Marty Nathan: Climate Change and War

I was digging compost yesterday and wheel-barrowing it past my backyard chickens to the front yard vegetable garden and found myself thinking essentially the same thoughts that I put down on these pages in 2011. Then I had openly pondered the tremendous destruction wreaked by war and militarism – at that time in Iraq and Afghanistan – and how its climate effects dwarfed any paltry action to mitigate climate change I might take.

Fast forward three years: Last month in the same week that 400,000 people marched in New York City to demand that President Obama take leadership in international negotiations on climate change by implementing carbon reduction by this country, jets began roaring over northern Syria and Iraq in the official opening of a new bombing war against the Islamic State.

The Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Syria) is easy to hate – their beheading of journalists and mass killing of local people are detestable. It must be noted, though, that the bombing only began seriously after the Islamic State had gained control over the oil wells in Northern Syria and Kurdistan. It is a persistent irony.  The US is again waging war burning oil to maintain control over oil.

The US military is the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world and the largest institutional greenhouse gas producer. Estimates are that it spews 100 million tons of greenhouse gases a year from tankers, jets, aircraft carriers and bases around the world, though the numbers are hard to pin down.

But the most destructive activity in a climate analysis is war, and the worst form is air war. Jet fuel is a much more potent greenhouse-gas producer, at least twice as powerful as gasoline. Each F-15 fighter jet uses 1500 gallons of jet fuel per hour (and, with afterburners, 14,400 gallons per hour.) Thus one 8-hour sortie puts somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 pounds or 300 tons of climate-changing gases in the air.

By the end of September, the United States had conducted 240 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, as well as 1300 tanker refueling missions, totaling 3800 sorties. It is likely that those numbers have more than doubled since the beginning of October. Bomb explosions themselves are greenhouse gas producers as well as destroyers of people, buildings and nature. The amount of climate destruction from this “limited war” is almost inestimable.

Who cares about composting, chickens and organic front-yard gardens?

Yet as I thought about writing this piece, I found myself hesitating. In 2011 we knew that war was bad. Barack Obama had been elected in great part to stop the war in Iraq, started by a Bush Administration whose commitment to preserving the interests of Big Oil eclipsed any regard for war’s impact on humanity or the environment.

But many of the policies of the Obama administration do have redeeming value, and because of that and the ruthlessness of the Islamic State, there has been little outcry against the bombing. When polled in late September, a majority of Americans supported it, though a majority also believed that it would not work. Reality seems to fulfill that belief: the Islamic State is by no means retreating.

I am a doctor. A clinical evaluation means weighing therapeutic effects vs side effects. Every day I make those comparisons when offering medicine to my patients. What are the chances that it will do more harm than good?

Applying a similar analysis to the air war on Syria and Iraq goes as follows:

  1. Is the bombing effective in turning back the territorial gains of the Islamic State with precision bombing “decapitating the enemy” and making the area safe for Kurdish and non-Islamic State Syrian resistance to advance? Or does it follow the historical course of most air wars with minimal strategic effect on its own if ground intelligence and forces are not adequate?
  2. Are the “side effects” worth it?
  3. Untold numbers of civilians have been killed, their deaths tragedies in themselves, but very likely also fueling the Islamic State insurgency.
  4. All of those billions of dollars being spent could have been put to use in education, green housing, energy, agriculture and transportation, and redirecting our economy to the sustainable path it must pursue.
  5. The environment has been the silent victim, at a time when we are becoming acutely aware of its importance and its vulnerability. We can no longer evaluate our actions without considering these effects.

Journalist Thomas Friedman has pointed out that the Syrian Civil War was in part provoked by the economic suffering precipitated by a severe drought in that country, a drought that is most likely – like the one in California – an early effect of global warming. Our burning of oil to control oil in a conflict at least in part created by the effects of burning fossil fuels stretches the irony beyond tolerability.

Other ways can and must be found in the Middle East and elsewhere to deal with conflict. The world depends on it.