War and Climate Change

The two situations that I think most threaten the future of humanity are global warming and nuclear war. I have written about the threat of nuclear war in my post of November 15, and I will return to that topic in the future.  In this post I will explore the relationship of war and climate change.

Climate Change
I live in Santa Barbara, California. The largest fire in California’s recorded history was recently put out by the largest fire fighting force [8,500 people] ever assembled in the U.S. The “Thomas” fire was followed by a brief but intense rainstorm that caused destructive mudslides, deaths, and extensive property damage in Montecito, a very wealthy suburb of Santa Barbara.

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US highway 101, the only coastal highway connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco was shut down for 12 days.

Was the fire caused in part by climate change? It is impossible to say for certain. But rainfall in the region was about 1% to 4% of normal for the year.  It was California’s hottest summer on record, and Los Angeles (about 100 miles or 160 kilometers south of Santa Barbara) recorded its driest March-through-December period on record.

Climate change is very complex and can have many causes. The one cause that human beings have the most control over is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by our activities. Since the Industrial Revolution started in the late 1700s, the burning of fossil fuel (oil, coal, natural gas, for example) has changed the long-standing balance in the atmosphere because the oceans cannot absorb all the extra carbon dioxide that is being produced.

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Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years. NASA (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

If we do not reduce activities that contribute to global warming:

  • Many coastal regions will likely be flooded causing large numbers of refugees;
  • Extreme weather changes will likely have a severe impact on food production;
  • Increased carbon dioxide in the ocean could severely affect sea life;
  • It is possible that thousands of species, including human beings, may become extinct.

Staying hopeful while taking action
A major challenge for me is to stay aware that there is a real danger, but not give in to despair or hopelessness. What is hopeful is that:

  • more and more people are realizing the irrationality of putting profits ahead of the well-being of people, and are working to change it;
  • most governments are becoming aware of the danger of global warming and working to stop it;
  • scientists are studying whether it is possible to safely put carbon back into the soil.
  • more people are realizing the irrationality of nuclear weapons and demanding their elimination.

War and Climate Change
I decided to do some research on this topic. Most of the articles I found had to do with the effect of war on climate change. In 2013 [the last year that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has published data], the nations in the world spent about 1.7 trillion US dollars on military expenses.[1] I doubt that the spending has decreased since then.  Trillions of dollars spent over the last decade could have been used for research on renewable energy, developing a renewable energy infrastructure, helping poor countries respond to climate change, and preventing death from climate change.

In addition, wars destroy farmland which leads to hunger, starvation, famine. The violence caused by war sometimes causes farmers to abandon their farmlands. This is causing tremendous hardship in northern Nigeria, for example, and in other countries.

War uses a great amount of resources and contributes significantly to carbon emissions. The production of nuclear weapons generates radioactive waste that cannot be disposed of safely.

Maintaining military power also affects policy decisions. I didn’t know until recently that when there was a chance that the US would sign the Kyoto protocol in 1997, the U.S demanded, and it was agreed, that the emissions by the U.S. military would not be included as part of the agreement.

Finally, wars are sometimes used deliberately by governments to distract their citizens from the problems facing their countries.

Climate Change and War
During my research I found an article in Scientific American (Preventing Tomorrow’s Climate Wars, June 2016, pp. 61-65) about a report prepared by the U.S. Department of Defense about how climate change affects the possibility of war.

One of the effects of climate change is drought (extreme lack of rainfall) which can cause population movements. During a drought large numbers of people leave their farms and migrate from farms to cities. The crowding and hunger contribute to civil unrest & war. Some analysts state that this contributed to the civil war in Syria.

The melting of the Arctic icecap (caused by global warming) is opening up more Arctic areas for oil drilling.  As a result, various countries are claiming the right to drill in the Arctic, increasing the potential for armed conflict.

The planet is getting hotter, and there’s less water in some places & more water in others. The rise in sea levels is having tremendous impact on people living in coastal areas.

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People wade through a flooded road in Chennai, India, December 5, 2015.

At least one island nation, Vanau Levu, is already planning to evacuate.  And there’s increased migration in many places which could lead to local conflicts.

The organization in the world with the most resources to help during floods, storms, and other natural disasters is the U.S. military. However, its help often comes with “strings attached” (special demands or consequences). Relying on U.S. military power gives the U.S. tremendous influence.chart xxx

What can we do?
It will be extremely challenging for humanity to stop global warming and eliminate nuclear weapons. Both situations are urgent, but we need to not act urgently. Acting urgently will not be as effective as acting thoughtfully.

We need to do personal work — set goals, reduce our carbon footprint, help other people become aware of the problem, remain positive and not give in to discouragement, passivity, or hopelessness. We need to build community, join already existing environmental and peace organizations, back their leaders (particularly leaders from Indigenous communities, leaders of color, and women. This latter action gives White people opportunities to challenge racism and men opportunities to challenge sexism. We need to work with elected officials and policy makers to put the well-being of people and the natural world above profits. And we need to participate in massive nonviolent resistance to the destruction of the environment and for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It will help if we use the process I have been advocating of pairing up and listening to one another. The challenges we face will not be solved without fresh thinking. All of our minds have been affected by capitalism, fear, and the desire for comfort. If we are listened to without advice, analysis, or criticism and allowed to release our painful emotions (grief, fear, frustration, for example), we will be able to think more clearly.

Questions for Reflection.
Pair up with a friend and each take a roughly equal amount of time to talk about the following, or write in a journal:

  • What did you love about the natural world when you were young? What places gave you pleasure? Was there a favorite tree? When did you first notice flowers opening in the spring? When did you notice the moon? Or the stars?
  • How do we reduce our individual carbon emissions? How do we get our cities, villages, and countries to do the same?

If you are in the mood for some music, the classic Big Yellow Taxi  by Joni Michell may make you cry. And We Will All Go Together When We Go  by Tom Lehrer may make you laugh (or cry).

And finally,
Don’t live in the world as if you were renting or here only for the summer.
But act as if it was your parent’s house. . .
Believe in seeds, earth and the sea, but people above all.
Love clouds, machines, and books, but people above all.

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Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet [1902 –1963]


[1] The SIPRI definition of military expenses includes spending on the armed forces, defense ministries and other government agencies engaged in defense projects; paramilitary forces; and military space activities. It includes spending on current personnel, retirement pensions of military personnel; and social services for personnel and their families; military research, development, and military construction. It does not include civil defense or current expenditure for previous military activities (veterans’ benefits, demobilization costs, conversion of arms production facilities or destruction of weapons. I do not think that this figure includes the amount spent on spying, secret military operations, or the cost of replacing destroyed infrastructure.

3 thoughts on “War and Climate Change

  1. Thank you, Julian. The clarity and logic of this post is striking in showing the ways war and climate change are connected, mutually reinforcing. I will save the music for a session when I can cry freely. 😊 Love, Joy

  2. Hi Julian your article War and Climate change ,educated me ,and discharging,praying to end the War in our nations ,so that to make our nation and community a better ,place for our life.
    Congratulation for your sharing the skills and knowledge ,I’m very impressed
    By Mary Mwita ,Tanzania.

  3. Hi Julian,
    Your article clearly showed the nexus between climate change & war.
    My highlight is on what we need to do to help , though the situation is urgent we need not be urgent rather we need to set goals also pair up to discharge on our discouragement and hopelessness these are key to me and will be a guide to me and other Nigerian RC members.
    Thank you for sharing this.

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