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The horror of war [Part IV]

In this concluding part of this series, I would like to discuss how wars, conflicts, civil strife, armament, nuclearization and weapons tests have affected the environment and what potential they have to threaten the very existence of humanity.

This especially picked up steam following Russian President Putin’s orders to his armed forces regarding nuclear deterrence, which many interpreted as a signal for a nuclear armageddon that has the potential of killing around 34 million people within a few hours. Such a specter is haunting pacifists and environmentalists all over the world who assert it could not only cause deaths on an epic scale but could be devastating for the global environment, turning the planet into an inhabitable place.

One of the factors contributing to the degradation of the planet is the world’s armies that contribute as much as 10 percent of global air  The devastating Operation Desert Storm did not only kill people but also generated 80,000 tons of global-warming gases.

According to Environmentalists against War, a website tracing the impacts of wars and militarization on environment, the US dropped 88,000 tons of bombs on Iraq in 1991, destroying 9,000 homes, water systems, power plants, critical bridges and four major dams. In 2002, the sole superpower dropped a quarter-million cluster bomblets on Afghanistan while in 2003, it targeted the Arab state with around 28,000 rockets, bombs and missiles. According to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, the 1991 Gulf War’s oil fires contributed more than two percent of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions that year, with distant and long-lasting consequences. This includes pollution from the fires contributing to the accelerated melting of Tibetan glaciers due to the soot deposited on the ice.

It is claimed that on any given day, more than 60,000 US troops are engaged in operations or military exercises in about 100 foreign countries under the supervision of the Pentagon, which is the world’s largest polluter, generating 750,000 tons of hazardous waste each year. US military bases have polluted communities in Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Greenland, Iceland, Italy, Panama, the Philippines, South Korea, Spain and Turkey. Such bases are also playing havoc with the lives and environment in the US. There are more than 14,000 contaminated military sites in the US, many located near low-income neighbourhoods and communities of color.

Today there is much hue and cry over the burning of fossil fuels. Developing states are lambasted for resorting to this environmentally unfriendly means of energy but the vast global military empire manages to escape such criticism. The military empire must be maintained to feed the world’s oil-based economies. Waging war requires burning vast stores of oil and generates significant spikes of greenhouse gasses. World War II consumed from six to nine billion barrels of oil; Desert Storm: 45 million barrels. The Pentagon consumed 134 million barrels in 2001. The world’s armies consume nearly two billion barrels of oil annually. The Pentagon is the largest consumer of oil, chemicals, precious metals, paper and wood.

It is not a secret that wars and conflicts destroy wildlife, disrupt native habitats and contaminate the land, air and water. Experts believe the damage caused by them could last for generations. According to various environmental reports, the US dropped 25 million bombs and 19 million gallons of Agent Orange herbicide and other chemical weapons on the forests, fields and farms of Vietnam which proved to be catastrophic for the environment of that country. It is also believed that millions of acres from Russia’s Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean have been contaminated by military chemicals and radioactive wastes.

In Cambodia, 1,300 square miles are salted with several million mines that continue to kill wildlife and humans. Such lands cannot be used for cultivation. Angola’s environment is burdened with more than 10 million landmines. Cluster bombs, thermobaric explosions, chemical and biological weapons and projectiles made with radioactive depleted uranium are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction besides being hazardous for atmosphere.

A study of 2008 looked at a Russia-US nuclear war scenario, where Russia would target 2,200 weapons on Western countries and the US would target 1,100 weapons each on China and Russia. In total, therefore, 4,400 warheads detonate, equivalent to roughly half the current inventories held each by Russia and the US. Nuclear weapons held by other states were not used in this scenario, which has a 440-Mt explosive yield, equivalent to about 150 times all the bombs detonated in World War II.

This full-scale nuclear war was estimated to cause 770 million direct deaths and generate 180 Tg of soot from burning cities and forests. In the US, about half the population would be within 5km of ground zero, and a fifth of the country’s citizens would be killed outright.

A study published in March 2016 looked at the likely impacts of a nuclear exchange of about 100 Hiroshima-sized detonations (15 kt yield each) on the most-populated urban areas of India and Pakistan. Each detonation was estimated to incinerate an area of 13 square km, with this scenario generating about 5 Tg (teragrams) of soot as smoke from wildfires and burning buildings entered the atmosphere. Direct human deaths in this ‘limited’ nuclear war scenario are not quantified in the study, but would presumably number in the tens to hundreds of millions. The study observed, “The planetary impacts are also severe: as the soot reaches the stratosphere it circulates globally, blocking incoming solar radiation and dropping the Earth’s surface temperature by 1.8C in the first five years.”

According to the study this would be a greater cooling than caused by any recent volcanic eruption, and more than any climate perturbation for at least the last 1,000 years. Rainfall patterns are drastically altered, and total precipitation declines by about 8 percent. The study predicted that in this case food exports collapse as stocks are depleted within a single year, and by year four a total of 1.3 billion people face a loss of about a fifth of their current food supply. The researchers conclude that “a regional conflict, using 1 percent of the worldwide nuclear arsenal, could have adverse consequences for global food security unmatched in modern history.”

Since wars and conflicts have created the specter of a nuclear holocaust, its possible horrors are unimaginable. With the rising tensions in Ukraine, it is important to understand the danger that is lurking around. Russia and Nato are both heavily armed with WMDs. With its supersonic missiles, Russia seems to have an edge over its rivals because such missiles cannot be detected by radar easily. Some experts believe that the American National Missile Defense System may not be effective against such missiles.

So, if a war between Nato and Russia really erupts, it will push the world towards a conflagration that incinerates every living being – besides pushing the planet towards the verge of extinction. Therefore, it is important that our schools, colleges, universities, academia, media especially western media, inform masses about the horrors of wars and conflicts. Some environmentalists believe a mere 50 billion euros is needed to tackle the damage to the environment caused by human activities. Food experts feel a fifty-billion-dollar package could wipe out hunger from several parts of the world.

A UNDP report some years ago asserted that primary education, primary healthcare and some basic amenities could be made accessible to billions of people by spending $50 billion dollars. It is time that we understood the horrors of wars and conflicts, diverting the colossal amount being spent on defense and militarization towards human development and prevention of environmental degradation.

Email: egalitarianism444@gmail.com

Abdul Sattar, "The horror of war [Part IV]," The News. 2022-03-26.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Environmental degradation , Environmental reports , Global environment , Greenhouse , Pollution , Environmentalists , Russia , Ukraine , UNDP