War and Climate Change (Guest Post)

Guest post


Eric Winsberg

Many human activities are responsible for emission of the greenhouse gases that are pushing the planet toward dangerous tipping points, tipping points that will cause large-scale human suffering and will, invariably, lead to global conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. If we don’t draw down to zero the rate at which we emit these gases, and if we don’t do it soon[1], the risks of tragic outcomes are unacceptably high. Success in this endeavor will not be easy. For almost all vital human activities—including transportation, manufacturing, construction, agriculture, shipping, medical care, and residential and commercial heating and cooling—contribute substantially to greenhouse-gas emissions. No plan that we initiate to reach zero emissions can be successful unless we identify and address the sources of emission that each of these activities produces.  Thus, a good accounting of these sources is crucial.

The flow chart below, which uses Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reporting categories, is a particularly nice graphical representation of the flow of U.S-produced greenhouse gases from their point of origin/activity to their end uses and finally to the kinds of resultant gases that end up in the atmosphere. 

[Description of the flow chart below: This flow chart breaks down U.S. emissions into six IPCC reporting category sectors: Transportation, Electricity and Heat, other fuel combustion and Industry, Industrial Processes, Agriculture and Waste.  It also shows how these sectors flow into about twenty end-use activities such are Road Travel, Residential Buildings, Livestock, etc., and finally into the various greenhouse gases–with Carbon Dioxide making up 85% of those, and rounded out with Methane, Nitrous Oxide and other miscellaneous gases.]

A less detailed pair of pie charts paints a pretty clear picture of the same breakdown for the whole planet.

[Description of image below: Two pie charts. The larger pie chart on the left shows the distribution of emissions at the global level.  Energy is the predominant sector at 72%, along with Industrial Processes, Agriculture, Waste, Land Use Change, and Bunker Fules. The pie chart on the right breaks down the first 72% into sectors of Energy use, with Electricity and Heat, Manufacturing and Construction, and Transportation, making the lion’s share.]

A single category is conspicuously absent from all these charts: war and other military activities. And it’s not only in these charts: war and other military activities are routinely omitted from analyses of the causes of greenhouse emissions. Consider Project Drawdown, a popular and widely discussed research organization that “reviews, analyses, and identifies the most viable global climate solutions, and shares these findings with the world.”  This research think-tank divides its solutions for the emission of greenhouse gases into various “sectors” that must be decarbonized if we are to reach a target of zero net emissions: Electricity Generation, Food, Buildings and Cities, Land Use, Transport, Materials. Notice that war and military activities are not mentioned in Project Drawdown’s analyses.

Why not? The contribution of military activities, particularly American military activities, to climate change, is massive. Although very little is written on the consequences for the climate of U.S. military activity, a few isolated studies have managed to put a reasonable lower bound on the scale of American military emissions. The Pentagon withholds fuel consumption data, even from Congress; however, estimates have been made according to which the U.S. military, through the course of its ordinary activities, emits about 100 million metric tons of CO2 due to the consumption of fuel it requires to move itself around the world.  This amount is roughly half of the total emissions of France.  Arguably, though, this sum of emissions is only the tip of the iceberg.  Scientists for Global Responsibility estimate that 6% of global emissions come from military activities. I suspect this is a conservative estimate, however: it focuses primarily on fuel consumption, which is the only thing we can really estimate.

Who could possibly say what the invasion of Iraq—which destroyed the entire infrastructure of the country, displaced nearly 4 million people, set most of the country’s oil wells on fire, and then led to another war of nearly similar scale in Syria—contributed to climate change?  In some ways, it would seem ghastly to try to estimate the carbon emissions of a war that caused over a million deaths.[2]  Perhaps the ghastly nature of the question is one reason why nobody seems to ask it or offer responses to it. But we ignore the question of this cost of military actions at our peril.  

Recall, moreover, that the American interstate system was built, in large part, to facilitate the mobility of the military. What percentage of American transportation and energy infrastructure—roads, bridges, fuel supplies, etc.—is non-negotiable because it is regarded as essential to “national security”?  It is not for nothing that, in the debate over whether the U.S.’s allies in NATO are paying their share of the bill, some argue that Germany ought to be allowed to count its investments in infrastructure, since NATO views Germany as the Via Appia of its core mission.[3] This infrastructure costs carbon to construct and maintain. In addition, the very existence of this infrastructure and the high priority that we assign to its maintenance, stacks the cost/benefit deck against people who try to build a more sustainable living arrangement.  How much has the U.S. interstate system contributed to suburban sprawl?

When the relatively uncomplicated reduction of the carbon footprint of the American military is compared to the complexity of other attempts to decarbonize—such as attempts to decarbonize our electricity-generation networks, our food supplies, and our transportation networks—the former seems like startlingly low hanging fruit.  The U.S. and its allies in NATO outspend the rest of the world by a factor of nearly 4:1. Not initiating new wars is hands down the best and easiest thing that the U.S. could do to cut global emissions. The U.S. could also easily cut military spending to, say, only three times the total of its geopolitical rivals instead of four times the total of its rivals, investing a substantial portion of the savings that accrue from this reduction into the promotion of technological innovation that aims at decarbonization.

