Climate change is the greatest threat to humanity this century, and industry is often pinned as the primary culprit. However, the world’s military are among the greatest polluters in history and only diplomacy can save us, comments Andrew Kakabadse, Professor of Governance & Leadership and Nada Kakabadse, Professor of Policy, Governance & Ethics at Henley Business School.
As a species, we are facing an existential risk of self-destruction by catastrophic climate disruption. The earth has already warmed by 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels and the rate of carbon emissions suggest a trajectory of around 4°C warming this century.
Furthermore, climate change makes an already precarious social and political situation far worse through the inevitability of associated food shortages, water crises, governance failure and interstate conflict.
Two centuries of industrialisation have deeply embedded fossil fuel energy consumption into the human psyche. Nearly two-thirds of cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions between 1751 and 2010 can be attributed to just 90 major fossil fuel-driven corporations and enterprises.
The Carbon Major Database shows that 32% of legacy emissions come from investor-owned companies, clearly indicating the unharnessed influence of investors in the push for a sustainable economy.
The race to extract yet more oil
Over the past 200 years, the extraction and combustion of large volumes of coal, oil, and gas for energy, manufacturing and transportation, as well as the depletion of carbon absorbers, such as forests and peat lands, have led to shifts in atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations of a magnitude and pace that poses a deep threat to humanity.
More than 90% of the heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions has been absorbed by the seas, with just a few per cent heating the air, land and ice caps respectively. The vast amount of energy being absorbed by the oceans has driven sea levels up and promotes hurricanes and typhoons to become even more intense.
Moreover, at the behest of governments, fossil fuel extraction corporations are drawing on their innovative capacities to unlock new and unconventional fuels, such as tar sands development, hydraulic fracturing, and the melting Arctic as new means of extraction.
The race to extract yet more oil, coal and gas highlights how globalised capital encourages interstate competition, increases conflict for resources and undermines the much-needed global cooperation to address climate change.
So far, the growth of renewable energy has failed to dent escalating carbon usage hitting an all-time high in 2019 of 11.7 Gtoe (a billion tons of oil equivalent), up from 7.1 Gtoe in 1990. A never-ending demand for fossil fuel consumption and carbon emission highlights the myth that infinite economic growth based on a finitely-resources planet can continue.
Addressing climate change is not a technological problem but rather a reflection of the uncompromising thirst for lifestyle at the expense of society’s future security. A thorough rethink is required of economic principles, business models and social relations.
Inaction will inevitably lead to:
- An increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as mega-storms, floods, droughts and wildfires
- The melting of major ice sheets and glaciers, accelerating sea-level rises and endangering coastal and low-lying communities
- Destruction of terrestrial and marine ecosystems and widespread species extinction
- The demise of coral reef systems
- Widening disease vectors
- Threats to global food and water supplies
- Increased mobility of large volumes of people from climate-threatened regions
- Heightened regional and geopolitical conflicts over scarce natural resources, undermining societal functioning
Despite the pomp and ceremony surrounding the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, most signatory countries have failed to fulfil even modest national commitments and have not come close to achieving the 2°C target set.
The military’s impact on climate change
Business has frozen in the headlights of environmental catastrophe and capitalist demand. Industry’s contribution to climate damage is slight when measured against the environmental impact of continued military operations.
Armaments and the military do not appear in the Paris agreement, nor is the military obliged to report to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regarding its climate change mitigation initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. The harsh truth is such action have little or no impact on the global military sector, which remains unchallenged as the world’s top climate polluter.
The US Department of Defence is the world’s single largest consumer of oil and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters. In 2017, the US Air Force was responsible for 59 million tons of carbon dioxide (Co2), equivalent to the overall emissions of industrialised countries like Switzerland or Sweden.
In the UK military activities represent nearly 50% of the country’s overall emissions, highlighting the sector’s significant role in global warming.
According to the Scientist for Global Responsibility (SGR), the UK military emits around 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), roughly the yearly emissions of six million average cars.
The investment in and maintenance of military forces not only consumes extensive natural resources, but through war and conflict causes devastating destruction to ecosystems, including species loss, and creates the potential for invasive species to take over.
Other environmental impacts include deforestation, waste dumping, soil and water poisoning, crop destruction, and the reduction and extinction of animals and plants.
After the mayhem of war, affected regions take decades to recover. People struggle for a better life with limited resources on a damaged environmental platform. In 2014, the UN Secretary-General admitted that climate has long been the silent casualty of armed conflict.
According to the United Nations (UN), the environmental impact of NATO military operations over the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia between 24th March and 5th June 1999 induced air, river and underground transfer of pollutants across southeast Europe, particularly in Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Romania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the Ukraine.
Missiles containing depleted uranium struck 78 industrial sites and 42 energy installations, of which 20 were chemical and petrochemical entities, creating severe contamination of air, water and soils by hazardous substances, including dioxins, toxic sulphur and nitrogen compounds.
The NGO, Oil Change International, outlined that the Iraq war generated 141 million tonnes of CO2 in four years, equivalent to 25 million extra car exhausts emitting pollutants over a year.
In addition to the loss of life, human displacement had engendered considerable and often unplanned ecological footprints impacting essential services such as water, sanitation and waste management. Neighbouring countries struggle to cope with the resultant influx of people, leaving them unable to meet their own basic needs while also damaging sensitive ecosystems.
Environmental damage and degradation also stem from the resource extraction used to finance conflicts. Interest groups vie for control of oil, mineral resources, or timber. Private companies in areas affected by conflict operate with minimal or no environmental oversight.
The crucial need for diplomacy
To date, diplomacy is barely given a chance to play a role in helping resolve conflicts. Military intensification, nuclear proliferation, multiple biological threats and short-term thinking are spiralling towards an increasing likelihood of nuclear disaster.
This is not to mention the existing pollution of the environment through nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underground and underwater. The US, Russia, UK, France and China have all conducted the majority of such testing (82%), with less than 1% of such tests being conducted by India, Pakistan and North Korea.
The signatory Treaty on the Non-Proliferation (NPT) of nuclear weapons, USA, Russia, China, UK and France, and NPT non-signatories, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea, hold large stockpiles of nuclear weapons (13,082), of which 90% are accounted for by the US and Russia.
The hope that necessary decarbonisation will be achieved through market innovation at a faster rate than capital accumulation is unrealistic. At present, the aggregate decarbonisation necessary has not happened and future decarbonisation is unlikely to be sufficient given the push for continuous economic growth, energy utilisation and military conflict.
The real question that needs addressing is: ‘How can the world stop the expansion of and reduce its excessive military activities?’
Supply channels need redesigning to minimise long transport schedules. At the same time, parallel diplomacy must engender collaboration on a continuous road to peace. The art of high-level engagement across misaligned national interests is only possible when sovereign states are motivted to take such a route.
The escalation of war in Ukraine suggests otherwise. Modern diplomacy that turns the economic interests of markets into new battlefields is already tried and tested, and has been found wanting.
At the same time, little progress appears to have been made in embedding diplomacy within the culture and approach of our nation’s leaders. Realising peace continues to be conveniently ignored and while this continues the future of our environment and humanity’s prospects for long-term survival remain in a perilous state.