Climate Emergency: The War We Must Fight

climate change

“Wally, Wally, quick, come and look at this!” These were the words of my roommate on a balmy Taiwanese evening on September 11th, 2001. Emerging into the living room I was just in time to see a plane slam into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Walking through the door to work the next morning, I was met by a Canadian co-worker with the reassuring words “we are going to war man, we are going to war.”  It was hard to imagine then how momentous that event was and how our reality would change forever. The feel-good factor that had rolled over from the nineties was about to disappear in plumes of smoke, a new pointless and endless war was about to begin, our online privacy was about to vanish and the largest existential threat to our species was about to be buried along with more than 900,000 innocent lives.

In retaliation for the attacks on New York and the Pentagon which left 2,977 people dead, America turned on its former partner, the Taliban. The men, once lauded by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who in 1979, had declared that “your cause is right and God is on your side” were about to be taught a lesson in geopolitics. After arming Usama Bin Laden and the Mujahadeen in a real-life game of Risk in order to overthrow Soviet rule, America was about to come face to face with their own creation. Within weeks of 9/11, the Taliban was offering to hand over the mastermind Bin Laden to a third country in return for evidence of his involvement, but backed by raucous and jingoistic chants of U-S-A!, U-S-A!, U-S-A! at home, President Bush reacted in truly authoritarian terms, “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty”.

In Orwellian style, the ally was now the enemy and American and British forces began their war on terror by bombing the long-suffering people of Afghanistan in early October 2001. After the longest war in modern U.S. history, tens of thousands of bombs were dropped on the country and an estimated 164,925 people were killed, 47,245 of whom were civilians. The accompanying media frenzy long since subsided only to reemerge when American and British troops were finally withdrawn at the end of August 2021. The bombing, however, had continued relentlessly. More bombs were dropped on Afghanistan in 2018 and 2019 than any time since 2006. In 2019 alone, 7,423 bombs were dropped softly from the skies, to cause carnage on the ground. Many of the survivors now suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression. The war ended much as it had started, chaotically. In August 2021, ten members of a single Afghan family, including seven children, were killed in a “targeted” drone assassination in revenge for the thirteen U.S. soldiers and sixty Afghans who had lost their lives in a suicide attack at Kabul airport.

While the War on Terror was inflicting misery and death on poor people of color, it was about to alter the lives of people all around the world. Within weeks of thousands of innocent Americans losing their lives, the ruling class wasted no time in making sure the rest of us lost our privacy. It wasn’t until Edward Snowden blew the whistle that we understood the enormous digital infrastructure that had been put in place to monitor the online activity of everyone connected to the worldwide web. The land of the free was no longer and while the security of Americans was claimed to be the reason behind the spying, in 2020, a federal judge claimed the National Security Administration’s (NSA) all-encompassing surveillance program was not only illegal, possibly unconstitutional, but also pointless from a security perspective. Judge Marsha Berzon found there was zero evidence that the program had stopped even a single terrorist attack.

While America and Britain ramped up the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan and Syria, it became evident that all along, the war we should have been fighting was against our extinction. Aside from human suffering, armed conflicts are costly and resource intensive, they have a terrible impact on ecosystems, and they also contribute massively to the climate crisis. The United States spends more on their military than the ten next largest spenders—China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the U.K., Japan, South Korea and Brazil. The $778 billion that America squanders in a vain show of strength includes trucks, cargo planes, container ships, war ships, bombs, tanks, missiles and bottled water. Recent research estimates that if the U.S. military were a country, it would be the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases on Earth. It would sit between Peru and Portugal in the list. Peru is home to thirty-two million while Portugal’s population is ten million. The U.S. military uses a bewildering 269,230 barrels of oil a day and this amounts to around $9 billion of the overall budget. Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. has emitted around 1.2 billion tons of carbon. This is just shy of four times the U.K.’s annual emissions. Finding accurate data for military emissions is difficult as much is clouded in secrecy, but Scientists for Global Responsibility estimate it is around 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions. This is considerably more than the civil aviation industry total. While there is much chatter about flight shaming, there seems to be little interest in fight shaming.

As our taxes have been directed into the pockets of private arms manufacturers, private militias, and destruction/construction firms, funding for the climate and biodiversity crises is nowhere to be seen. It is estimated that the cost of meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target is between $1.6—$3.8 trillion a year. Total worldwide military spending now stands at a colossal $2 trillion. Simply requiring bomb and armament makers to repurpose their production facilities to produce wind turbines, solar panels and other needed materials would cover half of the figure needed to deal with what the Pentagon calls “a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense (DoD or the Department) missions, operational plans, and installations”. This would not be without precedent as it is exactly what was done in the Second World War, but in reverse. To provide further validation, Chile and South Korea recently reallocated part of their military budgets to the COVID-19 response. We know that one of the impacts of the climate and biodiversity crises will be an increase in conflict as food and water scarcity bites, and the Pentagon has even warned that the U.S. military might collapse by 2040 so the justification for using defence spending on actual defence is strong. Our governments tell us that they don’t want to saddle future generations with debt, although through their inaction, this is exactly what they are doing. The cost of not meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target is estimated to rise to between $150—$792 trillion by the end of the century. Obviously, without urgent action, it is unlikely there will be a single functioning state left on the planet by century’s end to foot the bill.

Our leaders love Wars on [insert noun here] because they are endless money pits that enrich the few. Isn’t it time we had a War on the Climate Emergency? Unlike other Wars on [insert noun here], this is a war we can actually win. Simply using these military budgets for actual defence would provide half the funding necessary to save us from extinction. It doesn’t need to saddle future generations with any debt. We simply need to readjust our priorities. If we are serious about reaching carbon-zero, there is no place for warfare. The French soldier, Henri Barbusse, spoke wisely in 1916, “Two armies that fight each other is like one large army that commits suicide.” One hundred years later, it isn’t just suicide we are committing, but ecocide on a global scale. If we are to avoid our species’ extinction, we must avoid warfare. The time for fighting is over. Now is the time for diplomacy and cooperation. We have given ourselves the grandiose title of homo-sapiens (the wise-man). It’s time we lived up to it.

Simon Whalley is an educator in Japan, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan and the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Heartfelt Plea From a Climate Anxious Father.

Originally published in CommonDreams

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

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