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War & the Environment

War's Dirty Footprint
Harming Life • Heating our Planet
Why Focus on the US Military?

“The United States is responsible for 40% of the world’s total military spending.” (1)   

Beyond Immediate Casualties

War once was fought with sticks and stones. Modern warfare leaves a legacy of long-term devastation & harm to the planet, and therefore to life on the planet as well.

1997 Exemptions for U.S. Military

In 1997, the U.S. Congress exempted the US military from federal pollution safeguards. “The Pentagon’s push for blanket exemptions […] makes a mockery of national defense” (2). Using national security to sacrifice our nation’s environmental security will endanger our health, leaving us less safe.” (Karen Wayland, Natural Resources Defense Council)

Download our 2024 updated trifold brochure, cover above.
 
Land Shortages

Millions of acres of land that could be used for growing food or creating communities are instead reserved for military purposes.(3) Adding to this are the thousands of square miles of abandoned sacrifice zones from weapons testing, because the land is too dangerous and expensive to clean up.(4)

Scorched Earth Isn’t a Metaphor

Flooding crops, contaminating water supplies, and burning forests and homes are still widespread in war. Our wars in Iraq have helped to desertify the land, and contributed to Iraq’s shift from a food exporter into a country that must import 80% of its supply.(5) The Israeli army, responding to the Hamas attack in 2023, has destroyed over half of Gaza’s buildings and most of its infrastructure. Rebuilding will consume more resources including energy.

Largest Polluter in the Country

Public data revealed that the Pentagon was generating a ton of toxic waste per minute, more toxic waste than the five largest US chemical companies.(6) One need only look at the Grumman site in Bethpage to see this.

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Sickening Land and People

Nearly 3/4 of our 1,300 Superfund sites – waste sites classified as those most hazardous to human and ecological health – are abandoned military bases or military-industrial manufacturing and testing sites.(7) The Pentagon has criminally abandoned rusting barrels of chemicals and solvents and millions of rounds of ammunition in bases around the world.

One example in the US is Camp Lejeune: For over 30 years, the base contaminated its own water supply with benzene. However, government authorities adamantly dismissed ongoing reports of cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects among the 500,000 military and family members as unrelated. 8 Vieques8 in Puerto Rico, Hanford in Washington State and Rocky Flats in Colorado are just a few examples of extremely polluted sites which continue to leave a legacy of cancer.
 

Perchlorate, an ingredient of solid rocket fuel and a byproduct of rocket and missile testing and explosives, is now omnipresent in the environment & in over half of all food tested. This toxic chemical accumulates in the thyroid gland and harms fetuses, infants and children at even very low levels. In 2011 the EPA regulated perchlorate.(8)

Chemical Warfare & Agent Orange

Dioxin-contaminated toxic defoliant Agent Orange was used to destroy the Vietnamese and adjacent Laotian forest cover and food crops. (This was in fact first-strike chemical warfare, in violation of the 1925 Geneva Convention against biological and toxin weapons warfare.) Dioxin persists in the environment, causing cancer, birth defects and many other diseases for generations.(9)

The Radioactive Legacy of War

Between 1946 and 1958, the US dropped more than sixty nuclear weapons on the people of the Marshall Islands, yielding ongoing high cancer rates for the Islanders. Cancer rates in the US rose with above-ground weapons testing in southern Nevada. Downwinders and their livestock were the hardest hit. The actor John Wayne developed cancer 8 years after filming at a highly radioactive location (10)

The US has used Depleted uranium (DU) since the Persian Gulf War and supplied DU weapons to Ukraine in 2023. Twice as heavy as lead, it is used for coating armor-piercing munitions and protective tank plating. It is very cheap because its raw material is radioactive waste. Some estimate that we have used over 1,000 tons of depleted uranium in Iraq. It explodes into dust upon impact. A 2010 study found ominously higher reported cancers (child leukemia, breast cancer, brain tumors, lymphoma) than expected, higher infant mortality post-2004 than in comparative Middle East countries, and an alarming change in sex ratio at birth, with much fewer boys.(11)

