An elephant in the ecological room

Syed Mohammad Ali June 21, 2024
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge


Emissions caused by the transport sector, by industrial production processes, and by agriculture, including due to the obsession to produce more animal products, are widely recognised. However, other significant contributors fueling climate disasters are less often acknowledged. The role of conflicts, and that of militaries themselves, is often not discussed when it comes to discussing causes of global warming.

One apparent reason for not recognising the environmental havoc caused by militaries and conflicts is the absence of data. Militaries are not transparent organisations anywhere in the world. Yet, it is obvious that militaries produce enormous emissions just to maintain operational readiness, even during times of peace. Varied aircraft, naval vessels and land-based vehicles use a lot of fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are also needed for manufacturing military hardware. The military industrial complex has, in fact, convoluted supply chains spread over the world, involving numerous intermediaries, the emissions of which are hard to track. However, by combining varied data, the Conflict and Environment Observatory and the Scientists for Global Responsibility published an important report a couple of years ago, which estimated the carbon footprint of militaries to be around 5.5% of global emissions.

Moreover, when actual conflict breaks out, military emissions spike as weapons are put into use. ‘Scorched earth tactics’ are also readily used to weaken the enemy. American use of Agent Orange to defoliate jungles where the Vietcong was hiding Vietnam is one particularly horrifying example.

Energy infrastructure is also directly targeted during conflicts. The US has recently been targeting IS-controlled oil fields in Syria to undermine the terror group’s capacity to generate revenues. Saddam Hussein did the same when he invaded Kuwait back in the early 1990s. The lingering conflict in Sudan has severely damaged the country’s natural resources, as has happened in many other countries where outright civil wars, or internal insurgencies, are ongoing.

Besides the global warming and other ecological costs related to varied military campaigns, climate change itself has become a catalyst for conflict. It was a decade ago, in 2014, when the American Defense Department acknowledged that climate change is a “threat multiplier”, given its potential to exacerbate existing tensions between, and within, nations. Over the past decade, we can see several instances of increased tensions associated with climate related scarcities. For instance, conflicts over land rights and water use are now commonplace across the vast Sahel region in Africa.

The assault on the Gaza Strip has caused unimaginable misery to its inhabitants, and severely damaged basic waste management infrastructure, and generated enormous amounts of toxins poisoning the soil and air in the Strip, and beyond. Afghanistan’s long period of conflict also had a major detrimental impact on its natural resources. Driven by desperation, traditional systems of resource management gave way to short-term survival mode strategies, including over-grazing, and deforestation to meet local fuel needs, and to generate illicit incomes for the timber mafia. While opium production has gone down again under the new Taliban regime, deforestation remains a problem.

Far greater efforts are needed to assess the climate footprint of conflicts, and to deal with it. In Pakistan as well, scant attention is given to the military’s broader ecological footprint or to the ecological consequences of its external and internal postures or actions. Conversely, there is ample scholarship demonstrating how militaries of neighbouring countries can use environmental diplomacy to co-manage ecologically threatened areas. Proposing joint management of the Himalayan glacier and the Indus water-basin, by India, Pakistan and China may be too lofty a goal currently given the great power competition unfolding in the region. However, reducing tensions at the Siachen glacier and Sir Creek estuary is the lower hanging fruit, which could yield immense ecological benefit, and pave the way for dealing with the more complex transborder water management issue as well.


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