Could War Mean Environmental Suicide?

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If you're already worried about global warming, the prospect of war will really make you sweat.

When war moves to the top of the agenda, the environment moves to the bottom. But if warnings from organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency are correct, the world is already overdrawn on the climate change bank. "Climate change and global warming are matters of life and death," according to the David Suzuki Foundation. "Burning fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - is largely responsible ..."

Impacts of Climate Change in the United States
The U.S. National Assessment on climate change said last November that the United States is already experiencing significantly increased deaths from heat waves, flooding, air pollution, water and food-borne diseases; and diseases borne by insects and rodents. Sea level is already rising and shorelines disappearing as the ice caps melt. Food production is threatened by drought. These trends are accelerating. Worst, the NA report concluded that, "In many cases, and in many locations, there is compelling scientific evidence that climate changes will pose serious challenges to our water systems."

Now, consider the prospect of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) deploying half a million troops in tens of thousands of fighter jets and troop carriers. Their arrival would set mid-Asia countries in flames: massive forest fires, city fires, flaming factories and oil depot infernos, spewing soot and carbons and chlorocarbons into the atmosphere. But their actions would affect North American weather too. The heat wave that roasted New York and Toronto last summer was mild compared to what could lie ahead.

The Gulf War Impact on Terrestrial Environment of Kuwait: An Overview
This is not just conjecture. Scientists have determined that war causes long-term harm to the environment. In 1999, the first international conference on the environmental effects of war reported that, eight years after the war ended, Kuwait's delicate desert ecology was still adversely affected, "by tanks and personnel carrier movements; construction of thousands of fortifications; implantation of millions of landmines, and the explosion and ignition of more than 700 oil wells."

As Rosalie Bertell reported, "In the aftermath of the Gulf War, experts predicted that the smoke from the burning oil fields would warm the lower atmosphere throughout South Asia, causing the monsoon to arrive earlier and more forcefully than usual. A huge typhoon struck Bangladesh on 1 May 1991, killing 100,000 people ..." Bertell says the effect was not from Mount Pinatubo, as the news media said, because the storms raged above the Tropic of Cancer.

Assessment of the Environmental Impact of Military Activities During the Yugoslavia Conflict
In Kosovo, the Regional Environmental Centre reported in June 1999, the blue Danube was still fouled by wartime pollutants including PCBs, oil, ammonia, ethylene dichloride and heavy metals: copper, cadmium, chromium and lead. The same heavy metals were released into the air when factories were bombed, along with soot, sulphur dioxide and chlorocarbons from burning oil depots. Acid rain fell locally, and some areas of Yugoslavia reported radioactivity in the air from Depleted Uranium shells bursting when they landed.

Welcome to the EPA's Global Warming Site!
Those wars were half a world away, right? But the more important distance here is time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises the public that, "The 20th century's 10 warmest years all occurred in the last 15 years of the century. Of these, 1998 was the warmest year on record." It warns that, "Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are likely to accelerate the rate of climate change." Indeed, so far most months in year 2001 have been the second hottest since 1880.

Global Warming International Center
It doesn't matter where a war is, or where fuel burns, because the effects cover the entire globe. This July, an international conference on global warning heard two researchers predict that, if we continue burning fuels at the present rate, the world will experience rapid, irreversible climate warming - perhaps two or three degrees Fahrenheit by 2030, and 4 to 7 degrees by 2100. Researchers said this dramatic increase is five times that of the last century.

Safeguarding the Web of Life
The Union of Concerned Scientists says that, if the world acts quickly, some climate change can be mitigated: "Global warming results primarily from human activities that release heat-trapping gases and particles into the air," states the union. "The most important causes include the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil, and deforestation." Mitigation involves cutting back on combustion, relying on renewables and protecting the world's forests.


Far from cutting back on combustion, President Bush's September 15 radio address called for, "a broad and sustained campaign to secure our country and eradicate the evil of terrorism." Colin Powell predicts, "a long-term fight." A full-scale NATO military operation would undoubtedly deploy at least the 500,000 soldiers who were put in the field for Operation Desert Storm, not to mention Tomahawk missiles, aircraft carriers, tanks and armoured personnel carriers, bombers, fighter jets and helicopters.

Climate change is not likely to be a consideration for the U.S., considering that nation backed out of the Kyoto Accord. Nor is the country that refused to sign on to the International Criminal Court likely to settle for bringing terrorist suspects before international law. Still, there are political solutions available, if only the U.S. would use them.

As for Canada and other NATO nations that did sign and stay with the Kyoto Accord, before they plunge into prolonged conflagration, they might want to weigh the evidence and consider whether a shooting war would be trading short-term satisfaction for long-term global environmental suicide.

Further Reading

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