The Military Assault on Climate

Sara Flounders writes, “By every measure, the Pentagon is the largest institutional user of petroleum products and energy in general. Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exemption in all international climate agreements … Any talk of climate change which does not include the military is nothing but hot air.”(13)

The US Air Force (USAF) is the single largest consumer of jet fuel in the world. Fathom, if you can, the astronomical fuel usage of USAF fighter planes: the F-4 Phantom Fighter burns more than 1,600 gallons of jet fuel per hour and peaks at 14,400 gallons per hour at supersonic speeds.

​Barry Sanders observes with tragic irony that, while many of us assiduously reduce our carbon footprint through simpler living, eating locally, recycling, reusing, conserving energy, taking public transportation, installing solar panels, and so on, the single largest institutional polluter and contributor to global warming — the US military, paid for by our taxes — is immune to climate change concerns.

Just how much petroleum the Pentagon consumes is one of the government’s best-kept secrets. Barry Sanders calculates that the US military consumes as much as one million barrels of oil per day and contributes 5 percent of current global warming emissions: 0.0002 percent of the world’s population is generating 5 percent of climate pollution.(14)

War Kills…the Environment by Gail Payne, Energy Chair 
(Printed in SCLI Spring 2024 Newsletter)

 

Our environment is in extreme peril from many causes. Current wars are making things much worse. The Ukraine-Russian war is estimated to have killed 200,000 and injured another 300,000. The Hamas-Israel conflict has killed and maimed tens of thousands so far. Conflict in that region is expanding to other countries; and there is a real risk of nuclear war, which would kill untold numbers and contaminate water, air and soil for tens of thousands of years, leading to cancer, birth defects and other horrible diseases.


Even here on peaceful Long Island, the war machine has left its mark. Out of New York State’s 185 military installations with hazardous sites, with an estimated cleanup cost of $1.52 billion, 32 installations contain unremediated contaminated sites labeled “high” or “medium” risk, and five of these are on Long Island. Many of these sites have extensive groundwater and soil pollution or present a risk of exploding bombs or munitions. These sites are: Camp Hero in Montauk, Suffolk Co AAF & B&C RGE, Westhampton, Suffolk County Air Force Base in Westhampton, Calverton Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant in Riverhead and Bethpage Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant in Bethpage (1). Queens and Brooklyn have four more installations with high or medium-risk sites, according to ProPublica’s map (2).

 

Across the US states and territories, the total amount of land contaminated by the military is larger than the state of Florida. Most sites have not been fully cleaned up, and some are now public parks. The DoD and its contractors often dispose of hazardous waste and explosives by simply burning them in open air – cheap but polluting (3) The U.S. military is the third-largest polluter of U.S. waterways. Trillions of U.S. dollars that could be used to prevent or alleviate environmental damage are instead spent on military bases, new weapons, personnel, energy and of course supporting militaries abroad. In the proposed FY2024 U.S. discretionary budget, $1.1 trillion, over 65%, goes to militarism and law enforcement (4).

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The military fuels the climate crisis. It is the chief impediment to global cooperation on climate. The U.S. military’s greenhouse gas emissions are more than those of most entire countries, making it the single biggest institutional source of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions (5). Our Department of Defense is the largest institutional consumer of oil ($17B/year). At U.S. insistence, the 1997 Kyoto treaty exempts military greenhouse gas emissions. The exemption continues.

 

Wars wreak additional havoc on the environment. Wars throughout history have damaged the earth, whether intentionally or not. The Romans sowed salt on Carthaginian fields during the Third Punic War. In WW II, nuclear and conventional bombs destroyed cities, farms, and irrigation systems. In 1943, a U.S. ship at Bari, Italy sank with a million pounds of mustard gas, which will keep leaking for centuries. The United States and Japan left over 1,000 ships on the floor of the Pacific, including fuel tankers. In 2001, one such ship, the USS Mississinewa, was found to be leaking oil. In the 1960s and 70s, the United States “sprayed 14 percent of South Vietnam’s forests with herbicides, burned farm land, and shot livestock.” Agent Orange continues to harm the health of the Vietnamese and has caused a half million birth defects (6).

