemies is to present them with a greater common enemy. Whether governments recognize it or not, that enemy – global warming – has already arrived.