The environment is enlisted in warfare as much as soldiers and civilians are. Industrial warfare devastates our environment and we need to reckon with that to realize our vision for a world beyond the climate crisis.
At its most basic level, war is an extreme stressor to natural life processes. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over a year ago, we’ve seen these stressors manifest themselves on Ukraine’s ecosystems in many ways. According to the estimates of Ukrainian authorities in conjunction with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shelling of Ukraine’s Dnipro River has completely inhibited access to drinking water for 1.4 million people and disrupted access for an additional 4.6 million. Furthermore, 30% of Ukrainian protected territory is suffering from the environmental effects of warfare, as ecosystems have been attacked with artillery, forest fires, and the abandonment of military vehicles and waste.
When the goal of warfare is to prevail by any means necessary, the environment is the first to be attacked. “Scorched-earth” techniques, strategies that aim to destroy anything that might be useful to the enemy, characterize this approach most effectively. This involves attacks on industrial, oil, and energy facilities, as well as on agricultural infrastructure including canals, wells, and dams.
Scorched-earth techniques, clear in their motivation, reduce the value of all biological life to something that can be destroyed for political gain or the sake of victory, and they have been used in wars throughout history.
The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. military at the climax of World War II are the most cataclysmic examples of scorched-earth policies and their long-term ramifications on life itself. Ecological devastation went hand-in-hand with radiation-induced human health issues and a loss of life. As indicated by the Geneva Environmental Network, these bombings lead to the contamination of soil, waterways, and the atmosphere.
War is not a part of the vision for a sustainable future, and Ukraine has recognized this as they attempt to mitigate the environmental consequences of warfare. Despite the immense pressure that the nation is facing at this time, they’ve demonstrated proactivity by creating the National Council for Recovery from the War with a working group on environmental safety.
Perhaps the Ukrainian government has been forward-thinking about the state of their environment because they recognize that human and environmental suffering, especially in the context of war, are interdependent and intersectional.
The military industrial complex is dependent on fossil fuels to employ its many resources, including mobile military activities like fleets of land vehicles, vessels, and aircrafts, operational emissions of military personnel, and the military supply-chain. Based on data collected in 2020, the Conflict and Environment Observatory estimates that the world’s militaries are responsible for 5.5% of global carbon emissions. This means that, if the world’s militaries were a country, they would be the fourth highest emitter amongst all nations.
The role of militaries as the sword of the state limits oversight to monitor resource usage and spending. With such lack of accountability, the military is well-suited to wreak havoc on the Earth.
In the global stride to reach net-zero carbon emissions, world militaries have a critical role to play. It’s urgent that they reduce their reliance on, and emissions of fossil fuels, and the best way to do that is by reducing war in general.
The very essence of warfare reduces the environment to a platform for violence and a body for extraction. There is no escaping the climate crisis without coming to terms with the diametrically opposed ideas of militarism and environmental wellbeing. By declaring war on a people or on a nation, war is also declared on the environment.