If we do not build a more peaceful, multipolar means of conflict resolution that avoids violent conflict and prioritizes global community, the prospects will likely be disastrous. What hope is there that the U.S. and China will solve a collective-action problem if they are locked in a second global Cold War?

Why do Americans never hear about this sort of dilemma? Although Greta Thunberg warns that we need to give up on our fairy tales of perpetual economic growth, never do we hear that we need to give up on our fairy tale that we, as Noam Chomsky puts it, “own the world”.  Isn’t the latter the greater fairy tale, and the one, moreover, that we have a moral imperative to give up on anyway? Rather than dunk on Greta, what we should really ask is this: Why has the global liberal media picked Thunberg as its standard bearer rather than someone who does raise these questions?

I suspect that this decision is due to the massive pro-war bias of all our media outlets. We need to demand better of them if we hope to solve any of these problems. Ultimately, a media empire that makes liberals feel good about their news outlet by reporting on the latest findings of climate science every once in a while, but also carries water for the security state every chance it gets, will not be an ally of people and communities who want to save the planet. Indeed, political parties and candidates that are beholden to both the military-industrial complex and the basic ideology of American exceptionalism will never be authentic allies of the activists, Indigenous communities, scientists, and others worldwide who are genuinely trying to mitigate climate change.

[1] We really need to reach zero by 2050 in order to limit the chances of reaching various catastrophic tipping points.

[2] The Lancet survey conducted in 2006 estimated 650,000 deaths.  14 years later, it would be a miracle if we had not reached a million deaths.

[3] Thanks to Paul Maidowski for drawing my attention to this.


Eric Winsberg is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida.  He is author of Philosophy and Climate Science and Science in the Age of Computer Simulation. Check out Eric’s earlier post on philosophy and climate science at Discrimination and Disadvantage here. Also see Eric’s interview in the Dialogues on Disability series here.

[Description of image below: Coloured photo of Eric who is sitting on a beach in a rocky Mediterranean cove on a bright sunny day, looking directly into the camera, and smiling. He is wearing dark sunglasses, a t-shirt, and baseball cap turned backwards. Adults and children can be seen in the background, along with rocks and plant life on the rocks.]

10 Responses

    1. Paul

      Your reference for your comment:

      “If we don’t draw down to zero the rate at which we emit these gases, and if we don’t do it soon[1], the risks of tragic outcomes are unacceptably high.”

      is another one of your opinions:

      [1] We really need to reach zero by 2050 in order to limit the chances of reaching various catastrophic tipping points.

      If you want to justify the validity of what you write, you need to do better than: this is so because I say so.


  1. […] Explanations and justifications of this kind are usually offered when someone points out that the conference air travel in which academics engage annually has significant ramifications for the climate. But are these justifications for current practices with respect to conference-related air travel merely first-world indulgences? After all, the implications for the climate of academic conferences that benefit the already privileged with respect to climate change will, in both the short term and the long run, have the most detrimental effects on the lives of people in the South, as well as disabled people, communities of Black people and people of colour, Indigenous communities, and poor people everywhere. (See, for instance, the earlier BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY posts here, here, and here.) […]


  2. Nicolas Delon

    Hi Eric, thanks for this post. I have two questions for you.

    First, are you claiming that emissions related to the military are not accounted for or that they are not distinctly categorized? In other words, are these breakdowns of emissions undercounting actual emissions or simply not showing that, of total emissions, the military accounts for a significant fraction.

    Then, maybe you can help me understand something that’s been puzzling me. If the claim is that military and related emissions do not appear as a separate category, these emissions are still accounted for by other categories, including, I assume, energy and industry. If so, how meaningful do you think is the separate category for agricultural emissions. It doesn’t seem to include emissions related to transportation or energy consumption or industry that are caused by the agricultural sector itself, let alone the effect of deforestation. So, in discussions of animal ag in particular, you’ll hear that according to the EPA US emissions related to agriculture in general only account for about 9-10% of US total emissions. But it’s unclear whether this includes transportation as well as only domestic emissions. If not, concealing the impact of deforestation, most of which takes place outside the US but is obviously causally related to industrial animal ag in the US, is deceptive. I wonder if something similar may be going on with war, where we bury related emissions under other categories.


  3. Eric Winsberg

    Hi Nic,

    thanks for your great questions, I wish I had better answers. One thing that we know is how much CO2 there actually is being added each year–by measurement. But I think there’s enough uncertainty both in the measurement and in our knowledge of how much is being naturally reabsorbed that my guess is that the military emissions are just never accounted for at all. But that’s just a guess.

    Regarding food: I’m pretty sure that the transportation cost of food is very small compared to other parts. As for deforestation, I think it depends on what document you are looking at. In the pie chart above, for example, land use change is a separate category. My guess is that agriculture is a large part of that.


    1. Nicolas Delon

      Thanks, Eric. That’s helpful. If military emissions are as massive as you suggest but they are never accounted form then that’s… unfortunate to say the least. On a related note, have you checked out Roy Scranton’s latest collection of essays _We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change_? I hadn’t thought of that while reading it but after reading your post I’ve realized that, while he spends many many chapters on US wars, Iraq in particular, and pulls no punches, nowhere does he mention military carbon emissions (not that I can easily recall at least — I might be wrong).

      Re food: yes, transportation accounts for only 10% of all agriculture-related emissions.


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