This Earth Day, there are many things one could wish were done differently. One could wish for the polar ice caps to stop melting, and for skinny polar bears to stop making magazine covers. One could wish for new renewable energy sources. But this Earth Day, I want to shine a light on something that people don’t talk about all that much: the intense environmental impact of the U.S. Military.
The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University puts the United States Department of Defense as the world’s largest consumer of oil. The U.S. Military is also one of the world’s top greenhouse gas producers. The Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have had a serious environmental impact on those countries. U.S. Military vehicles are often gas guzzlers that not only produce CO2, but also carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide.
The Military has emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases since the beginning the War on Terror in 2001. More than 400 million of these tons are strictly war-related. This is the equivalent 257 million cars. This is more than double the amount of cars on the road in the whole United States.
Beyond the obvious human cost involved, war also has far-reaching environmental consequences. Animal and bird populations can be disturbed. Those working for or near the military may suffer many health problems. In Iraq and Kuwait especially, members of the U.S. military have developed respiratory disorders. Iraqi doctors have called for research on war-related causes for Iraqi’s poor health. Iraq has seen an increase of cancer and birth defects linked to environmental damages and toxins.
According to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, war is not the only thing that provides a strain on the environment. Building and sustaining military forces can be very resource-heavy. This includes the use of metals, water, and other materials. Military training also depletes environmental resources. Military vehicles, aircraft, vessels, buildings, and infrastructure all cause strain on the environment. Weapons are often disposed of by open burning, dumping at sea, and detonation.
In both times of war and on military bases in general, environmental laws can get mixed in the shuffle. On overseas bases, the military often dismisses U.S. Environmental Laws in favor of lax agreements with their host countries. Deforestation increases during war from both a need for warmth and fuel and gangs who take advantage of their government being otherwise occupied.
During times of war, environmental strife can get worse. High-intensity conflicts can lead to large CO2 emissions. Vehicles and explosives can damage sensitive landscapes and provide a threat to geodiversity. Explosives can also create dust and rubble, which causes air and soil pollution. Extreme pollution can occur when industrial, oil, or energy facilities are attacked or damaged. This has been used as a war tactic. Land mines and cluster munitions can restrict access to agricultural lands, and they can also pollute the soil and water with toxins. In large wars, military scrap metal may be abandoned. This metal may contain many pollutants and contaminate the soil. Damaged ships and submarines can cause marine pollution. Many conventional weapons have toxins. Weapons used in conflicts have then been easily obtained by poachers and hunters. Scientists and researchers may not be able to go into various areas, stalling conservation projects. Human displacement and refugee camps can have a large environmental impact, especially when the resources at the camp are poorly planned.
The environmental impact of war is very real and quite tangible. This gives us yet another reason to cut back on violence. Striving for nonviolence now will hopefully bring us tomorrows that are more peaceful and green.