US, UK militaries owe $111bln in climate compensation, continue expanding toxic footprint worldwide: study shows

"It is idiotic to waste our dwindling carbon budget on war," researchers from the US and the UK warned in a recent report revealing that the US and the UK militaries owe huge sums in climate compensation as they continue to involve themselves in wars and conflicts globally. Such conflicts are accompanied by widening carbon footprints and serious environmental destruction.

The report, published by UK-based think tank Common Wealth and the US-based Climate and Community Project, revealed that the US and UK militaries "owe" at least $111 billion in reparations to communities most threatened by their planet-heating pollution, through a "social cost of carbon" framework calculation used to assess the climate damage done by each additional ton of carbon in the atmosphere.

The US, as the report stressed, is the largest military emitter in the world as a result of huge amounts of energy-hungry hardware and the need to equip as many as nearly 800 bases around the world.

Despite clear evidence showing that the US military is responsible for a myriad of environmental and public health harms globally, wars supported or participated in by the US continue. The "toxic legacy of war" brought by the US is still spreading to other continents.

The two biggest emitters continue unabated as the issue is ignored by most international climate agreements.

"The US military prioritizes its perceived strategic interests over evidence of its ecological impact. Nonetheless, the military presents itself as a solution to the climate crisis even if the opposite is true. Conflicts supported by the US are a source of insecurity, violence, and instability that will exacerbate the effects of the climate crisis while the military itself is a major source of ecological damage," Khem Rogaly, co-author of the report, told the Global Times in a recent interview.

Patrick Bigger, another author, argued that it is "idiotic to waste dwindling carbon budget on war" through involvement in more conflicts. The two authors called on less military activities and a reduction of US and UK military bases around the world.
True scope much higher

The US and UK governments and their militaries are important architects of the modern fossil fuel economy, research has found. The two militaries have generated at least 430 million metric tons of carbon dioxide since the 2015 United Nations Paris climate agreement. In 2017 alone, the Pentagon produced more emissions than Portugal.

Since 2001, the US Department of Defense (DOD) has consistently accounted for between 77 and 80 percent of the US government's total energy consumption. This is even based on opaque data from the US DOD, and the true scope of emissions is likely much higher than official data suggests, report authors noted.

Moreover, the two militaries' contributions to the climate crisis stretch far beyond their present consumption of fossil fuels. Even if unproven options to decarbonize military technology - such as sustainable aviation fuels for fighter jets - become viable, military activity leads to different forms of environmental damage including deforestation, chemical leaks from military bases, and land dispossession, according to the two authors.

Across the US military's nearly 800 bases worldwide, military land appropriation, war-making and the supply chain processes, and raw materials needed to facilitate it all lead to air pollution, ecosystem destruction, biodiversity loss, and adverse health impacts, they explained.

Even if the military was run purely on renewables, its core activities, which include the appropriation of land to build bases and the destruction of habitats, trees, and buildings, would still have a significant environmental footprint, they stressed.

The Cost of Wars Project found that US military pollution had accounted for over 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which amount to 257 million passenger cars annually. They compared this astonishing output as higher than the emissions from whole countries like Sweden, Morocco, and Switzerland.

The Cost of Wars Project also found the total emissions from war-related activity in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria to be estimated at more than 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide alone.

The so-called "war on terror" also left a legacy of environmental damage and major health problems in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US military routinely incinerated plastics, electronics, and other forms of toxic waste in giant burn pits, Al Jazeera reported.

The open waste burning pits set up near the US military bases in many places around the world have become a major source of pollution, damaging the local environment and negatively affecting residents' health.

A 2006 US Air Force memo describing a burn pit in Iraq described "the worst environmental site I have personally visited… It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years."

One base, Joint Base Balad in Iraq, burned more than 200 tons of trash every day. One soldier described the smoke as "thick like San Francisco fog," according to the book Military Burn Pits: A Toxic Legacy of War.

To this day, the destruction caused by the US military continues, with the widespread use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a so-called forever chemical mainly found in fire-fighting foam, on US installations and foreign bases like Okinawa in Japan. Resistant to breakdown, these chemicals poison the waters, causing birth defects and cancer, Al Jazeera reported in December 2023.

Moreover, since 2002, at least 270 environmental accidents on US Marine Corps bases on Okinawa have contaminated land and local waterways but, until now, few of these incidents have been made public, the Japan Times reported in 2016.

In September 2023, the US announced it would send armor-piercing munitions containing depleted uranium to Ukraine, a move widely criticized and condemned by the international community. Studies have shown that depleted uranium is radioactive and long-term exposure can have serious effects on human health and the environment.

The modern deployment of technology by the US military has also been questioned as an excessive drain on the planet's resources.

The military application of AI technology in military applications, for example, has raised concerns about significant water usage, which is a critical issue given the global challenges of water scarcity.

AI's high computational demands lead to substantial water consumption, primarily for cooling data centers. Large data centers, for instance, can use between 1 million and 5 million gallons of water per day, equivalent to the water usage of a town of 10,000 to 50,000 people, the Washington Post reported in April 2023.

The large-scale water consumption associated with AI development and deployment, in general, is undeniable. This consumption is of growing concern, especially in regions facing water scarcity and in the context of global efforts to manage and conserve water resources.
Concealed in global climate agreements

Nevertheless, the US military's carbon emission issue has long been the "elephant in the room." The US has created a labyrinth of exemptions regarding the environmental pollution risks that may arise from its military expansion.

Khem Rogaly told the Global Times that the ecological impacts of the US and UK militaries - through greenhouse gas emissions, historic operations to protect fossil fuel interests, and environmentally damaging military infrastructure - are concealed in international climate agreements.

As a result of US lobbying, overseas military emissions were exempt from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (expired in 2020) that aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, military emissions reportedly remained optional in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Apparently, the US is blind to its global carbon footprint. The country turns the money that should have been used to eliminate pollution and as compensation for environmental damage to invest in the military industry and enrich the wallets of the military-industrial complex tycoons.

The military-focused industrial strategies of both the US and the UK have benefitted from state intervention while green sectors have suffered from a lack of support, said the two researchers.

"But understanding the true ecological costs of military activity is essential to provide even a minimal recompense for damage and to set out the necessary path toward a reduction in military infrastructure and operations," Rogaly said when explaining the reason why he publicized the report.

"All countries have a responsibility to decarbonize their economies. However, the US and the UK, as two of the largest historical emitters and ongoing high per capita emissions (especially the US) - these countries bear even more responsibility as more Global South countries have faced increasingly intense effects of global heating because of military-related pollution," Bigger stressed.

They call for the US and the UK to contribute to independently governed funds to compensate Global South countries facing climate crises.

"The US' domestic policy must also facilitate the development of a new industrial base focused on green manufacturing instead of military production, through state-led conversion plans and social programs for workers currently in the arms sector and those reliant on its supply chains," they appealed.

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