 

War displaces people to less habitable areas, which damages ecosystems. The U.S. bombing and spraying of Southeast Asia produced 17 million refugees. As of the end of 2008, there were 13.5 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world, many of whom were escaping polluted, unfarmable lands. In the 1990’s, Rwanda’s brutal civil war pushed people into areas inhabited by endangered species, including gorillas. Wars in the Gulf (1990-91), Yugoslavia (1991-2001), Iraq and Afghanistan (2001+), and Sri Lanka (1983-2009) all damaged the environment (7).

 

War doesn’t stop polluting even when it is over:

Tens of millions of [land mines and cluster bombs] are estimated to be lying around on the earth […] Land mines [are] “the most toxic and widespread pollution facing mankind.” They damage the environment in four ways:
“Fear of mines denies access to abundant natural resources and arable land; populations are forced to move preferentially into marginal and fragile environments in order to avoid minefields; this migration speeds depletion of biological diversity; and land-mine explosions disrupt essential soil and water processes.” – Jennifer Leaning (8)

 

Sadly, the U.S., China and Russian have not signed a popular treaty to ban landmines and cluster bombs.

 

Why so many wars? Wars by rich nations on poor ones actually do not correlate with human rights violations, lack of democracy or threats of terrorism, but strongly correlate with the presence of oil or other resources (9). Perversely, wars fought over scarce resources consume those very resources, in a vicious cycle.

 

Why don’t we hear much about the environmental impact of war? War is about geopolitical influence and is a huge money maker for weapons manufacturers, homeland security companies, military bureaucracies and even fossil fuel companies that gain access to resources accessed by war. Google “Operation Mockingbird” to learn how the CIA gets big media outlets to disseminate war propaganda. It is time to demand peace. Let’s protect the planet and its people – planet over profits!

Save the planet, save ourselves. Peace Now! – Adrienne Kinne, Veterans for Peace
What can we do?
 
  • Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Spread the word on the long-term costs of war.
     

  • Talk to your friends and family.
     

  • Join peace groups.
     

  • Come up with your own actions & ideas.

 

 

Citations for Brochure:
 

  1. https://dailyreckoning.com/a-century-of-defense-spending-in-the-united-states/
     

  2. http://www.truth-out.org/speakout/item/2250-war-and-the-true-tragedy-of-the-commons/news/item
     

  3. http://climateandcapitalism.com/2015/02/08/pentagon-pollution-1-war-true-tragedy-commons/
     

  4. http://www.agreenroadjournal.com/2016/04/sacrifice-zones-nuclear-power-and.html
     

  5. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235910455_Three_Decades_of_War_and_Food_Insecurity_in_Iraq
     

  6. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/2377-military-hazardous-waste-sickens-land-and-people
     

  7. http://climateandcapitalism.com/2015/02/08/pentagon-pollution-2-military-waste-sickens-land-people/
     

  8. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/2377-military-hazardous-waste-sickens-land-and-people
     

  9. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/2592-chemical-warfare-agent-orange
     

  10. http://washingtonsblog.com/2017/05/environmentalists-ignoring-elephant-room-u-s-military-worlds-largest-polluter.html
     

  11. http://climateandcapitalism.com/2015/02/08/pentagon-pollution-5-deadly-impact-depleted-uranium/
     

  12. http://climateandcapitalism.com/2015/02/08/pentagon-pollution-6-weapons-mass-destruction-slow-motion/
     

  13. http://projectcensored.org/2-us-department-of-defense-is-the-worst-polluter-on-the-planet/
     

  14. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/3181:the-military-assault-on-global-climate

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